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Is Major League Soccer Playing the Numbers?

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Since Moneyball, statistical analysis is on the tip of everyone's tongue in the sports community, but seemingly not in MLS.

Does Billy Beane have an influence on soccer?
Does Billy Beane have an influence on soccer?
Leon Halip/Getty Images

I was on Facebook the other day killing time (as you do on Facebook) and one of my friends had shared one of those silly viral games. It was a picture of Batman, with a word jumble that looked like a crossword puzzle, with the caption: "The first word you see will be your superpower in 2016." I bit and proceeded to look for my superpower with my fingers crossed for "flight" or hopefully "virility," but what I found instead was "precognition." Not a bad one, I thought.

Perhaps lots of Major League Soccer General Managers (or Technical Directors, Sporting Directors, etc.) should hope for precognition, too. It certainly would make their jobs easier when it comes to acquiring and releasing players because, obviously, prediction is as much of the game as anything. When a team signs a player it's essentially a wager of the player's future production against his wage, and GMs and coaches use everything from the eyeball test to a scout's recommendation to past reputation in making those wagers.

Increasingly, too, they are using the numbers to inform those predictions.

I'm certainly no math whiz (the most difficult level of math class I've ever taken was pre-calculus) but I do have an appreciation for those who are mathematically inclined because I trust their processes and believe in their methods. Statistics are facts; recordings of events that have happened. Using them to predict the future is only logical.

The problem when it comes to soccer is that this has not always been the way of thinking. I can remember Ian Darke making a comment during the USA-Belgium game during the last World Cup with regards to Tim Howard's historic number of saves, which implied that he wasn't doing the counting, that ESPN had a crew of people doing that because he already had enough on his plate. What I took from that is that he wasn't used to having that kind of statistical information at the ready, and indeed you don't often see Premier League (or MLS, for that matter) announcers reciting statistics to the audience during the broadcast.

However, that's changing. ESPN employs the likes of Paul Carr whose job, as far as I can tell, is simply to bring soccer up to speed with other sports to meet the American sports fan's fetish for statistics. It's certainly a paradigm shift for the sport and the way it is covered, but a positive one.

Soccer has amended the motion tracking data that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in basketball to create heat maps, which insofar as I can tell, only the nerdiest of soccer nerds really use with much frequency to back up their bar-room arguments. This is impacting the way we cover soccer too, as mlssoccer.com's Matt Doyle and ESPN's Mike L. Goodman (formerly of Grantland) are a pair of the few voices on the American soccer scene that might include expected goals and heat maps along with their analyses of the 4-3-3. For our part here at TML, we've run a series of statistical analyses on OCSC's players which are worthy of your eyeballs.

Soccer teams are also taking notice of the numbers revolution that is sweeping the sports world. Billy Beane, the main figure in the book Moneyball and the man that most folks associate with the Sabermetrics movement in baseball, is reputedly a big soccer fan and has been involved officially with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, while also being involved with both Tottenham and the San Jose Earthquakes as a part of partnerships between those clubs and Beane's Oakland A's.

Like anything new, though, the pro-numbers side of the argument has its detractors, such as the LA Galaxy's Bruce Arena, who was quoted in this LA Times piece from 2012 as saying this:

"There's enough data in soccer, as in all sports, that can drive you crazy," says Bruce Arena, the Galaxy's Hall of Fame coach and the most successful manager in U.S. national team history. "Soccer, it's not similar to other sports. There's so much independent decision making and play on the field by individuals.

"There's really a lot of gray areas in the statistics in soccer. Some are valid, some are not."

Player tracking technology, like SportVU, is seemingly making this sort of logic obsolete, though it continues to be cast out to the fringes of the decision making process in the soccer front office, and too often the eye test is the only method by which a player is deemed worthy of acquisition. It isn't like soccer is years and years behind other sports, however. Moneyball only came out 12 years ago, and it's only relatively recently that basketball has jumped onto the advanced analytics train in any tangible way.

In MLS though, it seems that advanced statistical analysis doesn't yet have a seat at the big table. Orlando City, for example, doesn't have anyone in their front office with any sort of title that would indicate that analysis of this sort holds much weight in the esteem of Phil Rawlins, Adrian Heath and co., and that's fine. There's more than one way to skin a cat, but to blatantly ignore one way of looking at things seems a bit naive.

I'm not saying looking at the numbers is exact precognition, after all, but it can't hurt.