Does High Altitude Make for a Serious Home Field Advantage in the MLS?

photo credit: Evgeni Zotov via photopin cc

photo credit: Evgeni Zotov via photopin cc

Every now and then when people talk about home games for Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids they talk about the effect of altitude on visiting teams. Michael Bradley mentioned it when he said”[Real Salt Lake] is a good team…Obviously, playing in altitude always presents certain things you’ll have to deal with and, again, we’ll go on the road to a difficult place to play against a really good team and be excited by the challenge.” Some credited altitude for hindering Real Salt Lakes performance in their first home game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Real Salt Lake trained at a lower altitude for their preseason and first two away games before arriving in Utah a few days before their home debut. Fortunately, playing in Utah and Colorado is nothing like playing in La Paz, Bolivia which is at about 10,000 feet above sea level.

According to “Preparation for football at moderate to high altitude” (1) teams that play at an altitude above 2000 meters or about 6,500 feet do have an advantage. However, this advantage is mitigated by the sea-level teams having an advantage against high-altitude teams at their home stadiums. The effects of altitude can likely be mitigated by about 2 weeks of acclimatization at altitude, and simulated exposure is another somewhat less effective option. Initially at high-altitude one can experience acute mountain sickness which can be seen in about 25% reduced maximum aerobic power with an increased heart rate. Basically, there is less oxygen in your system with a faster heart rate. From what I have read and heard there seems to be two options to try mitigate the affects of altitude. The first is to arrive as close to game time as is reasonable to keep as much oxygen in the blood as possible, or two arrive about two weeks early to fully acclimate. Two weeks seems excessive, especially in the MLS, so I assume most teams subscribe to the first option. The worst thing to do is play two to three days after arriving and train at altitude before the match. Real Salt Lake seemed to do this for their first home opener whey they seemed to “hit a wall.”

I imagine that there is still some effect that altitude has on teams playing in Utah and Colorado, but it seems clear that it shouldn’t be very significant. I guess this is why it is only occasionally mentioned in pregame discussions. One soccer blog cited a study that said that about a third of goals scored at higher altitudes were in the final fifteen minutes, and most of those were by the home team. This could suggest that teams might not be able to be unaffected by the altitude for a full 90 minutes of high-level physical exertion. However, it doesn’t seem that Real Salt Lake Colorado are particularly known for scoring at home in the last fifteen minutes. A lot of goals in the MLS are scored in the last fifteen minutes, and lately it seems like the last fifteen seconds.

Also, I was wondering if some people thought that older players might be affected more by altitude. Another thought I had is that certain tactics and formations might be better for playing at altitude. I wonder if Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have larger fields for this reason. I think Colorado has the largest field in MLS and they are at the highest altitude, about a mile high (5,201 feet). Colorado also plays with three forwards. This combination could force opposing teams to do a lot more running at altitude and maximize the effect of altitude. Colorado has three targets for long ball up front which will tend to travel farther at high altitude. Real Salt Lake has traditional had a speedster up front, as a lot of teams do, that can take advantage of quick, long passes behind the defense. Real Salt Lake favors a possession style that forces other teams to exert more energy chasing the game. Psychologically, the slight fatigue caused by altitude, the atmosphere created by the fans, and the lack of possession could cause a team to not play up to their normal potential. Rhythm and tempo can significantly affect a teams confidence and ability, altitude could affect those things.

I know that MLS has been trying to limit travel times, but it seems like teams don’t play two away games against Real Salt Lake. I wonder how much of a difference it would make for a the second road game at altitude, if any. Recently, Major League Soccer has demonstrated a lot of parity. The race to make the playoffs seems to come down to the last few games, and just a few points can make a huge difference. It is interesting to note that both Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids made the playoffs last year. I wonder how much altitude helped their cause. I know how difficult finding accurate statistics can be difficult with all of the variables that affect the outcome of a match, but it would be interesting to see comparisons in the MLS for games at altitude if all other factors could be held constant. It could be impossible to accurately figure that out.

Altitude has presented a unique challenge for teams during CONCACAF Champions League. San Jose had to play against Toluca at about 9,000 ft. So, when the USMNT practices and plays matches in Utah and Colorado they are giving some valuable experience to domestic players who only spend a day or two at altitude a year.

Different Field Elevations

  • Dick’s Sporting Goods Park: 5,201 ft
  • Rio Tinto Stadium (RioT- get it? “here at the riot…”): 4,430 ft
  • Sporting Park: 980 ft
  • Toyota Park: 615 ft
  • Toyota Stadium: 625 ft
  • Columbus Crew Stadium: 255 ft

Everywhere else is practically at sea level

1. Gore, C. J., McSharry, P. E., Hewitt, A. J. and Saunders, P. U. (2008), Preparation for football competition at moderate to high altitude. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 18: 85–95. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2008.00836.x

Another interesting site –> High Altitude Effects on Sport Performance

Wikipedia is always helpful –> High-altitude football controversy






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