By Clemente Lisi – PHILADELPHIA, PA (July 17, 2017) US Soccer Players – The Gold Cup break gives MLS teams a mid-season breather. For some, it couldn't come at a better time. The season still has enough left in it to turn things around. It's likely that trying to figure out how to win games will include the use of analytics and data to help the front office and coaches come to some conclusions.
Like all of America's major professional sports, analytics are crucial for MLS. The data helps determine lineups, transfer strategy, and how to solve problems. For some, the use of all this data in soccer is a red herring. Unlike baseball and football, the sport doesn’t rely on too many statistics. A soccer game box score is often the lineups and who scored and assisted on the goal. Not much more to it.
In some cases, the overuse of statistics and analysis to measure success already comes with a backlash. Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni lashed out against its use last month after his side defeated Sporting Kansas City 1-0. Sporting KC looked better across the board. The Rapids withstood an absolute onslaught, out-shot 24 to 6, out-passed 629 to 225, and out-possessed 73% to 27%.
“People have lost the plot,” Mastroeni told reporters adding that statistics “lose to the human spirit every day of the week.”
Mastroeni attracted his share of detractors following those comments. Not only do those statistics reveal a team outplayed, his point is that the one piece of data that really matters is the final score. The rest is open to interpretation. Mastroeni knows a few things about passion. The former defensive midfielder displayed plenty of stamina and heart during his 12-year MLS career and at the World Cup level for the United States. He played at a time when using statistics like we're currently seeing wasn't the norm. He’s part of a small group of coaches who isn’t buying into this new era. That says something about the coaching philosophy he brings to the table.
USMNT coach Bruce Arena is also an analytics skeptic. Last season, his Galaxy beat Portland 2-1 after being out-shot 18 to 9. Arena said, “Actually, analytics in soccer – if no one here has figured it out – doesn’t mean a whole lot. Analytics and statistics are used for people who don’t know how to analyze the game. I’ll be very honest with you, this isn’t baseball or football or basketball. We have a very important analytic, and that’s the score. That distorts all the other statistics.”
But Mastroeni’s comments sent Twitter abuzz. Pundits on both sides staked their claims. Mastroeni was either a genius rebelling against technology or a misguided fool unable to see that his team was underachieving.
“It’s hardly surprising Mastroeni would downplay the significance of numbers that consistently diminish his side’s uncanny ability to win games in ways that fly in the face of present day statistical analysis. Of course he’s going to defend his players,” contributor Kurt Larson wrote in a column for MLSSoccer.com. “And to his credit, he willfully admitted — and bluntly so — that Colorado’s success hinges on spirit and organization and a collective commitment to defending, all immeasurable pillars of the game, for the most part.”
On the other side of the argument, Will Parchman, in a piece posted to TopDrawerSoccer, wrote: “I won with 27% possession, you can practically hear him strain through his words, so how can I ever trust them. And the true answer is that by looking at them molecularly, perhaps you can’t. But I’d argue these numbers aren’t necessarily meant to be looked at on a granular level divorced from wider context. Just as the most possession-oriented team in MLS over this frame was not all that close to its most successful in terms of goal differential, so will 27% possession rarely ever give you anything close to a positive result.”
For those who follow the Rapids well, Mastroeni’s comments seemed directed at the team’s front office. Colorado hired Padraig Smith in November 2014 to be their sporting director. The news release heralding his arrival held up several attributes Smith would bring to the table. “Among the key focus areas for Smith will be data analytics and performance analysis as they pertain to player acquisitions and scouting from a team performance, player and opposition perspective,” the news release read.
Data and performance analytics – the very things Mastroeni railed against to reporters. Of course, statistic gurus can rightly say that the nerds are right about how the Rapids are performing this season. The Rapids are near the bottom of the Western Conference standings with a 6-11-1 record overall. They've gone a dismal 0-7 on the road. Both are prime examples that little possession over the course of a season won’t yield positive results.
Mastroeni is fighting against the tide. The world is changing and analytics are here to stay. Eight Major League Soccer teams have data analysts on the payroll. The Portland Timbers famously elicited the aid of a Harvard student last year to help them acquire players. Expansion side Atlanta United FC used what’s called “technical scouting” in the off season to build a roster from scratch. Both Portland and Atlanta appear better for it and now find themselves comfortably in the hunt for playoff spots.
Can we measure soccer with the help of fitness trackers and statisticians? It depends on whom you ask. Soccer is largely a game of nuance and heart. Mastroeni is correct when he argues that advanced computer trackers can’t measure those attributes. Nonetheless, the use of data is here to stay. It’s helping MLS teams, and pro clubs around the world, on a daily basis. The Rapids are having a bad season and the numbers aren't lying.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi: