2016 SSAC Soccer Analytics Preview

Later this week I will attend the 10th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  It’s amazing how this conference has grown from a Boston-area gathering in MIT Sloan conference rooms into a slick and highly-polished event that attracts experts and enthusiasts in sports analytics and sports business.  It’s also amazing that this will be my sixth SSAC — I have very fond memories of attending in 2010 when soccer and sports other than basketball and baseball barely had a presence!

I have attended all of the conferences in which there was a dedicated panel discussion on soccer analytics, and my impressions of the panels have progressed from elation, to disappointment, to thinly veiled contempt.  But last year, the Soccer Analytics panel distinguished itself with a substantive discussion of analytics innovations and applications that was less of a waste of people’s time.

I’m naturally pessimistic about panel discussions at conferences, especially at SSAC.  But this year’s panelists for the Soccer Analytics session gives me hope of an even better discussion.

Returning to moderate the session is Andrew Wiebe, who is Senior Editor at Major League Soccer’s official website and host of the MLS ExtraTime show on SiriusXM radio.  I felt that Andrew did a good job of asking the right questions to elicit meaningful conversation between the panelists, and I look forward to him doing the same this time.

With the exception of one very important panelist, all of the panelists are known for being active in the online soccer analytics community. Blake Wooster is the founder of 21st Club and has been a fixture in the sports data industry for over 15 years.  Paul Carr is a Senior Researcher with ESPN Analytics and leads a team that develops analytical content on soccer over all of ESPN’s platforms.  Chris Anderson is the co-author of The Numbers Game and is currently Executive Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Coventry City FC. Devin Pleuler is a hustler par excellence — from writing an analytics column on MLSSoccer.com to being a data scientist at Opta Sports to his current role as the Director of Analytics at Toronto FC. Gabriele Marcotti is one of the best football writers in the world; the phrase “an insightful Marcotti column” is redundant.  Even though he’s not active in the soccer analytics space, he is aware of what is being done there and is intellectually curious about its findings.  And yes, he’s the inspiration for the naming of some nice software projects.

If a theme can be deduced from the panel description, it would be the impact of technology on our understanding of match performance by all actors — teams, players, managers, referees — and its impact on the fans’ appreciation of the game.  Are there patterns to be imitated from other sports’ embrace of technology and analytics?  Will there be positional or tactical innovations from a deeper dive into analytics?  What is it about soccer (and perhaps the other football codes) that makes analysis hard, and how do we understand and embrace those challenges in our analysis?  What will analytics mean in a coming era (at least in England) where Premier League clubs, from the first to the last, can afford almost any player they wish to sign?

The Soccer Analytics panel only has an hour so they won’t hit all or even half of these topics, but I’m hoping for an even more substantive and opinionated conversation than last year.  The panel starts on Friday at 2:30pm.