Why D.C. United should be thrilled with its 0-0 at Vancouver

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVeSXVqjzKU%5D

If you’re tired of reading me harp on about the difficulties of playing at BC Place, hit Ctrl+W now. I want to give you that warning, because this post is going to be all about the challenges Eastern Conference teams face when visiting the Whitecaps. It’s the only way to understand the significance of D.C. United’s 0-0 result on Saturday in Vancouver.

Since joining Major League Soccer four years ago, Vancouver is 14-2-7 (W-L-D) at home against Eastern Conference teams. Despite only making the playoffs once and spending their 2011 expansion season in the basement of the Western Conference, the Whitecaps have still owned the East at home. They’ve outscored them 42 to 22.

Against the Western Conference, life has been drastically different. Vancouver is only 14-18-8 all-time at home against its own conference, though it does have a +3 goal difference (59/56).

What’s the causation here? The easy answer is the Western Conference’s quality. The West has been the better conference over Vancouver’s MLS existence. It make sense that the Whitecaps would perform worse against their conference rivals.

But there’s another theory we’ve focused on this season. The Whitecaps’ surface — a Polytan LigaTurf product that is distinctly different from artificial surfaces in New England, Portland, and Seattle — poses distinct problems for Eastern Conference, ones that only have to visit Vancouver once every two seasons. With neither the time nor incentive to develop a familiarity with the league’s fastest field, Eastern Conference teams are less likely to get positive results.

It’s difficult to describe the differences in Vancouver’s surface without descending into hyperbole or expounding on the differences in a way that seems like exaggeration. Just walking the field, however, you see how different (though, to be clear, not necessarily worse) it is from the league’s other synthetic fields. Though the surface is still bladed, it offers less resistance to the ball. Passed on the ground roll farther and faster at BC Place, while players like Pedro Morales enjoy the advantage of knocking their long balls to somebody with Darren Mattocks’ speed may not allow an opposing defender to catch up.

Beyond the surface, there are a couple of other factors which could explain Vancouver’s edge on the East. Stylistically, Eastern Conference teams may be predisposed to stumbling in Vancouver, with the tactics and personnel which can be leveraged in the East proving particularly problematic against the Whitecaps. Another potential factor: Lower leverage games between inter-conference foes means key players are more likely to be rested, particularly in the face of a cross-country flight.

Still, I keep coming back to what we saw during Vancouver’s recent home games against Kansas City and (tonight) D.C. United, something that was also evident earlier this year against Houston. All three of those teams seemed to take most of the first half to adjust to the field. Much as we saw tonight, when D.C. United’s opening moments were characterized by Whitecaps chances and the need to take some professional fouls, teams seem time to acclimate themselves to the pitch, with a Vancouver team increasingly built to leverage its home field advantage presenting early problems.

For West teams that are used to this? The adjustment comes quicker. For teams like Kansas City and D.C. United, they have to withstand the charge.

Kansas City failed to do that. On Aug. 10 at BC Place, the team was down two by the 39th minute. Chasing the game in the second half, Sporting gave up a penalty kick, with Andy Greunebaum’s save allowing the visitors to stay within two. Sporting went on to lose, 2-0.

D.C. could have easily fallen to the same formula tonight. Early chances for Darren Mattocks and Kendall Waston should have put Vancouver in front, while United committed five fouls and few a yellow card over the first half hour.

To their credit, D.C. kept Vancouver off the scoreboard, and after finding their feet near the half-hour mark, United had as many shots as the Whitecaps over the game’s middle hour (6-6). At match’s end, United had out-possessed Vancouver (51-49, per Opta “possession”) and put as many shots on target (three).

In the face of recent history, it was a strong result for United, who are now five points clear of Sporting in the Eastern Conference. And while the Whitecaps’ point allowed Vancouver to pull even with Portland for fifth in the West, the team’s history suggest points dropped tonight will be far more difficult to pick up against the Western Conference.

Credit Ben Olsen. For the second time in three years, D.C. United has gone West and earned a 0-0 in Vancouver. Against a team that averages 1.83 goals per game against guests from the East, it was an admirable result.

But for Carl Robinson, this is more than another goalless performance. This is a game that Whitecaps usually win. Tonight, they fell short.