Data in sports is hardly a new concept. For years, statistics on players and team performances have been tracked. Take baseball for example. Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game chronicles Billy Beane’s usage of sabermetrics to put together a competitive Oakland Athletics roster on a small budget to keep up with wealthier MLB clubs. Innovations and new ways of thinking are making their way their way into front offices around the world. In recent years, data in soccer has started to become more influential to how clubs operate. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool team has been one of the best examples of this. But it’s not just the large Premier League teams taking advantage of the data. The NWSL’s newest addition, Racing Louisville FC, is also incorporating it into their operation.
This past summer, Racing Louisville hired a Director of Analytics named Austin Buchanan. Austin, a graduate of Louisville’s DuPont Manual High School, joined the staff to help Executive Vice President of Development James O’Connor and Head Coach Christy Holly harness the power of the data. After graduating from law school, he began his professional career as a player agent specializing in using statistics to help the players he represented get signed to a club. Austin represented players in Scotland’s second division and the USL. It was Austin’s work as an agent and a player pitch that first connected him with JOC. This meeting and his love for data are what ultimately lead to him joining Racing Louisville.
While the season has yet to start, there has been plenty of work for Austin to do. Along with setting up the systems and databases that will organize the data, he has been heavily involved in the initial building of the roster. “There is a lot of pressure in building a roster” Austin stated. He was present for both the expansion and college drafts and helped compile player profiles that were created for all potential picks. Although the coaches’ observations (the “eye test”) on players are included in the decision-making, they take all info in totality, including the data. “There has been collaboration at all levels of the organization. It has been the most collaborative environment I have been a part of. John Neace, Brad Estes, James O’Connor, Christy Holly, and Brynn Sebring are all bought in.”
The details on collecting data could not be shared for competitive reasons, however, there is a mix of info made available through the NWSL’s contract with Stats Perform and data collected by Austin and the club. Beyond the basics most fans know such as shots and goals, the team will examine data such as shot quality, pressing, and defensive performance. The open system of continuous play can make the collection and use of data challenging. “It’s hard to quantify” he states. To showcase this, Austin began with a question: “How do you define a possession?” While initially simple, the question becomes difficult when thought about deeply. It’s easy to state a player has possession of the ball, but if under pressure, at what point is she deemed to have lost possession? Unlike baseball’s closed system of play, there is not definitive points/stoppage in play that can help tailor these definitions. The ambiguity has made soccer data collection less intuitive, but the growing availability of advanced statistical software and video technology has allowed for analytical minds such as Austin’s to help find and derive meaning and value in all phases of play in the game.
For the time being, the focus has remained on the immediate needs of the organization, however, the logistics of what game day will look like for the Director of Analytics are in the works. Austin’s involvement with players and practice has still yet to be seen, but given Coach Holly’s emphasis on a collaborative environment, it wouldn’t come as a shock to see the data influence training and individual player development. Racing Louisville will look to maximize all the data that they can in their inaugural season.
Although some newer soccer metrics can be intimidating to the average fan (such as xG), Austin says, “Don’t fear the data. It won’t wreck how you watch the sport and it won’t diminish your enjoyment.” Along with Coach Holly’s and JOC’s knowledge of the beautiful game, it will be behind-the-scenes influences of individuals such as Austin’s analytics that will help in the development of a competitive soccer operation ready to tackle the challenges of the NWSL. As you watch league play begin this spring, rest assured that no stone has been left unturned in the quest for success. With each player signing and each tactical choice made, do not forget the influence of the data.