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Bruce Arena isn’t the biggest believer in analytics.

The Los Angeles Galaxy head coach bashed the use of data analytics in soccer after his team’s 2-1 win over Portland on Saturday. His team won despite being out-shot 18-to-9 by the Timbers. Via LAGalaxy.com:

“We won the game. That’s what you do in soccer games. We were on the road in a venue where the team does pretty well at home. What are we complaining about? Then some moron will write that they had more shots than us thinking that’s important,” 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.”

This is quite a loaded statement from Arena, a former U.S. men’s national head coach, given that every MLS squad and seemingly every professional sports franchise hires people to crunch data and come up with advanced analytics to get an edge over opponents. This was made clear at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March.

Sounders forward Darwin Jones wears a GPS tracker during practice.
Sounders forward Darwin Jones wears a GPS tracker during practice.

The Seattle Sounders, for example, use wearable GPS harnesses to track precisely how fast and for how long an athlete is moving around on the field. That information is important for a variety of reasons — the data can help the team determine how an injured player can recover most effectively, or how hard he’s working on the field, for instance.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber even touted the use of data and analytics at the inaugural GeekWire Sports Tech Summit earlier this month. Beyond having the most skilled players, he talked about a belief that the teams that do the best job of embracing technology put themselves in a better position to win championships.

“In a league like ours, parity-based systems, everybody, for the most part, has the same tools,” Garber said. “So those that are smarter win.”

But Arena does have some valid points. Soccer fans on the Reddit MLS page and Twitter noted the differences between soccer and other sports.

“Soccer does not share the statistical properties that make those other sports amenable to statistical analysis,” wrote Reddit user LAhammer. “There is a role for analytics, sure, but its application is narrow.”

Others said it’s important to differentiate between certain statistical categories — shots on goal is completely different than, say, a more specific data point like percentage of time spent in one area of the field. From Reddit user _visor99:

He seems to be talking about volume stats, which aren’t all that useful on their own. Sort of like looking at the number of hits in baseball as important, when it’s really the outcome of each at bat that’s important. It took years for people to move beyond batting average to onbase percentage to ops. And now going even further to qualify the quality and value of players.

But his anti statistical analysis and tone about winning is the only stat that matters suggests a thinking that all eventually leave him in the dust. There is plenty of work being done to look at quality of movement, spacing and possession, looking at tendencies, frequency and outcomes likely to produce success.

It’s true that analytics cannot be the end-all, be-all guide to success for soccer teams. Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer also spoke at the Sports Tech Summit and touched on the balance between using data to drive decision-making with other variables that may be more difficult to measure.

Henry Nguyen, Jeff Mallett & Adrian Hanauer speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit
Henry Nguyen (left), Jeff Mallett, and Adrian Hanauer speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit.

“It’s an imperfect science,” he said. “And it really is more art than science.”

Hanauer noted that “everybody interprets data a little bit differently.”

“All we can do is collect as much data as possible, give as good of information to the different layers of the organization, and then the people making the decisions need to make their recommendations or ultimately live with their interpretation of that data,” he explained.

Jeff Mallett, a former Yahoo COO who now owns part of teams like the San Francisco Giants, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Derby County F.C., joined Hanauer on stage at the Sports Tech Summit and also talked about this balance. He offered up an example of a soccer player who flew into a game late because his wife had a baby — based on his pre-game metrics, the data said that he shouldn’t play.

But he told his coach that “I need to play,” and he ended up having a “brilliant game,” Mallett noted.

“Context is king,” Mallett said. “You better have the right people and the right data, that when the data gets rolled up and you get layers on it, that people are able to put that in context and act upon the data.”

While most sports teams are investing at least some money and time into data analytics, Arena’s comments point to a larger disconnect that exists between athletes and coaches, and what information a team’s data analyst is providing.

We explored this topic last week after hearing from athletes like Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin at the Sports Tech Summit.

“Yes, the data and information is useful, and give it all to me,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the user has to use it the right way.”

Furthermore, the athlete must be convinced that the data and information is actually helpful — that goes for coaches, too, as Arena’s comments highlight.

As Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said, perhaps the technology is just not good enough yet.

“I don’t think anybody has come up with technology that athletes particularly think will help,” the former Microsoft CEO said at the Sports Tech Summit. “It’s not like there aren’t some uses of technology — don’t get me wrong. On the other hand, if you said, ‘what is it that the athletes believe in that they must do?’ You’re not going to find much.”

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