Sounders among pioneers in MLS with analytics, training

The Seattle Times

It’s not easy to crunch numbers in soccer — there’s just so little scoring — but the Sounders are quizzically pushing around puzzle pieces just like every other team in the world.

It isn’t often that your crusty great uncle sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner table and a computer scientist hunched over a spreadsheet share a common viewpoint, but here it goes: There isn’t enough scoring in soccer.

Soccer statistics, as sports data goes, are still in their prehistoric period, the time before its version of OPS. There are so few scoring plays that it has proved difficult to tease out the winning moments, to find a formula in determining the difference between title-winners and also-rans.

Analysts in offices all over the world are attempting to crack the code, including in Tukwila.

Sounders sports science and performance manager Dave Tenney and his team have made great strides the past few years with the fitness aspect of the game. They’ve earned the players’ trust, honed their formula to the point where every conditioning drill can be individually customized.

“They’ve maintained themselves as one of the leaders in the league,” said Columbus Crew high performance director Steve Tashjian, another pioneer in the field.

But when it comes to overlaying the fitness data with other statistics — chances created, say, or passes in the final third — the Sounders are quizzically pushing around puzzle pieces just like every other team in the world.

When Seattle was considering re-signing midfielder Erik Friberg this summer, the team crunched the numbers, charted whether his distance covered or passing percentages had dropped off during recent seasons in Europe. Yet the intangibles — the relationships he made during his first spell in Seattle, the fact that the coaching staff trusts him — played as big, perhaps an even bigger role than the data.

“(Analytics) is just part of the identification package,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “I don’t think anybody is at the stage where you’re going to make that your sole identifying source or the sole determinant of your decision, but it certainly factors in.

“At the end of the day, your eyes still come into it.”

Subjective still trumps objective in many soccer domains. That won’t be the case for long.

The numbers game

Ravi Ramineni took an unorthodox route to the Sounders’ front office, where he’s in his third season as the team’s performance analyst: He previously spent seven years at Microsoft.

He still looks slightly out of place on a soccer field. Ramineni’s slight frame swims in his Xbox-branded Sounders practice jacket. He retains some of the language of his former world, too, talking his way down indecipherable alleyways about metrics and heart-rate tracking.

A vital part of Ramineni’s job is to break down data into chewable bits, into information Tenney, Schmid and general manager Garth Lagerwey understand. He’s gotten better at playing the translator.

With a click, Ramineni can compare data from year to year — how much distance is midfielder Andy Rose covering this year compared with, say, his work rate in 2013 — and from week to week — how is forward Obafemi Martins’ groin rehabilitation coming along?

A native of Southern India, Ramineni earned a computer-science degree from Clemson. During his few free hours away from Microsoft, Ramineni’s hobby was soccer — watching the game, studying, analyzing. He’d long searched for a way to blend his passions.

The game had hooked him early, and he fell hard for the Spanish club Villarreal during its mid-2000s heyday. He even wrote blog posts breaking down the Yellow Submarine’s numbers, ad hoc.

He began working for the Sounders during the 2012 season in a part-time role, meeting Tenney at local Starbucks branches

But the team’s data was piling up. Seattle had been using Omegawave, a tool that tracks a body’s recovery progress and stress levels, since its second season in MLS. It added GPS distance tracking during daily practice sessions a few seasons later.

Tenney needed someone to streamline the system, to automate the team’s data. Ramineni went full-time the following offseason.

“You need to build a nice road before you enjoy driving a luxury car,” Ramineni explained, and he spent his first six months on the job showing very little return, working behind the scenes to bolster the foundation.

Tracking software allows the technical staff to measure how often a player reaches top speed during a given practice, to design drills that best simulate game action. Guys who are pushing themselves too close to the limit get dialed back. Teammates who are loafing get put through extra paces the next day.

Thanks to Ramineni’s data system, coaches receive summaries of each morning’s practice runs by 3 p.m.

Trusting the process

Chad Kolarcik is the Sounders’ head strength and conditioning coach, but as Ramineni, his background is in computer science. As Ramineni, he also leans on metaphors to help get his points across to laypersons.

“The coach has to drive the bus,” Kolarcik said when describing his role. “We try to help him steer better.”

Kolarcik spent three years programming after college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, a few more floating and offering personal-training lessons. The two fields are not as dissimilar as you might think.

“The same critical thinking skills and analytical approach that you need to write a program is not too dissimilar to the way you need to approach the human body,” Kolarcik said. “They’re very complex, but there are rules you can follow and apply. If X, then Y, then Z. You can follow the paths and understand the processes.”

Any early skepticism from the locker room about the program — or about having to wear the bra-like contraptions that contain the GPS trackers — has mostly melted away as the players have seen results.

Defender Zach Scott spent years in the rub-some-dirt-on-it USL before making the jump to MLS with the Sounders. He was used to trusting his body, to know how hard he could push himself — then he suffered an overuse injury a few games into the team’s inaugural big-league season.
“My personal training methods and the way I went after a lot of stuff had put so much stress of my body that I basically broke down,” Scott said.

Ever since, Scott has listened to the data — even when it’s telling the hard-nosed defender to scale it back once in a while — and the 34-year-old credits the shift with extending his career.

The mandate has come from the top, too.

Owner Adrian Hanauer has given Tenney plenty of leeway and financial support. Schmid has long been open to any tool that can give his team an edge. He was one of the first college coaches to hire a full-time goalkeeping coach while at UCLA, and he hired one of MLS’ first strength and conditioning coaches while in Los Angeles.

“For me, it’s always, ‘Does the objective data support what you’re seeing?’ I’ve never been a person that just looks at the data and goes, ‘OK, that makes them a good or a bad player,’ ” Schmid said. “… You’re looking at whether the objective data supports what you’re seeing subjectively.

“You’ve got to use the resources at hand.”

The right funding, people

The high-performance fitness model originated, of all places, during the early 2000s in Australian Rules Football, where a unique blend of needing to make the most out of limited resources and a societal bent toward collaboration birthed a system now being copied all over the world.

But if the model has roots Down Under, it is being cultivated most aggressively in England.

Tashjian got his start during Schmid’s time with the Crew before heading abroad for five seasons with English Premier League club Everton. He returned last fall, completing the circle and getting a firsthand look at the discrepancy between the leagues.

Every week, Tashjian said, Everton would get an email from a company pitching new technology — and it had the freedom of experimentation, of tinkering with its formula.

“Out here we don’t have that luxury,” Tashjian said. “We have to spend our money in a very efficient way.”

Said Ramineni: “If you look at Manchester City, they probably have 20 people (crunching the numbers).” The Sounders have, well, Ramineni.

Still, the league has seen progress. When he left, Tashjian said, barely half the teams in MLS had fitness coaches. Now every team has one in some capacity.

In a salary-capped league, a little advantage makes a difference. The most capable teams — Columbus, Houston, Toronto, Kansas City and yes, Seattle — are dragging others forward. Progress, or get left behind.

“It comes down to more than just funding,” Tashjian said. “You have to have the right people in place. And (in Tenney), the Sounders have the right guy.”

Making progress

The fitness of professional athletes has tilted in favor of the latter part of the phrase “sports science.
”In Australia, players give blood samples and give themselves freely to technology that has long since become second nature. After every Sounders practice, Ramineni makes his rounds, plucking the GPS trackers out of each players’ chest harness.

But the ever-growing stockpile of fitness data has practical limits when it comes to scouting and crafting a lineup.

“You can run all you want,” Schmid said, “but if you can’t trap a ball … it’s like the old Harry Redknapp (longtime English club coach) line, ‘A bowl of pasta isn’t going to make him a better passer.’

“Maybe a guy runs a lot more than the other guy because he loses the ball all the time.”

Statistical breakthroughs, such as they’ve been, have been modest, mostly just providing numerical support for long-held assumptions.
“We’re on the way there,” Ramineni said. “It’s a different problem, and probably a little bit harder of a problem, because of the inherent problem of the sport: There’s so little scoring of goals.“But there are a lot of bright minds working on this around the world.”

At the French club Lille, sports scientist Chris Carling decoded the difference between the Great Danes’ title-winning team in 2011 and the comparatively middling finishes sprinkled around it.

Carling’s findings, published last fall, won’t come as a surprise to Sounders fans who have suffered through the past month. The difference was squad utilization, the amount of time a team’s best 11 players lined up alongside each other.

As intuitive as that answer might be, it qualified as a breakthrough in the soccer-analytics world.

Ramineni is searching for a way to define Seattle’s style of play to more clearly delineate the difference between good and bad games at each position. He provides Lagerwey and Schmid with the range of numbers they should be looking for in, for example, a box-to-box midfielder.

All of this is being done on the fly, in a constantly changing marketplace in which every team is looking for an edge. The computer is constantly whirring, and the MLS summer transfer window closes Aug. 6.

“I can’t tell you that (analytics) has changed a decision yet,” Lagerwey said, “but will guarantee you that it will.”