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Doing a Number On Soccer
Chris Ballard
April 07, 2008
AMERICAN SPORTS fans adore stats, the more the better. We revel in points per game and games per home run and home runs per home stand. Stats provide context; they empower us. You tell me Kobe is better than LeBron? I tell you 30.4, 8.0 and 7.3.
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April 07, 2008

Doing A Number On Soccer

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AMERICAN SPORTS fans adore stats, the more the better. We revel in points per game and games per home run and home runs per home stand. Stats provide context; they empower us. You tell me Kobe is better than LeBron? I tell you 30.4, 8.0 and 7.3.

Which leads me to the problem with soccer, or at least with pro soccer in the U.S.: not enough numbers. For decades the sport's proponents have tried everything to sell it here, from importing legends (Heeeere's Pel�!) to taking the game indoors (human pinball!) to, of course, marketing glamour ( David Beckham to the rescue!).

But maybe they've got it all wrong. Maybe we don't need soccer players humanized so much as, like VORPed-out sluggers, we need them dehumanized. Brits may admire Becks for his cunning midfield runs, but Americans want to hear that he has the highest free-kick success rate in the universe, or whatever else we can plug into a fantasy game. Sure, soccer aficionados say that the game is too subtle, too artful, to be reduced to numbers, that it's like trying to put a Wynton Marsalis performance into a box score: Trumpet 1, Synthesizer 0.

Bollocks, I say. But don't take my word for it; take Billy Beane's. That's right, the Oakland A's general manager, the Maestro of Moneyball, is bringing his stat-crunching mojo to the beautiful game, which he got hooked on five years ago after seeing a match in England. He has brainstormed soccer metrics with a Leeds professor and jetted to the 2006 World Cup (during baseball season, no less). He even persuaded the A's ownership group to buy an MLS expansion franchise, the San Jose Earthquakes, for a reported $20 million last July. Since then, Beane has been the team's strategic overseer, working aggressively with Match Analysis, a firm in Emeryville, Calif., that logs, charts and dissects every touch in every MLS game.

"Billy took an aggressive approach, and since then we've had a flurry of interest from other teams," says Match Analysis president Mark Brunkhart. I'll bet. I'm envisioning a dozen soccer G.M.'s frantically printing out reams of data, paranoid that the Oracle of On-Base Percentage has found a new magic formula deep in the numbers.

Stats companies have been calculating all manner of soccer indicators for years, and, upon inspection, they turn out to be fascinating. (Though you'd never know it, as MLS doesn't release or track them for reasons "more technical than philosophical," says deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, which in essence means, We're too cheap to pay the stat trackers.) Among other things, players are rated by touches per 90 minutes, possessions won and passing percentage. In Europe, companies even track how far each player runs, with top midfielders logging more than 7.2 miles per game, or 7.19 more than David Ortiz on any given day.

While not as absolute as baseball's, the stats are still telling. Take Beckham's. For years we've been told he's transcendent, but how do we really know that? Couldn't he just be a well-coiffed p.r. stunt, $50 million worth of ridged abs and banana kicks? Not so, say the numbers. For starters, Beckham really does torch those free kicks; according to a 2007 British newspaper study, he has one of the hardest shots in Premier League history, clocked at 97.9 mph. Match Analysis indicates that he not only led MLS with an average of 87.9 touches per 90 minutes last season for the Los Angeles Galaxy (a great indicator of game control), but he also dominated in shot creation (SC)—how frequently a player is involved in an attack that leads to a shot—helping to set up 11.2 shots per 90 minutes, or a whopping three more than the next-best player. You may have no idea what any of this means, but trust me, it will sound impressive the next time you're in a pub.

Wait, there's more! Ever heard of Jesse Marsch? Neither had I, but the Chivas USA midfielder led MLS in possession percentage (PP) last year: He got the ball and passed it successfully 81% of the time. Conversely, Yura Movsisyan of the Kansas City Wizards had a 37% rate, which is fine if you're nine years old and wearing an orange-wedge smile for the Little Ladybugs but not so good if you're a pro.

Sure, SC and PP don't sound like sexy acronyms now, but give them a chance. After all, they're no more esoteric than OBP and, in the context of the game, perhaps just as meaningful. Numbers provide a shorthand for greatness. Think of Roger Maris and you think of 61. Think of Wilt and you think of 100. But think of Beckham and you think of—what?—fauxhawks and fashion shoots?

Change that, and in time MLS may change other numbers, like attendance, TV ratings and fantasy participation. Or, of course, the league could just try more stunts. Hire Maradona as commissioner! Make hand balls legal! Something's gotta work eventually, right?

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