NEW YORK – It's hard enough to beat the Colorado Rapids these days. It's even tougher when you take into account the 5,200 feet of altitude that play into their hands at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
The Columbus Crew will get a taste of how hard it really is in Thursday night’s opening MLS Cup Playoff match (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2 & ESPN Deportes).
“The physical advantage of the altitude is probably the biggest home field advantage anyone has [in MLS],” Houston Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com.
Kinnear says that MLS teams generally avoid talking about the altitude factor when facing the Rapids and Real Salt Lake on the road to prevent it from becoming a crutch. It’s an approach that cuts across other American professional sports, where elevation is only brought up with respect to the flight of balls in baseball and football.
Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers adopts the Kinnear approach. Columbus flew out late Wednesday, arriving less than 24 hours before game time, to minimize the effects.
“Of course it’s a factor, but as professionals we try not to think about it and we talk about going to Denver like going to LA or NY,” Rogers said. “But over the course of 90 minutes, as the game progresses, it starts to wear you down a little bit. Especially if you’re used to keeping the ball [maintaining possession], you start losing simple passes and you make mistakes that you wouldn’t make in other places.”
It’s the same factor that, at least in part, has led to the US national team never winning at the 7,200-high Estadio Azteca in Mexico. The mistakes Rogers speaks about led to Argentina’s biggest debacle in 60 years when they lost 6-1 to Bolivia in a 2009 World Cup qualifier in La Paz, which sits at 11,800 feet above sea level, more than double the altitude in Colorado.
FIFA even intervened at one point, prohibiting World Cup qualifiers from being held above 8,200 feet, but after much controversy, the world governing body later rescinded the ban following protests from the South American confederation.
Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium sits at 4,500 feet, or 700 feet lower than the Rapids’ Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, but it still makes an impact. Some consider that RSL’s home undefeated streak of 29 games in all competitions has something to do with elevation.
“It doesn’t matter how fit you are,” Real Salt Lake veteran Andy Williams said. “When you get up here [Salt Lake City] and Colorado, it’s a different energy level and you have to have that extra tank of air for the last 15 to 20 minutes.”
It’s why RSL and their manager Jason Kreis were particularly surprised that FC Dallas came out guns blazing on Oct. 16. Although the Texas side owned the first 15 minutes of the match, RSL eventually took control and scored twice in the second half to win it.
Of the teams with less than 100 home games played in their history, Real Salt Lake have the highest point total. Among teams with 200 or more home games, the Rapids have the third best point total of all teams.
Fox Soccer Channel broadcaster and former RSL defender Brian Dunseth and current RSL captain Nat Borchers say they believe that the high-tempo energy that the defending champions bring to their home matches is the greatest factor in their home field success.
But Colorado Rapids Hall of Famer Marcelo Balboa thinks it plays right into the altitude.
“You walk around and the signs say ‘welcome to 5280 feet,’” Balboa said of the Denver area. “No matter what anyone says, the first 10 minutes are the hardest 10 minutes. You’re tyring to catch your breath, and then in the 70-75th minute teams feel it a lot here. You’re feeling jittery and can't find your breath.
“Does it affect all teams? Yeah. But teams have gotten a lot smarter," Balboa said. "Tactically they sit back and try to drop the tempo down to a rhythm so they don’t lose all their energy in first 20-30 minutes. They attack in spurts and fall back. But eventually the altitude will get you.”