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2018 World Cup Russia Takeaways

It’s the world’s most popular sport on the sport’s biggest stage … it’s the World Cup. With as much hype as the Super Bowl and yet the international relevance of the Olympics, the World Cup is unique to it’s kind. The event is positioned as a measuring stick of where the game of football (or soccer, as us Americans call it) currently sits – with players, coaches, and fans across the world taking note at which playing styles prevail, which continents are the most dominant, and who the world’s most elite players really are. So with that, here are 5 of my biggest takeaways from 2018 Russia.

  1. Europe is Still King.

With 15 of the 32 qualifying countries coming from Europe, this World Cup saw 6 of those European countries make up the final 8 teams in the tournament.

World-Cup-Semi-Final-France-v-Belgium
Samuel Umiti’s header sent Les Bleus and the French past Belgium and into the World Cup Final.

It made for an all-European semi-finals and upcoming final between France and Croatia on Sunday. 4 out of South America’s 5 teams went through to the Round of 16, however without Brazil, Argentina, Columbia or Uruguay making the semi-finals, CONMEBOL will view this World Cup as largely a disappointment for themselves. While Africa’s expectations are not quite as high as South America’s, they too, will be disappointed without seeing a single one of their 5 teams advancing to the Round of 16. Given the mere 3 teams Asia had representing the continent, Japan became a bit of a Cinderella team after having Belgium on the ropes, up 2-0 in the 2nd half of a Round of 16 match. While only one of the 3 North American teams (Mexico) advanced to the Round of 16 … North America also claimed the tournament’s worst performing country with a record of 0-3 and a -9 goal differential

Belgium Counter Attack Goal
Down 2-0 in the 2nd half to Japan and facing elimination, Belgium had one of the most improbable comebacks in World Cup history. The comeback culminated with Belgium’s Nacer Chadli’s last touch of the ball off a brilliant counter attacking goal in stoppage time.

with Panama, the same country who eliminated the US from qualifying.

 

  1. Tika-Taka Out, Counter-Attack In

For those unfamiliar with the “Tika-taka” style of play, this is known as a Spanish style of the game that is characterized by short, quick movement passing while working the ball through channels and keeping possession. While it’s a style of play largely associated with Spain and Barcelona FC, it’s the pervasive style of many South American teams like Brazil and Argentina as well. In France’s wins over Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Belgium’s win over Brazil in the Quarters, the world saw a new counter-attack style of soccer prevail predicated on sharpness in transition and catching opposing teams off balanced on the counter attack.

The concept here is centered on the idea of attacking as soon as the ball is taken possession of in an effort to catch up an opposing a team unbalanced defensively. Belgium and France did this better than any other two teams in the tournament in large part due to attacking midfielders who fit this mold with De Bruyne and Hazard for Belgium and Mbappe and Griezmann for the French.

  1. Set Pieces Decide Matches

The numbers are staggering with 70 of the 160 goals scored in this World Cup having come off set-piece finishes, an unprecedented 43.8%. The team that everyone was talking about on set-piece goals was England, who got their lone goal in the semi-final yesterday off a free-kick.  The tournament saw a lot of penalty kicks but also very well-executed corner and free kick designed plays. The aerial aspect to the game is still a critical part of deciding matches.

Trippier England Goal
England’s Kieran Trippier’s set piece goal in the 5th minute of yesterday’s semi-final was the quickest goal in a World Cup semi-final since 1954. The England were’s able to bring it home, but distinguished themselves on set pieces throughout the tournament.
  1. Video Assisted Review (VAR) – Verdict Still Out

Every professional sports league in the United States have official replays and reviews and yet this was the first year of it being introduced at the World Cup. Quite frankly it was overdue. Having said that, I think there are still differing opinions about the technology as it applies to soccer after this World Cup. The technology helped Sweden collect a pivotal PK against South Korea, which was justified and changed the face of Group F. Meanwhile the Brazilians felt like their defender was pushed on Switzerland’s tying header in group play. And France was awarded a very soft PK against Australia after reviewing a foul on Griezmann.

VAR Review
Russia 2018 marked the debut of Video Assistant Referees which certainly changed a few matches. There are still mixed opinions of the technology, but many believe it is here to stay.

There is still a huge element of the sport that relies on human judgment which the traditionalists of the sport will argue should be left in the hands of the person with the whistle in the middle of the field … while the VAR supporters will argue the more eyes on the play the better and that it is simply a matter of mastering the use of the new technology. I think the two biggest knocks on the implementation of the technology have been, one, how long does it delay the game and secondly, the appropriate timing of when the play is actually stopped to review the questionable play.

  1. Too Many Dives

FIFA terms it simulation, that is, the act of when a player takes a dive. In fact the governing body of international soccer instructs it’s officials to issue a yellow card if and when a player does this. Nonetheless, diving is still a huge part of today’s game, which was exemplified by Neymar throughout the tournament. Neymar was in fact the most fouled player in this year’s World Cup by a landslide. However, what several players and coaches were most upset about, was the excessive exaggeration of the injuries and perceived time-wasting that was associated with it.

Neymar
Brazil’s Neymar was the tournament’s most fouled player, however, he received an overwhelming heat of criticism among players, coaches and fans for the way in which he “sold” many of the fouls.

The rolling around in agony and flailing arms led to countless comedic videos go viral, and even allowed Kentucky Fried Chicken an opportunity to commercialize a combo meal “Making a Meal Out of It” through the course of World Cup television commercials. I personally believe the Video Assisted Review will play as a big a role in discouraging this behavior as it will to confirming or denying penalty kicks.

At the end of the day, there is diving or “flopping” in every sport, American football, hockey, and basketball. US soccer legend, Alexi Lalas, in fact calls simulation a skill, stating that there are good ways and bad way to sell fouls.

The World Cup Final on Sunday will feature heavily favorited France take on a somewhat surprising Croatian team. If Croatia prevails, Croatia will be the second smallest country in population (4 million) to ever win the sport’s most coveted trophy after Uruguay (3.4 million) did it in 1930 and 1950. Meanwhile the French feature the second youngest team in this World Cup, with an average age of 26. Needless to say it should be an entertaining final.

FitBit on Steriods – Wearable Technology in Elite Sport

Technology. It’s a word that seems to be a buzz word through virtually all sectors of business in today’s day in age. It’s a word that has plenty of connotations associated with it, some positive and others not quite as much: intimidating, sophisticated, futuristic, automated, efficient … the list goes on and on. Look at the biggest, most popular companies today, Salesforce, Amazon, Facebook, Apple … they all center around technology. Tech start-ups have become synonymous with the Millennial generation.

TechCompanies
Technology companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Salesforce represent the most popular sector of business within the millennial generation.

When I chose to dive into the world of sport technology just less than a year ago I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. When I interned at Nike in 2010, there was lots of chatter about their new Nike Running Club App as well as their Nike Spark System that measured athleticism. When I got my Sports Management Master’s Degree from Georgetown in 2012, there was excitement around fan engagement & fan experience apps while creating digital marketing platforms. During my time down at IMG Academy from 2012-2015, it was all about innovative equipment that facilitated rehab and training, like the AlterG (anti-gravity) treadmill and their hyperbaric chamber oxygen therapy.

Today, we have more technology available to us than ever before. In the World Cup right now, you see goal-line technologies, and in-game sports-analytics companies like OptaPro that are changing the face of scouting analysis. With the prevalence of technology in sport being greater than it’s ever been before, one sector of sports technology that is growing as fast as any other is wearable tracking technology.

Think FitBit on steroids … designed for professional and elite collegiate athletes. These GPS wearables are no bigger than a watch, are lightweight and positioned in a compression fitting sport vest garment between the athletes’ shoulder-blades, out of the way of any meaningful contact.

The technology gained it’s first meaningful traction down under in Australia where the Australian Institute of Sport poured lots of money and resources into the technology specifically within their Aussie Rules Football leagues.

AusieRuleRugby
Catapult was one of the first wearable companies in the space with Aussie Rules Football 

The first company of its kind was born in 2006 with Catapult Sports. Expanding beyond rugby, to soccer, to American Football, the technology spread quickly thereafter to other sports like hockey, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, and even baseball. Today there are over a dozen companies that produce this technology with companies like STAT Sports, Polar, Zephyr, VX Sport, First Beat, Titan and several others.

SportsGPSCompanies
Companies like Catapult, VX Sport, Stat Sports and Polar all represent various GPS tracking technology companies within sport … and yet all products do slightly different things. 

In all 5 of the US’s professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS), this technology has become prominently worn by the vast majority of teams. At the power 5 collegiate level, the majority of colleges and universities are doing something with this technology, at least within their football, basketball and soccer programs. Today, a trickle down effect has started to occur where mid-major D1, D2, D3 colleges, high schools and even youth sports academies are beginning to utilize these devices.

As this technology has grown, there has been a distinction of products; some of which track internal metrics (like heart rate, heart rate variability, VO2 max, calories and sleep quality), while others focus on external movement metrics (distance covered, top speed, playerload, collisions, and jumps), and some other products can do a combination of both. As this data has become available to coaching staffs, we’ve seen the birth of a new field of sport science.

With this technology, coaches, strength coaches, and athletic trainers are all becoming more intelligent about their athletes.

IMG_1221-620x413
A performance analyst for the Seattle Sounders (MLS), Ravi Ramineni, looks at live wearable tracking data during a Sounders practice. Wearable tracking technology has become the standard in Major League Soccer as well as most top international soccer leagues. 

They’re able to quantify the workloads of their athletes to a much more scientific degree and consequently are able to better understand whether or not they’re over or under working their athletes. When you’re able to understand the demands of a game, and develop benchmarks for certain positions and even individual athletes, coaches can design and optimize training more efficiently. With the periodization (or systematized structuring of practice workload), coaches and performance coaches can start to limit soft tissue injuries and increase the wellness and longevity of their athletes’. Athletic trainers can additionally structure return-to-play protocols as injured athletes return from inevitable injuries.

No longer is wearable tracking technology a well-kept, secretive trend; but rather, this has become the normative standard within elite sport. The inherent competitive advantages the data provides, has eliminated this as optional technology for those organizations with available budget. It is now all but required.

We’ve only just begun to see wearable technology’s pervasive proliferation.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of solely the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any company mentioned. 

Show Me The Money

When the infamous words “Show me the money!” in Tom Cruise’s blockbuster movie Jerry Maguire came out in 1996, Hollywood brought attention to the world of sports and entertainment agency. Since Cruise’s classic, Hollywood has highlighted the glitz and glam associated with that world – the big egos, flashy athletes and everything in between. America has seen Ari Gold in the HBO tv series, Entourage and most recently, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in HBO’s comedy-drama series, Ballers.

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 7.22.07 PM
Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire), Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold (Entourage) and Dwayne Johnson (Ballers), all portray the hustle behind the glitz and glam of sports agency. 

 

It sounds fun, doesn’t it? Scouting and identifying talent, working with professional athletes, and getting paid millions of dollars in commissions on big 7-figure contracts … who wouldn’t want to do it? Oh and you don’t necessarily have to have a JD, MBA or PHD from a top 10 school to be qualified to do it … if you have the rolodex of contacts, the savviness to build those relationships, and fortitude to build a reputation of trust, and maybe a little luck, you’re right there.

So let’s cross from Hollywood into what the sports agency landscape looks like in reality today.

To a large extent, Hollywood is not far from the truth. The spots agency business is booming. Media right deals, salary caps and the size of professional athletes’ contacts are bigger than ever. In Forbes’ 2017  ranking of the “World’s Most Valuable Sports Agencies,” the firms featured have negotiated a collective $43 billion in current professional athlete contracts, netting over $2.1 billion in commissions, nearly a 10% increase from 2016.

CAA
CAA, the number one sports agency in the world, lands 5 out of the 20 most successful individual sports agents. 

There is one agency that is head and shoulders above the rest. Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Their total in contracts managed is larger than the next three top agencies combined at $8.5 billion (equating to $318 million in commissions). CAA leads the way in football and hockey, and is only second behind to Excel Sports Management in basketball. CAA has 5 of the top 20 compensated sports agents:

  • #9, Pat Brisson – Hockey – $44.05m in commissions
  • #11 Tom Condon – Football – $42.17m in commissions
  • #16 Nez Balelo – Baseball – $28.92m in commissions
  • #17J.P. Barry – Hockey – $28.75m in commissions
  • #18 Todd France – Football – $27.95m in commissions

*Scott Boras (with Boras Corp) ranks #1, earning $108.33M in commissions via baseball.

ScottBoras
The world’s most lucrative sports agent, Scott Boras (right), sitting side by side his client Max Scherzer. Boras negotiated Scherzer’s 7 year $210 million contract. 

CAA’s biggest contracts include Matthew Stafford’s 5 year $135 million deal with the Detroit Lions, Robinson Cano’s $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, and Patrick Kane’s 8 year, $84 million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Right behind CAA is Jeff Schwartz’s Excel Sports Management who may be the quickest growing sports agency company, acquiring an increase of over $300 million in contracts last year. Managing a roster of over 60 NBA players, including Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Andre Drummond, Excel has dominated the basketball space.

 

Behind Excel, is LA based, Wasserman, with about $2.7 billion in contracts. Wasserman recently acquired European soccer agency Mondial Partners, which makes them  the No. 1 ranked agency in soccer combined with its domestic soccer division.

Rounding out the top 5 is Independent Sports & Entertainment at No. 4 and Octagon at No. 5.

The sports agency business has traditionally had several barriers to entry. In fact, the top 5 conglomerated sports agencies in the world represent over one third of all professional athletes. While the top 40 agencies representing 3,6000 clients, this equates to about 60% of pro athletes in the top 4 US sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA).

Today, a 24 and a 25 year-old out of New York City are dispelling that stigma. Two years ago, Andrew Hoenig and Daniel Hazan became the youngest agents with a player on a NBA roster with the New York City Knicks Jameel Artis. Today they have 20 clients and have negotiated 11 contracts. Neither of them were certified agents when they started, nor did they have many contacts, so they networked organically by adding athletes on Facebook while taking them to D-League open tryouts, paying for their travel and they learned the business instantaneously on their own. And while they still consistently loose guys they recruited (many of times starting at the beginning of an athletes’ 4 year high school career) to the big agencies like CAA, Excel and Wasserman who come in at the last minute and scoop up the highly talented.

Hazan and Hoenig are trying to develop their own niche specifically within the NBA. They are starting to get guys after they leave Wasserman, or CAA, who want more personal attention. For Artis, it was exactly that, “With me, it’s not about the age of the agent, not about how many people you are representing … They were all focused on me. They were all about Jame Artis getting in the right position.”

AHoenigDHazan.jpg
Andrew Hoenis (left) and Daniel Hazan (right) negotiated their first contract wiht the Knicks for client Jamel Artis (center). 

While the vast majority of agents’ income is made through commissions on their clients’ contracts, the other component to it is marketing and endorsement. Hazan owns his own marketing company called New Generation Management which promotes events and products for Jonathan Simmons, JR Smith and Charles Oakley. Agents typically earn 20-25% from marketing and endorsement contracts. Typically, however, these endorsement earnings just make up 1-2% of their overall player contract.

Needless to say, the sports agency landscape is an interesting one … filled with big egos and lots of money. Whether you’re a young entrepreneur, a seasoned sports marketer, or even an ex-professional athlete, there is opportunity.

 

Soccer’s First American Superstar

I get asked every once in a while, “who is the best soccer player you’ve ever played against?” Having played Division 1 soccer at Georgetown for five years, semi-professionally with DC United U23’s as well as stints on trial with DC United and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I’ve certainly played against several elite players. I’ve played against Herman Trophy winners Joseph Lapira and O’Brien White, International heroes like Andre Blake and Jaime Moreno, and MLS all-stars like Charlie Davies and Dwayne De Desario. The answer, however, is clear as day … that is, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.

SlingMorenoHeader
Myself and Jaime Moreno (MLS’ All-Time Leading Goal Scorer) challenging for a header

At the time I played Pulisic, he was merely 15 years old … and needless to say it was a humbling experience. He was playing with the U17 US Men’s National Team down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL against my amateur men’s team, the St Petersburg Kickers, a perennial men’s amateur powerhouse and national champion contender. Despite our Kickers team being made up of ex D1 college guys and ex pro’s in their “prime” (20’s and early 30’s), we lost to Pulisic and their group of 15 and 16’s year olds by a score of 4-1, with Pulisic leading the way with a few goals to his credit.

 

As difficult a score-line that is for me to admit; at the time, I’m not sure I would have readily said that the little 15-year-old center midfielder was the best player I had ever played against. He wasn’t running by anyone or muscling people off the ball (given his age and physical maturation), but his technique, vision and ball control were unquestionably the best on the pitch (despite being half the age of many).  And with a hat-trick and an assist in the stat sheet, he was clearly the man of the match.

United States v Colombia: Group A - Copa America Centenario
Christian Pulisic played on both the U15 and U17 US Youth National Teams while training down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. 

Fast forward to today, about four years later. Before having turned 19 years old (which he did on September 18th), Pulisic has had 9 goals in 60 club games (regular starter for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s 1st Division) and has 7 international goals in 18 games to his name for the US National Team. In comparison, before Lionel Messi turned 19, he had a similar 9 club goals in 34 club games but only 2 international goals in 9 international games. Nor was Christiano Ronaldo as dominant as Pulisic at that age, with only 6 club goals in 53 club games before the age of 19 and 0 international games to his credit.

 

Featured on CBS’s national “60 Minutes” last Sunday night, Pulisic has already become a celebrity and the face of American soccer. In fact, US Men’s National Coach, Bruce Arena, calls him soccer’s “first American superstar.” Despite the lofty words, it’s hard to argue. Earning $8 million a year with one of Germany’s top clubs, performing better than any other US National Team member at the moment, and having just turned 19 two weeks ago, I tend to agree with Coach Arena’s proclamation as the first American soccer superstar.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 12.16.38 AM

Why is he different? What has allowed Pulisic to stand out this much in a country that is continuously ridiculed across the world for their lack of homegrown soccer talent. Before we talk about the play, I think it’s actually more important to understand the environment he has been put in (as well as removed from) to allow him to grow and mature as a player.

 

  1. US National Team Early – Pulisic started playing with the US Youth National Teams at the age of 14 where he played with both the U15 and U17 teams. He was a captain of the U17 team and scored 20 goals in 34 games through his 2-year cycle with them. This exposure at international events like the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile where he had a goal and an assist put him on the radar for top international clubs and paved the way for him to Dortmund.
  2. No College Soccer – Despite both his parents playing collegiate soccer at George Mason, Pulisic did not go that route. While collegiate soccer is a great route for most (myself included), for the top 1-2% players in this country who will go on to play professionally and internationally, the game is oversaturated with under-talented players. For the most part, collegiate soccer promotes a direct, physical style of play that severely hinders the development of the more technical and skillful players and stunts their overall growth.
  3. Overseas – As much as the MLS has grown over the course of its 20+ year existence, the best soccer is still played overseas in Europe. Yes this is changing, but the reality is there is a reason why more people in this country choose to watch the EPL over the MLS … the quality.

 

As much of a team game that soccer is (more than any of the top 4 American sports – baseball, football, hockey and basketball), the importance of the playing environment a youth player acclimates too, is exponentially magnified.

PulisicLowCenterOfGravity
Pulisic’s combination of low center of gravity and speed allows him to dribble at a level that Americans ever never witnessed at his age. 

In looking at Pulisic’s actual game, there are really three attributes that he possesses that have allowed him to transcend the rest of the talent pool in the United States. And quite frankly, after Pulisic, should be weighted heavier when evaluating youth talent in this country. The first is God-given, and that is the combination of his low center of gravity (5’8’’) and speed. This allows him to dribble the ball more aggressively and effectively at defenders than any other player we’ve ever seen in this country at his age. Second … his technique. This may be his greatest asset. His touch, two-footedness, and range of pass, are the things that are immediately apparent when watching him play. His last attribute is largely environment-driven, and that is, his decision-making and vision. Pulisic plays as though he’s been playing at the international level for years (which he has, just not for very long with the US Men’s National Team). His 7 goals in 18 international games speak to his composure on and off the ball, ball speed, and decision making in the attacking third at the game’s highest level.

 

Hyping youth talent seems to have become a sports media cliché in the modern era. But numbers don’t lie … this kid has been better than the best in the game were at his age. And on Friday night, the United States plays in their most important game since their 2014 World Cup elimination game against Belgium, when they take on Panama in a World Cup Qualifier in Orlando, FL. The United States currently sit at fourth in World Cup Qualifying while Panama sits at third, with only the top 3 advancing to the 2018 World Cup. A win secures the US greater than a 90% chance of qualifying, while a loss would dramatically decrease their chances to 44%.

SPI Chance to Qualify

 

We’re at an incredibly pivotal time for the game of soccer in this country and the US National Team. We’re at an equally pivotal time in Christian Pulisic’s career, as he attempts to qualify for his first ever World Cup.

 

The country will be watching on Friday night.

Another EPL Season is Underway – How Does it Impact U.S. Soccer?

The 2015-16 English Premier League season started this past weekend with some very unexpected results but some very good television ratings. Saturday’s four matches on NBC, NBCSN & USA Network combined for 2.02 overnight rating which was the best ever in the United States for the EPL opening Saturday. This rating was up 43% from the prior record set last August. The 12:30pm ET match on NBC, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Swansea City, averaged a .93 overnight to rank as the best Saturday opener ever and topped last season’s NBC opener between Arsenal and Crystal Palace by 27%. Moreover the 7:45am ET match on NBCSN that featured Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the opening match of the EPL posted a .49 rating which was the best overnight rating in the early Saturday window.

Chelsea defender John Terry is shown a red card in the defending champions' opening game against Swansea.
Chelsea goalie Thibaut Courtois is shown a red card in the defending champions’ opening game against Swansea.

The results were surprising to say the least. Arsenal, who many considered a favorite to be atop the league after picking up Petr Cech in the off-season, dropped a 2-0 home match to West Ham. Defending champions Chelsea had a frustrating 2-2 draw with Swansea City. Liverpool were able to pull out a last minute 1-0 victory at Stoke City behind Philippe Coutinho’s “goal of the week” worthy winner. Manchester United squeaked by Tottenham in an evenly played contest 1-0. And yesterday, Manchester City impressed everyone in the way in which they beat West Brom 3-0.

Arsenal's big signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.
Arsenal’s big off-season signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance in net as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.

One of the things we know about US sports viewers is that they like stars and that they like big events, especially when it comes to sports outside the “big 4” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). People in the U.S. are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16 million viewers) on ESPN, the largest rating at the time for a soccer match on ESPN. Also of note, the match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision, as did the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team. These numbers suggest that soccer interest in growing in this country.

Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago's Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belguim in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.
Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago’s Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belgium in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.

Having said this, over half of the goals in the World Cup were scored by players who play in the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. With NBC paying the Premier League more than $80 million annually to air every match of the season, Americans can now watch the stars of the World Cups on a regular basis. The U.S. viewership of the EPL has steadily climbed since 2007. Comparatively to Major League Soccer, where ESPN, NBC and Univision pay a combined $30 million, viewership has stayed relatively stagnant since 2009. Within the MLS television deal, many of the games are only available locally or with the MLS Live Subscription. This has caused very strong local fan bases (some of which rival the support of MLB, NFL and NBA teams). Along those same lines, attendance has increased over the last 14 years, with total attendance topping 6 million each of the last two seasons.

Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC.
Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC against the Montreal Impact.

The good news is soccer is growing as a sport in popularity in this country. The EPL is a more watched league, as it should be for the average sports fan. After all, the EPL is still a better product. Something Major League Soccer realizes it has to do a better job of is diverting stars (in their prime) away from the EPL and into the MLS. This year the MLS was able to do a substantially better job of this in getting Kaka to Orlando City, David Villa and Frank Lampard to New York City FC, and Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, they’ve been able to retain U.S. stars like Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) away from Europe and back into the MLS.

 

Needless to say, the EPL looks to continue to maintain its dominance after a very entertaining opening weekend, as it clearly is the most popular soccer league in the world. While it may not be the best thing in the world for MLS, the continued rise in U.S. viewership numbers of the EPL speaks very well to the future of the game in this country.

Behind the Numbers: The Growing Trend of Analytics in the MLS

Sports statistics and box scores have existed for many, many years, but it wasn’t until recently that the perceived importance of “numbers” really exploded when it comes to sports. In 2003, Michael Lew published a book called Moneyball (which would turn into a film in 2011 starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill), which highlighted Billy Beane’s “sabermetric” approach with the Oakland Athletics. Beane’s rigorous statistical analysis demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success compared to the more popular statistics of stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average. This approach enabled the Oakland A’s to find undervalued players in the market while remaining competitive with teams like the New York Yankees whose salary cap was three times their size.

Oakland Athletics Vice President and General Manager Billy Beane and his sabermetric approach to analytics has caused a trickle down effect to how other sports view the importance of statistical analysis.
Oakland Athletics Vice President and General Manager Billy Beane and his sabermetric approach to analytics has caused a trickle down effect to how other sports view the importance of statistical analysis.

It is certainly a little surprising that this level of quantitative analysis has not existed to a greater level in the hyper competitive sports business industry. This level of quantitative analysis certainly exists in finance, real estate, medicine … the list goes on and on. Of all those industries, sports is one founded and based on getting that slight competitive edge to be better than your next competitor. Needless to say this heightened level of statistical analysis in baseball has seemingly caused a trickle down approach to other major sports, including soccer.

 

There is no better place to look at this emerging trend than Major League Soccer. Due to the salary-capped nature of the MLS, a disproportionate amount of competitive advantage can be derived from effective usage of the cap space. Unlike baseball, there are much less statistical categories in the game of soccer (goals, assists, shots, fouls, offsides, corner kicks) and so there is sometimes a perceived notion of less statistical analytical value. However, in a league like the MLS, where teams operate on extremely tight budgets in a vast, global, and competitive talent exchange; knowing what it is you are and what you are not, what you need and what you don’t, and how your limited dollars are best spent, effective analytics can offer concrete advantages. On top of all that, outside of the Designated Player exception, everyone is working under the same salary cap constraints, creating a very even playing field … increasing the incentive to recruit and evaluate current talent.

 

Because of this recent heightened importance of high-level analytics within the MLS, those few clubs that are using the analytics are really not willing to speak publicly about the specifics of what they’re doing. The industry’s reliance on proprietary data sets restricts worthwhile discussion to a select few, and that’s ultimately unhealthy and stunts overall growth. A lot of teams are re-inventing the wheel behind closed doors and there is no strategy in place for collective growth. This has ultimately resulted in a “cold-start” problem that has hindered club’s incentive to make an investment into analytics. There is no club incumbent to decipher the difference between good and bad analytics and moreover there is no tangible way to measure the return on investment; thus creating a bottleneck of sorts for the industry.

Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto's young forward thinking General Manager, has been a pivotal reason Toronto FC has been on the forefront of the analytics scene in the MLS.
Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto’s young forward thinking General Manager, has been a pivotal reason Toronto FC has been on the forefront of the analytics scene in the MLS.

One club that has made a splash in these waters is Toronto FC. Toronto FC has a very young, forward thinking GM, Tim Bezbatchenko who has gone on record as saying “There’s more information available to coaches and General Managers. You need to collect it, organize it, and then look at it and try to figure out patterns and new ways of looking at the game… You don’t know what you don’t know.” Toronto has hired a Director of Analytics, Devin Pleuler, who previously worked for the Opta statistical service and has a strong soccer background writing as a columnist for MLSsoccer.com. Toronto will break down game film looking at trends in pattern of play while scouting their upcoming opponents. By processing games algorithmically, season trends are uncovered and it allows for game film to be watched with a specific focus. In addition to scouting opponents, this level of analytics also helps Toronto better understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which leads to useful information regarding player acquisition.

 

The San Jose Earthquakes, which coincidently share an owner with the Oakland Athletics, said they use a variety of services to provide data. The club has contracted with Wyscout for international scouting services, Match Analysis for in-game analytics, and Catapult to monitor players for overuse at practices. Match Analysis has a league-wide deal with the MLS and is an “xy coordinate system” that has become popular with many college programs within the United States. Catapult is a heart-monitoring device that is easily worn by players in practice, and is something that many teams throughout the league implement. However, they have not gone in greater detail about their specific use of these programs.

 

Two services that some teams use that San Jose didn’t mention are Pro Zone and Opta. Pro Zone, like Match Analysis, also has a MLS league wide deal. It’s a system that is used by over 70 college teams and is based in Leeds, England. They will turn a match back within 36 hours that has over 4,000 data points (touches, tackles, headers, etc). From these data points, coaching staffs are able to break down passing completion and accuracy as well as shots and shots on goal. Even more specifically, they can see where on the field certain players have success and where on the field they might have a high turnover rate. Opta, is a manually tracked system that is done live, giving it more practical use in the course of a match whether it be on a live broadcast or if it’s produced for a coaching staff going into the halftime locker room.

Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes believes in using analytics, specifically around fitness levels, in order to evaluate his current players' performance
Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes believes in using analytics, specifically around fitness levels, in order to evaluate his current players’ performance

Peter Vermes, the Head Coach of Sporting KC, is a big believer in analytical data. However, Vermes admits that soccer is unlike baseball in that there are so many variables that go on within a game (from pitch size and condition, to formation, to a team’s style of play). Thus, Vermes argues, you have to use both the statistical analytical data along with the actual game film to pick up a greater understanding of player trends. Sporting will rank each of its eleven players comparatively to the rest of the 19 teams in the league through a set of statistical categories. In general Vermes points out, if Sporting has at least 6 of their players in the top 10 (half) of the league they are successful.

 

A former Los Angeles math teacher, Tim Crawford, runs the New England Revolution’s analytics and they take more of a “best practices” approach. What I mean by that is the Revolution will try to understand what is successful in the MLS, what works. From there, they will take those data points to evaluate their own style of play and then take it one step further to use those higher valued statistical data points to scout players. The Revolution take a more academic sabermetric approach where they come up with a thesis and try to find a proof for it.

Jay Heaps, Head Coach of the New England Revolution, lifts the Eastern Conference Trophy after beating the NY Red Bull in 2014 to advance to the MLS Finals. Heaps, who was a former wealth management analyst for Morgan Stanley, is very big on statistical data analysis and has hired Tim Crawford to head the Revolution's analytics efforts.
Jay Heaps, Head Coach of the New England Revolution, lifts the Eastern Conference Trophy after beating the NY Red Bull in 2014 to advance to the MLS Finals. Heaps, who was a former wealth management analyst for Morgan Stanley, is very big on statistical data analysis and has hired Tim Crawford to head the Revolution’s analytics efforts.

The last club in the MLS that is known to use a fairly large amount of data specifically around injury prediction and prevention are the Seattle Sounders. While the club has become the model organization around the league from a business perspective, it should come to no surprise that they are out in front on the analytics side as well. Dave Tenney, the Sounders sports science and performance manager, uses the Catapult gps tracking heart-rate monitors in training to see how hard each player is working during certain sessions of training.

Ravi Ramineni, a sports science data analyst with SoundersFC, works at a station on the practice field as he collects data during a team training session on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, in Tukwila, Wash.  MLS SOCCER - SOUNDERS FC TRAINING REGIMEN - STARFIRE SPORTS COMPLEX, TUKWILA - 148753 - 072215
Ravi Ramineni, a sports science data analyst with SoundersFC, works at a station on the practice field as he collects data during a team training session on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, in Tukwila, Wash.

Meanwhile, the Sounders use Ravi Ramineni, the team’s performance analyst and former Microsoft employee, to automate and streamline the data. Tracking software allows the technical staff to measure how often a player reaches top speed during a given practice, to design drills that best simulate game action. Players that are pushing themselves too close to the limit get dialed back, while teammates that are loafing are put through extra paces the following day. Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid sums his viewpoint on this data:

Analytics is just part of the identification package. I don’t think anybody is at the stage where you’re going to make that your sole identifying source or the sole determinant of your decision, but it certainly factors in. Does the objective data support what you’re seeing?’ I’ve never been a person that just looks at the data and goes, ‘OK, that makes them a good or a bad player… You’re looking at whether the objective data supports what you’re seeing subjectively.

Schmid’s words capture what seems to be a shared sentiment amongst the league. That is, “we see the value in collecting and reviewing data, but we are not completely confident in relying on the data standing alone.”

 

While teams like Manchester City in the English Premier League have upwards of a dozen analytics staff, MLS teams are lucky to have one. Those few MLS teams that are investing into the analytics field have remained very secretive about their processes. The verdict is still out as to who is really capitalizing on their investment into analytics. And so it seems that the growing trend towards capturing data and finding meaning to it all is very quickly coming to a tipping point in Major League Soccer.

Is Miami Soccer Going to Happen?

There has certainly been a lot of speculation around the question of whether David Beckham is really going to launch his own Major League Soccer team in South Beach.

Well the international superstar and his team got one step closer to that this past Friday when the City of Miami came to a verbal agreement for the soccer specific stadium to be built next to Marlins Park at the former Orange Bowl site. David Beckham’s group states “We firmly believe we can build a world-class stadium at that site.” The site has always been the favorite to land a pro soccer field after Beckham’s first two pushes to build a stadium on the waterfront fizzled.

Marlins Park
The proposed soccer specific stadium would be adjacent to Marlins Park in Little Havana, Miami.

According to Beckham’s group, MLS officials have been visiting the area and are supportive of building a soccer-specific stadium on the site. When talks first started about the land there had been discussion about a joint football-soccer stadium where the University of Miami football team would also play. However, those talks stalled, and now Beckham’s stadium would be soccer specific. While Beckham’s group plans to privately fund the stadium, the land is largely city owned which begs the question will taxpayers get rent in the deal? Another questions remains as to what will happen to residents in the area?

The Miami Orange Bowl  will be the location of the new soccer speciifc stadium. The Orange Bowl was the former home to the University of Miami football team who now play in Sun Life Stadium.
The Miami Orange Bowl will be the location of the new soccer specific stadium. The Orange Bowl was the former home to the University of Miami football team who now play in Sun Life Stadium.

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez expects the commission on Thursday, July 23rd to officially approve a negotiation between Beckham United and the city. And while there is still quite a few details to be worked out, it certainly seems as though the stadium is more likelier than not going to happen. In a letter last Friday, Beckham’s group released the following:

Three years, three years, 2017. That’s the idea if it all works out like we hope. I think three years is the objective because we’re creating a soccer team from scratch. We have to pick coaches, we have to involve the community, we have to pick a name, pick a jersey, we have to convince big-name players to come play for us.

The MLS has already awarded Miami the franchise, but had said they needed to start seeing some progress made on the stadium. 18 months had passed since Beckham first announced his public launch to his stadium quest. Cruise interests blocked his design attempts on Port Miami. The deadline for Beckham to exercise his option for an MLS franchise has been extended several times.

Pictured above is Don Garber (left), Commissioner of Major League Soccer, David Beckham, and Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (right) at a February 2014 media event.
Pictured above is Don Garber (left), Commissioner of Major League Soccer, David Beckham, and Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (right) at a February 2014 media event.

So who makes up David Beckham’s ownership team? The two other big names on Beckham’s ownership team are Marcelo Claure and Simon Fuller. Marcelo is Bolivian and is the current CEO for the Sprint Corporation. In 2008, Marcelo bought BAISA, the entity that operates Bolivar, a soccer team in Bolivia. He also serves on FIFA’s Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility. The other partner is Simon Fuller, who is an English entrepreneur, artist manager and television producer. Simon is best known for his creation of the Idol franchise that was originated in the UK and sold to more than 100 countries including American Idol in the US. Simon and Beckham have been business partners for a while.

While there is no team name officially announced, rumors are that the “Miami Vice” or the “Miami Current” are the leading contenders. With Miami serving as the Latin American capital of the US there would certainly be a very strong fan base around the franchise. Moreover, with the face of David Beckham behind the organization, Major League Soccer certainly wants to see this franchise happen for all sorts of marketing and advertising advantages. The last obstacle is getting that final signature from the City of Miami.

US vs. Netherlands Points to a Bright Future for the Stars & Stripes

Sure it was just a friendly. Sure, the US roster had plenty of new names on it. Sure, the Netherlands held 62% possession and outshot the US 27-19. And yet Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to beat the Netherlands 4-3 for the very first time in history.

Not only had the US never won in the Netherlands before, but the US had never scored more than a single goal when playing in the Netherlands. Klinsmann put together a group of 22 players for this pair of friendlies against the Netherlands and Wednesday against Germany, that has a mixture of some older veterans and a healthy dose of younger up and coming players. It is a roster that lacks the regular names like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zussi and was replaced by names like Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes, Danny Williams and Jordan Morris. The lack of National Team regulars further contributed to the improbability of the result this past Friday.

Jurgen Klinsmann has been under enormous pressure as the US Men's National Team Head Coach, and for the most part he has delivered.
Jurgen Klinsmann has been under enormous pressure as the US Men’s National Team Head Coach … for the most part he has delivered.

Since Klinsmann has taken over the reigns as the US Men’s National Team Head Coach in July of 2011, the team has gone 3-3-2 against teams in the world’s top-10, including wins at Italy, at Mexico and now the Netherlands. With the win, the team improves to 2-0-1 in their last three games, going into Wednesday’s matchup against Germany. Furthermore, this win against the Netherlands speaks to the progress in player development amongst some of the rising young stars in the US. With guys like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones getting well into their 30’s, the performances from such emerging stars like Bobby Wood (22 years old), Gyasi Zardes (23 years old) and Jordan Morris (20 years old) all speak highly towards the future of US Soccer.

Zardes (left), hugs Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann (right), scored his first international goal against the Netherlands, as did Bobby Wood and Danny Williams.
Gyasi Zardes (left) hugs Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann (right) after scoring his first international goal against the Netherlands. Bobby Wood and Danny Williams also capitalized on their first international goals in the game.

The win over the Netherlands comes in the midst of a successful U20 FIFA World Cup for the Yanks. The US U20 squad has found themselves in the Round of 16, where they’ll take on Columbia on Wednesday after going 2-1 in the group stage. Moreover, the US Women’s National Team will begin play in the Women’s World Cup tonight against Australia. The US Women are among the favorites to win the whole thing. And lastly, the US Men’s National Team will close out an eventful summer for US Soccer with the Gold Cup, as they open up against Honduras on July 7th.

Paul Arriola has helped lead the US U20's to the Round of 16 in the U20 FIFA World Cup.
Paul Arriola has helped lead the US U20’s to the Round of 16 in the U20 FIFA World Cup.

While this US win over the Netherlands should not be blown out of proportion, as it was merely a friendly; it certainly does speak to the potential of the future given the personnel they used to get the result they did. This result further demonstrates US Soccer’s improvement towards achieving their goal of becoming one of game’s leading nations. With the Women’s World Cup, the U20 World Cup and the Gold Cup upon us, US Soccer has an incredible opportunity towards significantly chipping away at that goal.

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