The MLS Panel at SSAC 2018: Demonstrating the liaison between research and practice

The Major League Soccer panel at the 2018 SSAC was organized at very short notice, but the discussions over the fifty-minute session were engaging and helped to illuminate the tension between analytics research and practice at MLS’ member clubs.

This year’s panel was made up of MLS performance and data analysts from the last two league champions (Devin Pleuler and Ravi Ramineni), one of the leading researchers in player tracking data analytics in basketball and soccer (Luke Bornn), and an MLS Original and US World Cup veteran now serving on the MLS Competition Committee (Jeff Agoos).  It was led by Angus McNab, a former sports data and content executive with PERFORM Group (parent company of Opta Sports) and the New Zealand creative agency Augusto.

As best as I could follow the discussions, these were the main points of the panel:

  • Club analysts are the liaison between sports analytics research and the on-field and executive staffs. Devin Pleuler made, in my opinion, the best statement in this regard when he described his role as one who is aware of the state-of-the-art (and sometimes helps to advance it!) and then synthesizes and translates that knowledge to the coaching staffs. Ravi Ramineni emphasized that it was important to establish communication links with the sports science department, and gave as an example his almost daily early morning chats with former High Performance Director David Tenney and current director Damian Roden. Pleuler and Ramineni’s statements underscored the advantage — and perhaps the necessity — of being in the same city as the rest of the football staff. Luke Bornn did not have that situation when he was head of analytics at AS Roma, which might have hampered his contribution, but he said that much of the technical staff remained interested in any insights from data.
  • Analytics departments in Major League Soccer clubs have very limited bandwidth. This isn’t too surprising because with the exception of maybe one or two clubs in the world, analytics departments of all professional football clubs have limited bandwidth. Pleuler argued that there is a missed opportunity by MLS owners to establish an area of competitive advantage through funding of analytics in their clubs which doesn’t have a spending cap. Angus McNab asked the panel (Agoos excepted) what they would do at their organizations with an extra $100,000, and it was interesting to compare the responses.  Pleuler and Ramineni responded that they would prioritize the purchasing of extra (and unique) data sources, while Bornn said that he would hire extra staff. Those two responses say much about how far soccer has to progress before data becomes a commodity.
  • It might be possible for MLS clubs to share data, but all of them will want some competitive advantage for themselves. I’m going on notes and my memory here, but the league is not at a financial position where it can afford to provide a base level of advanced data to its clubs. And the teams will choose to go beyond the base data package and purchase other data sources for recruitment and opposition analysis. I still submit that the greatest source of competitive advantage are the brains in the club office.
  • The opportunity to use data to deliver in-match updates is very limited. At best, analytics can be used as a motivational tool, but managers have at most four or five minutes to deliver any insight or motivation, so any information fed to him/her has to be narrowly focused.
  • MLS is very progressive among global soccer leagues in hiring women and minorities to technical staffs. Jeff Agoos made the best comments with respect to that as a father of two daughters.

Overall, the panel was oriented more toward processes in Major League Soccer as they relate to analytics, with very little discussion on the influence of analytics on playing decisions and strategies (Pleuler flat-out refused to offer an example). It would be nice to have a retrospective of analytics influencing on-field activities, but it seems that we are years away from clubs feeling comfortable enough to talk about that.

You can watch the video of the panel discussion below (credit: Sloan Sports Analytics Conference/42 Analytics).