Opta stats could give NWSL's unsung heroes attention they deserve

ISI Photos-Jane Gershovich

Advanced data is yet another way in which women's soccer is catching up to the men's game.

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“I love defense. It is my favorite part of watching women’s football, especially if I am at a game.”

This is how I introduced the first part of a data-driven NWSL series entitled NWSL Defensive Play. I wrote it out of frustration. I was tired of listening to the same repetitive commentary with no quantifiable evidence to support each claim. The only ‘numbers’ I would hear about a player included minutes played, appearances, goals, assists, and saves. Occasionally, you hear murmurs of shots or shots on goal but nothing else.

More advanced statistics simply weren’t at anyone’s disposal, but they need to be. Soccer is a sport of nuance. That’s what makes last week’s announcement of a three-year deal between Opta and the NWSL so important

There were 277 goals scored in the NWSL last year. However, to get the opportunity to finish, there were a total of 56,160 completed passes (out of 79,462 attempts). There were 7,908 1-v-1 battles, 3,439 clearances, and I know what you are thinking: How in the world do I know this? Opta.

Opta already started collecting data in 2016, and this was reflected through the updated box score tables, which now includes previously unknown statistics like passes, duels, clearances, tackles, possession for each game.

This only brushes the surface of its capabilities. Opta has user interfaces that allow fans to peel back the different layers of a game, as seen in its coverage of leagues worldwide, including Major League Soccer. From shot locations to every single pass in the space-time paradigm of the game, you can now pinpoint when and where a single incident like a block or a pass occurred. This is game-changing for women’s soccer.

Let’s Shift the Conversation to non-USWNT Players

In an era of rapidly evolving data in men’s soccer, the lack of it in coverage of the women’s game has became increasingly noticeable. There are countless untold stories of less-recognized players whose work has been previously unquantifiable.

This was what motivated Alfredo Martinez, Jr. to create WoSo Stats in 2016, a crowd-sourced initiative which resonated with me so much that a few months later, I found myself abandoning tennis data analytics after almost two years to help propel NWSL analytics forward. He simply wanted to tell the stories of the less recognized players in the league.

Martinez reiterated this motivation, in response to the implication of Opta stats for fans.

“I think the biggest thing fans will appreciate, if these stats are regularly used properly, is how much more we'll learn about everyone who isn't already a big star or a U.S. women’s national team player. Everyone, for example, knows all about how good [Tobin] Heath and [Crystal] Dunn are, but if you look at ’take-on’ stats, it'll hopefully be harder to ignore the likes of a Raquel Rodriguez or Andressa.”

I explored passing and defensive stats and found Caprice Dydasco to have the defensive qualities like Becky Sauerbrunn and passing qualities like Ali Krieger or Kelley O’Hara. These things are only possible when we look beyond the basics. Opta’s arrival in the NWSL will allow for that, while WoSo Stats will continue to plot statistics from the league’s first three seasons, eventually providing a complete picture of progress.

With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility

The introduction of data to the NWSL should help uncover new, previously untold stories, but the use of data should not be reduced the mere insertion of a statistic into a statement. I will never forget quantitative sports journalist John Burn-Murdoch’s statement to me about the proper use of statistics. “Statistics in sports journalism are seamlessly intertwined with narrative to find or enhance key points. They’re used creatively to present familiar stories in new light. They’re used to uncover and crystallize disparate and complex stories.”

Martinez says context is important for how media and commentary teams tell stories with this new data.

“By ‘context,’ I mean more of a mindset that looks beyond simple aggregate numbers like ‘so-and-so’ has seven tackles, three interceptions and an 85 percent passing.”

I recently conducted a survey on 402 people, and it was clear that supporting data would influence the way they see the game. 

Martinez pointed out that, currently, the NWSL website and Opta stats are just raw numbers but should either be adjusted to reflect playing time (per 90) or reflect players’ position. I absolutely agree with this statement based on my own experience. From last year’s defensive data from WoSo Stats, I could illustrate how the type of defensive style changes from a defender to a forward for both NWSL and the United States. When I initially started this exploration of defensive data, I looked at all the players without the distinction of position on the field and it was pretty much utter nonsense. It turns out, defenders take distinct safe actions while forwards just try to pressure their opponents into making a mistake. Midfielders are a hybrid mix. While this is intuitive in nature, we now have a quantitative means to evaluate different players and/or teams defensive style and focus. Context is key.

Contacted by FourFourTwo USA about when to expect specific statistics and functionalities, an NWSL Media spokesperson said there is no set timeline for further Opta enhancements. Details are still being worked out.

Even a slightly different analysis of simple data can lend better insight than goals and assists can provide. For example, last year, eventual champion Western New York Flash (now North Carolina Courage) was the only team with five unique goal scorer-assist combinations with at least two goals or more. It showed a diversity to the team’s attack. In comparison, Portland Thorns FC had three unique combinations that fit this criterion, each producing three goals, but with one assist magician also known as Tobin Heath.

So, theoretically, if you cut off the supplier, there should be a drought. However, there is more to this game other than these final partnerships that formed throughout the season. After all soccer is a game with 11 players on the field, a bench of potential substitutes ready to make an impact, and a coach with a team strategy to help break down each opponent. With the arrival of Opta statistics and analytics, we can uncover the beautiful nuances of the women’s game from a whole new perspective.

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