In a league where the top seven teams have only lost 15 of 81 home games collectively, it’s safe to say that home field advantage matters. No team may benefit more from this notion down the final stretch of the season than the most traveled team in the league, FC Tucson.
Following its last road match of the season on Friday, Tucson and its league-high 43,516 miles of travel will finish the season with four consecutive home games and a shot at a playoff spot. With almost twice as many miles accumulated as any other club in USL League One, this final run of matches at home should provide Tucson the edge it needs to reach the postseason.
The four-game homestand will provide FCT with additional time to hone Head Coach Darren Sawatzky’s tactics and rest between matches, which should give the club an advantage over its visitors. With regular player movement between FCT and its USL Championship partner Phoenix Rising FC, it’s been a case of adapting on the fly for Sawatzky as he navigates the club through its inaugural professional season.
“We adjust each week to the players available to us and we have had some success at home at Kino,” Sawatzky said. “We have a particular way we want to play at home but the tactical pieces in training and games will depend on player availability and where we are in terms of health and form.”
In short, Tucson is a different team at home, which is to be expected with the club’s lengthy road trips. With six of its nine multi-goal games coming at Kino Sports Complex, Tucson is at its best when it counterattacks and sends numbers forward quickly.
During FCT’s recent four-game undefeated streak, striker Jordan Jones was able to take advantage of this counterattacking style, scoring in all four games.
“First thing is to get to goal as quick as possible,” said Jones. “I know my strengths as a striker [are] running in behind and getting on the end of services. I know we’re capable of unbalancing teams easily with our counterattacks, so my job is to score goals, regardless of the build-up, and get in the box where I feel most comfortable.”
Jones finds success getting on the end of crosses when midfielders Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu and Erik Virgen intercept passes in midfield and play out wide to speedy wingers like two-time League One Player of the Week Devyn Jambga.
Tucson’s ability to turn defense into attack quickly has caused opponents huge headaches. FCT counterattacks, on average, produce an end product in three-and-a-half passes and less than 10 seconds. Sawatzky’s side looks most dangerous when its opponent has the ball. No really, they want you to have it: Tucson spends the least amount of time on the ball of any League One team, holding just 45 percent of possession on average across its 23 matches. Unsurprisingly, Tucson has made the fewest passes of any team in League One as well with 8,192 collectively this season. That’s more than 500 fewer than ninth-ranked Chattanooga Red Wolves SC.
FCT’s choice to sit back and wait for its visitors to make a mistake has made the side extremely difficult to defend. Teams are at their most vulnerable when they’ve just turned the ball over, and, like a snake hiding in the Sonoran Desert sand, players like Jambga are waiting for the right moment to strike. The task of limiting Tucson’s counterattack becomes even more daunting after 60 minutes and hundreds of miles on the opponents’ legs.
“I feel like most times when we play a team at home there is a period after the 60th minute when certain players on the opposite team start to tire,” said Jambga. “So, yeah, I think them traveling plays a big role in that.”
Following this weekend’s contest against Triumph SC – where a repeat of the 3-1 victory enabled by the side’s counterattacking style in its last visit to Greenville on July 20 would be a very welcome boost – Tucson will have four matches to prove that Kino is one of the toughest places to play in League One.
If Sawatzky’s side can take advantage of the comforts of home and continue to produce on the counter as opponents wilt, it will punch a ticket to the inaugural League One Playoffs.