Data and analytics surely aren’t the only reason for the Seattle Sounders’ remarkable late-season run that’s resulted in a chance to play for an MLS Cup title on Saturday. But it’s clearly helped.
As Seattle’s professional soccer club faces off against Toronto in its first-ever MLS Cup this weekend — 5 p.m. kickoff on Saturday; you can watch the action in virtual reality — GeekWire spoke with head coach Brian Schmetzer and Sport Science and Performance Manager Dave Tenney to learn more about the team’s use of data and analytics to improve the performance of its players on the pitch.
The Sounders have long been pioneers, at least among MLS teams, in using sports science to help make on-field improvements. The club utilizes a variety of gadgets like GPS trackers and heart rate monitors to measure how exactly their players are performing during training and games. The resulting data is used to help make tactical decisions and prevent injury.
But data and analytics have played a particular importance this season, given where things stood in July when Seattle was ninth in the 10-team Western Conference and just parted ways with long-time head coach Sigi Schmid.
That’s when Schmetzer, an assistant since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009 and a former manager of the club’s USL team in the 2000s, took the head coaching reins.
The next four months were nothing short of extraordinary, as Seattle went 8-2-3 from August to October and secured a playoff spot. The team went on to advance through three playoff rounds and now finds itself competing for the franchise’s first MLS Cup on Saturday.
Tenney explained that when Schmetzer took over, the Sounders essentially had to win every remaining match if they wanted a chance at the postseason.
“We had no margin for error,” he said. “We had to potentially put our best lineup out for every single game for the rest of the year.”
That was a difficult proposition given that there were several injured players; some just coming off injury; a new player in Nicolás Lodeiro who needed time to adapt; someone like Jordan Morris who could potentially hit a rookie wall; and many more variables.
“But we did it,” Tenney said. “We tried to do the best we could during training sessions to get guys to stay healthy and play at the highest level for every one of those games. It was a massive challenge. We needed really, really good communication. We used the data as much as we could between the medical staff, the sports science analytics group, and the coaching staff.”
When asked about his take on data and analytics in soccer, Schmetzer said that he views them as “good conversation starters.” He likes to look at all the information after each training session, and see if there are insights he can pick up on.
“It just gives me another layer of detail that Dave and I and the coaching staff can talk about as to whether we trained hard enough, whether we need to push particular individuals, etc.,” Schmetzer explained. “Data is a really good tool to really fine tune some of the coaching decisions we make.”
Tenney said that Schmetzer has been “open to using all the information we have.”
“Coach Schmetzer brings a real transparency and accountability to individuals every single day,” Tenney said. “He is very willing to use the analytics we collect as part of a conversation. I think if you’re going to hold players accountable to a certain level, you use every shred of information to have to open up a discussion with them.”
Added Tenney: “Coach has a clear idea on what he wants to achieve every single day and he is very open to using analytics and sports science to make sure he achieves that. He is clearly utilizing it very effectively to make sure we are getting what we want out of every training session.”
Schmetzer noted that data and analytics are “just one part of coaching.” But he circled back to how it helps improve the quality of conversations between coaches and players.
“We still need to talk to people and manage personalities and still need to look at things visually to make good decisions,” he said. “But here in Seattle we are certainly blessed to have a lot of people giving me more information and more starting points for better conversations.”
Schmetzer’s stance contrasts a bit with that of Bruce Arena, one of the most successful soccer coaches in MLS history who was recently appointed to lead the U.S. national team. Arena told The New York Times last month that analytics aren’t as valuable in a sport like soccer compared to others like baseball, football, or basketball.
“I don’t think the sport of soccer is an analytic sport,” he told The Times.
Tenney said that coaches and teams shouldn’t be threatened by the use of analytics in soccer.
“Analytics is just a fancy word for information,” he said. “It’s just utilizing information as a way to inform when you are having these really important conversations on a daily basis. So much of coaching at this level is having those open conversations with athletes every single day.”
Tenney understands where Arena is coming from in regard to the limitation of data and said there are a ton of improvements that can be made to the way teams track player and ball movement to help provide better overall context. He pointed to more advanced in-stadium tracking technology that could show not only a player’s passing percentage, but the quality of those passes, for example, or the quality of a player’s running data versus just only meters covered.
“We need to quantify what’s actually happening in the game very, very accurately,” he said.
Speaking to MLSSoccer.com, Sounders GM Garth Lagerway said the franchise expects to double down on its investment in data and analytics. He said the team is “chasing rest of the world in trying to make our club first class” and how analytics plays a part in that.
“You get talented people, you give them to tools, and they can do some really cool stuff,” Lagerway said, giving props to Tenney and his staff. “They’re giving us some really cool information.”
The Sounders have built out their sports science department since Tenney joined the club in 2009, with continued support throughout from team owner Adrian Hanauer. What started with only Tenney and a few Excel spreadsheets has turned into a small team of analysts — including Ravi Ramineni, who worked at Microsoft for seven years on projects like Bing and fraud management — that are utilizing technology like Tableau and SQL to provide more than 20 training reports each day to coaches.
Investing in data and analytics for the past seven years has helped the Sounders come up with consistent and proven metrics that optimize how players train, perform, and recover. It’s also created a common language that coaches and players understand.
But there is so much more to be done, Tenney said. He admitted that not everything tracked has been helpful, at the end of the day. But the team has a much clearer picture of what data is actually meaningful, and what it can do to increase the value of said data.
“Where we’re going is creating a holistic picture of athletes in regard to what they are doing physically, tactically, and technically, and being able to put all those together to really define performance,” he explained. “We’re starting to better put those pieces together. We don’t have all the answers. We are creating data not always knowing what everything means. But we do know that there is this real important interplay between a player’s physical capacity, technical capacity, and tactical understanding that really defines what they do out on the field. Now we have to be able to measure all those in relation to each other, and pass it down to the coaches who can help improve that interplay.”