As a former lawyer, Garth Lagerwey knows about the value of evidence-based reasoning. Now he’s trying to apply that same line of thinking to the professional soccer club he helps manage.
Lagerwey spoke about this philosophy at the Sounders Sports Science Weekend in Seattle, an event that focuses on the latest innovations in sports science and analytics.
The Sounders have long been pioneers, at least among Major League Soccer teams, in using sports science to help make on-field improvements. The club, which won its first MLS Cup last year, 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 after Lagerwey joined the club in 2015, he saw an opportunity to use data-driven decision-making not just for on-the-field performance, but also for player personnel moves. The team decided to shift Ravi Ramineni, its performance analyst and a former Microsoft manager, away from the field and into a full-time analyst role, working more closely with the front office. This paved the way for Ramineni to start crunching data as it related to bringing on potential new players.
That strategy was in full effect for the first time when the Sounders signed star Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro in mid-July of last season, just before the team went on a tremendous late-season run and won the MLS Cup. Lodeiro was a key part of the turnaround, racking up four goals and eight assists in 13 matches while earning the MLS Newcomer of the Year honors.
Lagerwey explained how analyzing data about Lodeiro’s past performance played an important role in ultimately deciding to sign him. But not everybody was initially on board.
“Ownership was skeptical of the transaction, in part because they didn’t have experience dealing with data,” Lagerwey recalled.
Data analysis wasn’t the only reason why the Sounders signed Lodeiro, Lagerwey said, but it helped provide scientific confirmation for why he was the right player to sign.
It’s an example of how the GM is encouraging the “evidence-based culture.”
“Everybody has opinions, but you have to support it with evidence if you’re going to have a meaningful debate,” Lagerwey explained. “If you have lots of smart people like we do — our coaching staff, our analysts, our medical team, our sports science people — you have to be able to aggregate all that information and have a meaningful, objective conversation. The only way you can do that is to try and foster an evidence-based culture.”
It’s not always easy for owners, coaches, and players to work in tandem with data analysts and their recommendations. Sounders Sports Science and Performance Manager Dave Tenney, who will speak at the upcoming GeekWire Sports Tech Summit, noted how sports data folks can sometimes get caught in silos and work in isolation from their colleagues. He stressed that it’s much more effective if everybody can work together and credited Lagerwey for helping promote that type of environment.
“One of the things people notice about the Sounders is how we collaborate; there is vertical and horizontal integration with all departments,” Tenney said.
Lagerwey noted that before he arrived, the Sounders already had a robust sports science department led by Tenney and originally established by former GM and current owner Adrian Hanauer several years ago.
“The mechanical stuff was there,” Lagerwey said. “But a lot of the strategic stuff had yet to be explored.”
Over the past two years, there has been even more investment in that department; at the same time, the team has been able to collect more and more data that can represent meaningful sample sizes. This has helped the Sounders utilize data analysis beyond just telling a coach which player needs a break from practice, or who should change positions on the field.
“It’s no longer just a daily interaction with the coaching staff,” Lagerwey said.
Lagerwey also noted how the Sounders are now using sports science tools for its development teams and youth academy as a way to better track performance over time and predict which younger players are poised for success.
He also said part of the team’s focus on sports science is connected to its hometown environment.
“To be a successful sports franchise, you want to reflect the values of your community,” Lagerwey said. “Seattle is a super tech, science, and data evidence-based place. This community is receptive — we can sign Nicolas Lodeiro and talk about the role data and sports science played. Our audience is not only receptive to that, but they are pretty well educated and like when we explain that process.”
To hear Tenney speak at our second annual GeekWire Sports Tech Summit on June 21-22 in Seattle about the future of sports data, get your tickets here: