For Sounders, every decision starts with data
It’s easy to say now that Nicolas Lodeiro is the real deal.
The Uruguayan playmaker has lit up MLS in every measurable way since joining the Seattle Sounders last summer, arriving from Boca Juniors to push the team from ninth place in the Western Conference to MLS Cup champions in less than half a season.
The Sounders are 13-5-8 overall since his arrival. His four goals and eight assists in 13 regular-season matches earned the Designated Player the league’s 2016 Newcomer of the Year trophy, and when postseason action is included, he’s already notched 10 goals and 10 assists in just 25 total MLS games. Lodeiro, both on individual merit and for his adhesive role in maximizing Seattle’s other attacking assets, is a big reason why many observers see the Sounders as solid contenders to defend their title.
Given his pedigree, price tag and key role at his previous club, it’s tempting to conclude he was a can’t-miss recruit. But plenty of comparable showcase signings have fizzled in MLS over the years. It can be a particularly costly scenario when the player involved is a Designated Player, with only three such high-priced spots given to each team.
No, the Sounders prepared painstakingly for the better part of a year before pulling the trigger on Lodeiro. And their leading-edge analytics department was right at the forefront, reeling in every possible tidbit of data to inform the decisions of president Garth Lagerwey and the rest of the Rave Green brain trust.
“What we have here is a process that takes all available information into making any kind of decision, especially something as big as the signing of a DP,” Sounders sports scientist data analyst Ravi Ramineni said in a recent conversation with FourFourTwo. “We looked at what we needed from a player perspective, and then we had a list of targets, and then we started narrowing down the list using the data we had on the players.”
With Lodeiro and some of the other players we were looking at, the final list we had, we had a decent amount of good data. But if you’re looking for a younger player or a player that’s coming from a smaller league, it’s harder.
The men behind the methods
Seattle’s performance analysis department is the envy of most of MLS, and Ramineni is its chief number-cruncher. The role he and “high performance director” Dave Tenney play in the club’s cutting-edge fitness and recovery practices has been well documented. Few teams manage the league’s high-mileage, high-intensity grind better than Seattle. But the data-centric mindset has come to encompass nearly every move the technical staff makes, from player recruitment to tactics to the training ground and beyond.
A globally-respected practitioner with deep wells of both coaching and clinical knowledge, Tenney arrived in Seattle at the dawn of the Sounders’ MLS era in 2009, initially under the simple title of fitness coach. Since then, he has helped ensure that data analysis, both in terms of infrastructure and culture, lives at the heart of the Sounders’ way. In fact, the club hosts its own sports science convention every June, drawing coaches and industry leaders from around the world.
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing, however, is the simple fact that anyone wearing Rave Green will talk to you about it at all. In contrast to many other clubs’ tight-lipped reticence about their use of analytics, Tenney is eager to push the conversation forward, having become something of an ambassador for his craft, to coaches and executives as well as the general public.
He presented some of his methods and findings to a rapt audience at the NSCAA Convention in Los Angeles in January. It all starts, he said, by simply identifying the right questions, and then setting about answering them.
Analyzed a changing game
Many fans tend to look at soccer as a timeless sport, one whose fundamentals are more resistant to transformation than others. But the numbers suggest something quite different.
Tenney explained that data tracking in top European leagues has recorded a 30 percent rise in high-speed running, a 50 percent increase in football actions (meaning kicking, heading etc.), an 80 percent gain in the number of sprints and a 35 percent increase in the distance of those sprints from 2007 to 2013 alone.
“[Lionel] Messi rarely covers above 9,000 meters a game [in total distance run]. About 40 percent of the game he looks kind of thoroughly disinterested,” said Tenney, “but then obviously when it’s time to go, there’s no one on the field that can keep up with him. Is he fit? How are we seeing, from our perspectives, these type of athletes? I think we have to ask ourselves this question.”
That mentality heavily informed the selection of Lodeiro, who is not only a gifted attacking talent and orchestrator of possession, but a relentless mover who routinely tops Seattle’s charts in terms of work rate and distance covered. As they shopped for their next Designated Player last year, Ramineni and his colleagues sifted through reams of data from the Uruguayan’s past, and a deeper picture materialized.
“Do we want somebody that can create a lot of chances, or do we want somebody that can create a lot of goals,” Ramineni remembered, generalizing about the process of identifying Lodeiro. “So basically whatever is the goal, whatever type of player we want, and then we can try to look at that player’s data over a period of time, and then short-list it from say, 15, 20 players to 10, to five. Then also our scouts, like Chris Henderson, our VP of soccer, [director of player personnel] Kurt Schmid, they went and watched a lot of players – including Garth.
“We want to be in a position where … of the five, anybody could help us,” he continued. “That’s the goal with high-priced DPs, because in MLS you can only have three of those. You are incentivized to get it right, [more so] than getting it cheaper. So that’s the key.”