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Soccer Statistics and SJ Earthquakes’ Partnership with Second Spectrum

How technology will revolutionize the beautiful game

Hi guys! My name’s Eric and I’m a college student majoring in statistics. I’m also a huge soccer and Earthquakes fan, and I’m going to be contributing a few articles each month for you guys focusing not just on the Quakes but also the statistical side of the team and soccer in general. I’ll be scouting individual players (mostly Quakes but maybe even other interesting players around the league), doing team-wide analysis, tactics with an emphasis on stats, and delving into different soccer analysis topics! Please comment and feel free to reach out, and I hope you guys enjoy! Go Quakes!

If I had a buck for every time a soccer commentator talked about a player’s “pace and athleticism,” I could quit school and retire right now. For as long as sports have been around, athleticism has been championed above all else, including smarts and technical ability. And why shouldn’t it? Sports is a way of seeing the most talented, most in-shape people in the world compete against each other.

However, with the recent rise of data analytics in sports, we can start to quantify player impacts beyond just “grit and grind”: from a tactical and numbers sense, players have to be better mentally, not just physically. Data analytics has allowed for hidden patterns, trends, and strategies to be unearthed. One thing that has been crucial to sports data analytics has been the development of new player-tracking technology, which has allowed for the optimization of data collection to provide the most meaningful sports metrics. The San Jose Earthquakes themselves are actually starting to reap the benefits of this tech (more on this later).

Truth be told, there is a lot of skepticism about data. For example, British journalist Neil Ashton wrote in 2015:

“The increasing influence of analysts, young men who have no experience of scouting or recruiting players, has meant the end of the road for good [soccer] men. Instead a new breed sits in air-conditioned offices, cutting up videos from [games] all over the world and burying their heads in the stats.”

Mr. Ashton, I know you’re trying to insult data analysts here, but honestly, everything you just said that we do sounds pretty good to me (Air-conditioned offices! Watching soccer games all day!).

What Mr. Ashton thinks I do all day

The biggest area of improvement in technology for sports data analysis has undoubtedly been player-tracking technology. This has many uses and encompasses many of the current areas of research that both sports scientists and analysts look at: through monitoring athletes’ vital health signs and movements throughout a game, player-tracking technology provides data for analysts and sports doctors to examine and determine things like how a player can change their body movements to minimize injury or maximize game output. And the Earthquakes have made good use of this tech.

Back in 2017, then newly-appointed GM Jesse Fioranelli announced a partnership between the Quakes and Second Spectrum, a video tracking technology company, that would make use of artificial intelligence (AI) to “revolutionize the future of soccer for the Quakes’ front office, coaches, players, and fans” (from the Quakes website). Second Spectrum uses AI to model different game scenarios (based on actual tracking data from Avaya home games) and allows the San Jose coaches to see in even clearer detail different ways to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, whether it’s the space that Cristian Espinoza can make with a run or the different options Jackson Yueill has to play a line-breaking ball.

Soccer statistics still have a long way to go. By its nature, soccer is harder to analyze than other sports like, say, baseball. Think about it: baseball is made up of very discrete game events (hits, runs, outs, etc.), while more continuous sports like soccer is made up of 22 players on a field controlling only one ball that is almost constantly in motion. Although numbers don’t proverbially lie, soccer statistics as it is now is still relatively basic and can’t completely capture the full, true value of players or player actions.

Even so, progress in sports statistics has meant that the nuances and details that previously went uncaptured in traditional measures are now being encapsulated by new sets of stats. Professional sports is such a competitive field that any advantage is being actively sought. Within certain sports like baseball and basketball, advanced statistics have been embraced as an essential component of analytical evaluation. Hopefully, the Earthquakes can keep on using analytics and continue their climb up the Western Conference ranks.

Further Reading:

Ashton, Neil. “Liverpool’s Head of Technical Performance Michael Edwards Is the Laptop Guru Who Did a Number on Brendan Rodgers.” Daily Mail [London], 6 Oct. 2015, www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3262490/Liverpool-s-head-technical-performance-Michael-Edwards-laptop-guru-did-number-Brendan-Rodgers.html. Accessed 6 June 2017.

Hong, Harry. “Specter of Reductionism: The Growing Problem of Non-Contextualized Football Statistics.” Outside of the Boot, 19 Jan. 2017, outsideoftheboot.com/2017/01/19/specter-of-reductionism-non-contextualised-football-statistics/. Accessed 6 June 2017.

“STATS SportVU Football Player Tracking.” Stats, www.stats.com/sportvu-football/. Accessed 6 June 2017.