2013 SSAC Preview: A look at the Soccer Analytics panel

This post is the third and final preview article of the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference from a soccer perspective.  In this post I will discuss the Soccer Analytics panel.

The panel has come a long way from its first appearance in 2010, when it was called the Emerging Analytics panel and combined panelists from American football and the English Premier League.  Even so, it was a packed session as people staked out seats two hours before the actual session took place.

In 2011, American football and soccer were given separate sessions, each very well-attended and comprised of a combination of professional club, data supplier, and independent analytics talent.  In 2012 there was more of a 50/50 split between American and British participants on the panel, which reflects the two major markets for statistical analysis in sport.  I was pleasantly surprised by last year’s session, especially by Drew Carey’s contributions to the discussion, but nevertheless I left thinking that there remains a very long road for analytics in soccer to travel.

Last year I made the following complaint about the Soccer Analytics panel:

The one charge that could be made against the Soccer Analytics panel is that there are no representatives of the upstream elements of the analytics value chain.  There is no one from a sports data company, nor anyone from a soccer analytics company or blog.  Why isn’t there someone up there like Blake Wooster of Prozone or John Coulson of Opta, or analysts like Chris Anderson, Sarah Rudd, or me?

Sadly, I won’t be participating in this year’s panel, but the Soccer Analytics panel will be sponsored by Prozone.  The panelists represents a wider range of the analytics value chain than ever before — Blake Wooster returns to the panel representing Prozone, Albert Larcada (ESPN) and Jeff Agoos (MLS) represent the users of data in the media and the professional game, and for the first time a member of the soccer analytics blogosphere joins the panel in Chris Anderson (Soccer by the Numbers).  I’m very pleased to say that I’ve gotten to know all of the panelists personally and professionally, and with the exception of Albert, I’ve heard all of the presenters speak about soccer analytics in various forums.

The objective of this year’s panel is to build on the guided questions from last year, inquiring about the strategies and tools used to inform decisions from the playing field to the front office.  Here are last year’s questions:

  • What role can analytics play in the world’s favorite sport?
  • How can analytics be used to field the best team formation?
  • How can analytics help clubs find players that would suit them best?
  • What are the challenges that face soccer clubs in adopting analytics and how can they be addressed?

Even though there is no representative from a professional club, Blake and Chris have worked with a number of clubs so they might be able to share some insight on how clubs use data and the current lessons learned.  Chris is writing a book with his business partner David Sally on soccer analytics, so perhaps he will be able to share some highlights from it.  Jeff comes from the perspective of a league organization that is focused more on the business of sport, but player acquisition is a key element of MLS so perhaps he will speak to that.  Albert might talk about the Soccer Power Index and the internal simulations conducted by ESPN Stats and Information, but I’ve learned from last year to keep an open mind.  In a way, it’s too bad that neither Gavin Fleig nor an Opta representative will be on the panel because I’m almost certain that MCFC Analytics will be a topic for discussion.  And if it’s not, it should be.

I look forward to a very thought-provoking Soccer Analytics panel on Saturday.