BY Todd Dybas 10:54AM 03/10/2011

Sounders, MLS quantifying what works

Statistic use by and around the league is on the uptick, which will change things for fans, clubs

More numbers will soon be available to breakdown the interaction between Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani and striker Fredy Montero. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Take Wednesday night’s disengaging first-half slog.

Animators would illustrate the 45 minutes with flapping lips and Zs inside a rising bubble.

The Sounders finished the half tied 0-0 against Colorado at Qwest Field. Preseason, yes. Boring nonetheless.

Though a story lived there. Why didn’t passes connect? Does Blaise Nkufo usually finish that chance in the box? Did either club use a three-pass-or-less buildup? Did that work? How about the interaction between Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani?

The pursuit to supplement the naked eye with analytical explanation is under way in MLS. The league just signed a multi-year deal to use information technology from Opta, a London-based stat-crunching, graphic-producing company that already had a deal in place with Germany’s Bundesliga. As part of the deal, MLS and Opta will build a North American data collection hub in MLS’ Digital Headquarters in New York.

The company will supply metrics like pass-completion percentage in various zones of the field, total passes made and attempted, and team vs. team breakdowns.

Clubs, like the Sounders, will be able to use this data for scouting and teaching. The Sounders use two information providers currently. One is predominantly video-based. The other data-based.

Seattle culls through video and data prior to making decisions to travel to scout a player live. It also uses clips for on-field dissection that are delivered to the player’s mobile device.

“I can show every time Montero passes the ball to Zakuani,” Sounders technical director Chris Henderson said. “I can pull out every single clip — how many touches, lost possession — break it down to every detail then we can take that data and e-mail it to every player.”

Chris Schlosser, the league’s director of digital strategy, is a former Microsoft employee. He says MLS fans have been clamoring for this data delivery. About 18 months ago, MLS began sifting through prospective companies for information delivery.

“I think that it will bring very enhanced capabilities to analyze the sport of soccer and the league,” Schlosser said.

Being co-delivered with the influx of statistical analysis are questions.

Sports in America are dominated by statistics. Deep-rooted statistical culture has enveloped baseball and football. It’s also being employed by fans and front office decision-makers in basketball.

Soccer’s low-scoring and previously limited statistical analysis didn’t afford it many of the discussion layers so prevalent in other North American sports. The Beautiful Game is undergoing a shift to the Quantifiable Algorithm. It’s a cultural sway that could jolt moderate fans.

“Hopefully it’s that fan that is used to stats in other sports; they like soccer, but they want something to hold onto and follow the game that way,” Henderson said. “We need to do everything we can in this country with the competition with other sports to grow our game.”

Schlosser doesn’t feel extra stats will provide jet fuel to MLS interest. He does think it will allow increased depth to explanations of what is happening on the field.

“Just adding 10 more stats categories or 500 more stats categories, I don’t know if a fan goes, ‘Oh yeah, now I am going to watch MLS where before I wasn’t,’ ” Schlosser said. “I do think the more tools we give people to analyze and describe what’s happening on the field, the better that is so we can tell a better story about why a particular game is interesting, why a particular matchup is the one to watch.”

That’s the outward. Internally, teams will need to decide if soccer and numbers go together. Baseball plodded toward an acceptance of statistical analysis. It’s now mixed into the assessments of scouts who spent 30 years trolling barren baseball diamonds in one-traffic-light towns.

Baseball’s stop-and-go nature also lends itself to numerical breakdown. Soccer’s flow is more difficult to isolate and quantify with numbers. Not to mention there are comparable longtime talent assessors in soccer who don’t want to hear a math-crunching whipper-snapper telling them what’s what.

“It’s very hard to put in numbers and stats but there’s some things you can get from that,” Henderson said.

Regardless, the push is happening. The league expects to expand it’s use of analytics to explain the game and engage the audience. It’s even hired a writer to produce stat-driven copy. In addition, there will be expansion of fantasy games, a swollen cash cow if there ever was one.

Teams will always mimic a successful model. Henderson equated it to finding a good Colombian player. Last year, your club was the only one in a certain part of the country. The next there are nine.

So, if exploitation of statistics translates to wins, the trend is born. It’s already festering.

“A number of our clubs have done deals with stats companies over the last five years or so,” Schlosser said. “It’s kind of been growing slowly behind the scenes as they’ve captured data for their technical staffs.“

Though there is still work to be done before the ethereal is supplanted by mechanics.

“I don’t know that anyone has truly cracked that code for soccer yet, not the way Billy Beane and the A’s did it,” Schlosser said. “A lot of people are focused on it and there are a lot of quantitative geniuses who are pushing the ball forward in soccer.

“I think you’ll see a lot to come out the next two to three years about that in the sport of soccer, both in the U.S. and in general.”

Either way, the numbers will prove it.

More Sounders on SPNW

Whitecaps creating a buzz in Vancouver

Sounders find their scoring touch in final preseason match

One-on-one with Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber

For Brad Evans, patience rules his play

Sounders defense needs to step up prior First Kick

Follow Todd Dybas on Twitter: @Todd_Dybas


  • huskies2010

    Solution: don’t have the school pay players directly, but allow them to do paid endorsements and community appearances.