SOCCER IS FACING THIS PROBLEM that baseball didn’t have: baseball statistics are wildly available,” says Devin Pleuler, BCOS ’11, a former Leopard goalkeeper and data scientist who spends his off-hours exploring soccer stats as a columnist for Major League Soccer. “[Famed baseball statistician] Bill James didn’t need much more than box scores.”
Baseball has traditionally tallied all sorts of numbers to measure performance: hits by type, runs batted in, stolen bases, walks, strikeouts. But soccer box scores don’t offer much more than a record of goals and fouls. To gain real insight into a team’s tactics, Pleuler and his fellow soccer wonks need “more granular statistics than that box score can offer”—players’ pass completion rates, how often they convert scoring opportunities, the number of tackles they win. And while there are companies that have begun to compile more complex soccer data, they are generally for-profit enterprises, limiting the data’s availability. “It’s impossible to do this kind of analysis if the data is only in the hands of a couple hundred people.”
Pleuler got his first taste of the power of soccer stats two years ago while developing his senior capstone project: a “network passing graph”—a visual representation of a soccer team’s tactical movements, capturing how many passes occurred between a set of players, how much territory players covered on the field, and where they spent most of their time. “Previously, people looked at how often the players passed the ball to each other, but nobody included things like average position and variation in players’ field position,” says Pleuler. With his layout, coaches and managers can get an objective view of how their team moves the ball and potentially make more informed tactical decisions about lineups and formations. “That was something that I thought was valuable.”
Major League Soccer agreed. In March, a few months after starting a blog that detailed his continued work on passing graphs and other soccer analytics—and pushing the content via Twitter and Reddit—the league asked Pleuler if he would like to write for them as an online analyst. His blog, Central Winger, has been hosted on the site ever since.
The road to relevancy, though, is rocky. While data availability is slowly improving—some international clubs are starting to release select data to the public—Pleuler’s aware that he and his fellow soccer stat acolytes may never be able to break down the beautiful game the way we now quantify baseball. But even a little bit of clarity, he says, can make a massive difference. “It’s like when these European teams are exchanging players for tens of millions of dollars,” Pleuler says. “If I can evaluate a player and put a number on his head that is ten percent more accurate than anyone else’s, there’s a lot of value there.”