New England Soccer Today

Analyze This

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For the of the early to mid-2000s, the Revolution was a talented, yet crafty team that relied on every advantage they could find. An intuitive front office. An experienced, well-connected technical staff. And, oh yeah, a flurry of fortuitous draft picks.

All of which gave rise to a run that saw them reach four MLS Cup finals in six years, despite the parity-heavy MLS competition structure. But after the advent, then subsequent expansion, of the Designated Player Rule, the Revolution’s run of success quickly faded to black. The playing field had irrevocably changed.

Unable to outspend the likes of the double-winning L.A. Galaxy or the three-time Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders, the Revolution overhauled its coaching staff during the offseason and introduced a new philosophy. A philosophy with a focus on statistical and video analysis rather than stratospheric salaries.

One person who’s particularly excited about this new line of thinking is Revolution President Brian Bilello, an alum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who isn’t shy to admit that he may be a bit of a numbers guy.

So how will the team’s technical and front office staff employ this new approach?

“There are a couple of different areas that we’re going to look at,” said Bilello. “Primarily, it’s going to be personnel movement and tactical stuff.”

For a team that’s seen as much turnover as the Revolution, player analysis – whether it’s outside or in-house talent  – will be examined and dissected in greater detail than ever. Fewer hunches, more concrete analysis. In short, the way the team conducts player evaluations will change, thanks to its newfound reliance on available statistical data that the previous coaching regime may not have wholly embraced.

Although Bilello didn’t cite specific examples of how the team has employed its new approach to player evaluations, there’s already been a noticeable shift this winter. In the past, the team often invited a number of young, largely-unproven players into preseason training for trials. But this year, experienced American players like Blake Brettschneider, Blake Wagner and Jeremiah White have all gotten calls into camp.

Then, there’s tactical analysis. In the past, more attention was given to preparing the team rather than preparing for a particular opponent. Now, it’s about looking at matchups – both of the individual and group varieties – and discovering which formations or personnel changes may benefit the Revolution on a game-to-game basis. For example, what’s the best approach for the outside midfielders to adopt against Toronto’s wingbacks? Is it better for the Revolution to stretch the Reds’ defense and play along the edges, or is it wiser to make more cuts it into the 18?

“There’s some cool stuff out there right now, but a lot of it isn’t refined,” Bilello said. “(But) there’s a lot of insight we’re going to get (nonetheless).”

The overall concept – using analysis to find inefficiencies – may sound simple. After all, the idea of statistical analysis in sports is nothing new, especially with the dawn of computer-based player evaluations used in other sports. Even Chalkboard, a feature on the league’s MatchCenter home, records everything from short corners to blocked crosses, has already tapped into the realm of soccer metrics. But, Bilello admits that it isn’t as simple as plugging numbers into a computer and selecting “Run.”

“You have to balance a lot of things,” Bilello said. “There’s the analytics, and then there’s the qualitative coaching assessment.”

In other words, you can’t rely solely on technology or statistics alone to run a soccer team. While the numbers may shed light on performance, the final decisions are made by those who’ve accumulated years of observation and player evaluation.

Of course, that’s only one reason why the Revolution aren’t putting the bulk of their eggs in one basket. The other is the fact that soccer analytics is probably the toughest to formulate given the lack of available statistical data compared to other situational-based sports like baseball, football and basketball. Sure, you can measure how often a right-handed hitter connects on a curveball when he’s behind in the count. But how do you quantify how successful a central midfielder is when making passes of 18 yards or more? The applicable data, for the most part, hasn’t been mined just yet.

“The reason why analytics isn’t used in soccer is because it’s a really hard sport to apply analytics to,” Bilello said. “Soccer’s very difficult (to find measurables), so we’re going to tackle the things that you can draw clear conclusions from.”

Nevertheless, Bilello can’t help but be intrigued by the possibilities. After studying economics at MIT, the idea of using numbers and empirical evidence to dispel flawed wisdom holds a certain appeal.

“Analytics is fun for me,” Bilello said. “Because you’re always trying to buck the conventional system.”

But the Revolution aren’t the only team that’s subscribed to soccer metrics and video analysis. Although most MLS front offices don’t often publicize the inner workings of player analysis and/or gameday preparation, teams like New York, Sporting K.C. and San Jose already have video and/or information analysts on their technical staff.

Even so, the Revolution have taken the first significant step toward embracing the analytic approach when it hired its first data analyst – Tim Crawford – on Monday. Meanwhile, the man in the president’s chair is anxious to see how the new philosophy unfolds.

“We’re working on (the specifics) right now, but I’m pretty excited,” Bilello said. “I think that we’re going to find a lot of things that are going to help us on the player selection process and game management.”


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