Simulated reality: How Football Manager developed one of MLS' foremost rules experts

Al Clark's obsession with keeping FM realistic demands he masters the world's most complicated league.

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Al Clark knows more about building a Major League Soccer team than just about anyone.

Clark has spent countless hours compiling “gargantuan” spreadsheets that detail player designations, contract lengths, mechanisms used to acquire those players and even estimates on what they earn and how they affect their teams’ salary caps. Each time a player is added to the spreadsheet, it throws everything into disarray, meaning more work for Clark.

“The spreadsheet I have to come up with is horrific,” he said. “It takes me 20 to 25 hours just to build the spreadsheet and then every time a player is signed or traded or whatever, I have to tweak it. All of the cap adjustments that I write … then has to be recalculated so that it fits.”

Everything I like about MLS that makes it unique and quirky and fun is what makes it hard to code

And while his knowledge may rival even the most well-connected front-office employees, Clark has never had a job in professional soccer. In fact, he’s just a soccer nut who made his way into the video game world, and he made MLS his expertise by brute force. He now, jokingly, calls the endeavor his “personal cross.”

Clark is the head researcher for the United States and MLS portions of Football Manager, the internationally popular soccer management game that prides itself on hyper-realism and depth.

His career began in 1992 when he first picked up Championship Manager, the first iteration of the concept by Sports Interactive. By the time the game had a FIFA license and real player names, Clark was playing “literally all night.” And after years of sending letters to Sports Interactive with critiques and tips, Clark worked his way into a role with the company.

He began working on NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, a hockey simulator in the same vein as Championship Manager. And while it wasn’t where he wanted to be, Clark’s work there would become a crucial learning experience for what he would eventually face in MLS.

“Things like trades, waivers, free agency, drafts, all of that was designed with NHL in mind,” he said.

Those same concepts would be implemented when the soccer game – which became Football Manager in 2005 – added MLS to its arsenal of leagues. And when a head researcher quit months before the game was due to be released in 2005, Clark stepped in, assuming he would be filling the role on a temporary basis.

“I kind of fell into it,” Clark said. “I was really just planning to do a little here and there and help out.”

Twelve years later, Clark has dedicated so much time to studying the league and its inner workings, he’s pretty sure he could offer an actual MLS front office some guidance at times.

“I think I would be able to help,” he said with a laugh. “I love all that stuff. I’m an information junkie, otherwise I wouldn’t do this job in the first place.”

Information junkies have always adored FM.

Information junkies have always adored FM.

When New York City FC announced the signing of Andrea Pirlo in the summer of 2015, nearly the entire Major League Soccer community was excited.

Some felt Pirlo had the kind of star power a New York City-based team needed. Others drooled at the idea of seeing him spray long balls from midfield. Some were rooting against NYCFC and hoping to watch the past-his-prime Pirlo fail.

But when Clark heard about the signing, his first thought was, “How am I going to make this work?”

To an MLS fan, there was nothing particularly confusing about Pirlo’s transfer. The well-known maestro represented one of many aging superstars to come to the growing league, and NYCFC’s initial push to be a big MLS name made even more sense.

But in the mind of Football Manager, the deal made no sense.

“The game doesn’t want Pirlo to go to Major League Soccer – at any age,” Clark said with a laugh. “It’s basically inconsistent with how the game thinks the footballing world and player movement would work. … Trying to get realistic people like Thierry Henry to come over was hard. We had to have the script guys specifically try to identify the higher-profile players.”

NEXT: Fitting MLS into a very not-MLS world