A Lack of Statistics, a Loss of History - an open letter in favor of more soccer stats

America is captivated by statistics. Look at our most popular sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL), and you’ll be able to find an absolute waterfall of statistics. A lot of these stats you’ll find seem pointless, confusing, or just downright silly. Nonetheless, we’re a stat obsessed nation. It’s not even just in sports though, stats and more purely, numbers are everywhere. For some reason in the morning the weatherman on TV feels it necessary to tell me how the temperature compares to an all time average for the day. If the weather of the day is especially extreme, I might even be informed that its weather today is colder than its ever been on this day in recorded history. Pointless? Sure, but people love to make historical comparisons

More statistical junky talk after the break.

I feel this has to do with the American mindset to unequivocally find the “best” in something. Think about it for just a moment. I bet your parents said they had it rougher than you did. I bet you think you had it harder than the generation below you. Then we try to quantify that feeling with statistics. Perhaps you’ll quote economic indicators, or talk about that massive blizzard when you were a kid that was worse than anyone’s ever seen. It permeates everything in American life. We always want answers in some reasonable fashion. It’s a need as great as pure hunger.

Given all of that, why on Earth are statistics so sparse in the land of MLS? Over the years MLS has done a lot to cater to American fans. We’ve seen penalty shoot outs, conferences, playoffs, and even countdown clocks in the past. Most of these rules had the idea of pandering to Americans that weren’t traditional soccer fans. The idea being that if the game removed what Americans disliked about soccer, that they’d come and watch. Obviously, for a myriad of reasons this was ill-advised. What puzzles me is that we’ve tried so many different things that directly affect the game itself, yet we haven’t tried something as simplistic as statistical tracking.

Personally, I remember going on many road trips with my father. Being from St. Louis, my house was a baseball dominated house, and these road trips were filled with baseball talk. My dad seemed to have an endless supply of baseball stories. What always stuck with me the most was the stream of stats that seemed to just ooze from him. My dad was never a stat junky, but the stats gave him a way to portray the situations in his story better. I never saw guys like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ty Cobb (my dad’s favorite players to talk about, the Cobb stories obviously being passed down to him) play, but from his stories and reading statistics I have a pretty good idea of how they played the game. 

With soccer in America, and MLS specifically, we lose that storytelling ability I feel. I really enjoyed watching CJ Brown play, but passing the story of his play to others is problematic. I can’t even easily tell you how many tackles he had last season, or what he averaged tackle wise. You can go even further than that with proper stat tracking though. Why is it so problematic to get stats such as a comparison of tackles to fouls committed? Simple stats as that can tell you so much about a player. Yet for some reason we don’t track it.

Now I know soccer has a lot of purists.  Perhaps you are even one of the many  who say you can’t quantify what makes a player good or bad. Soccer for whatever reason seems to be impervious to modernization. Where baseball was overtaken by Sabermetrics, soccer has managed to be immune. In a game that means so much to so many, why not try everything? Even if you say that numbers can’t tell you whether or not a player is good, you can use numbers in other ways. Take Wayne Rooney for instance; we say his form dipped this year, but what proof do you have? His goal count has dropped significantly, but you could contribute that to injury or players around him. If you established a statistical baseline for his performances with numbers such as giveaways, time in possession, pass accuracy, and so on, then you could pinpoint what in his form has dropped. Statistics could also pinpoint the next Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi as a player rises in form and provides a similar statistical profile like 'comparable players' in PECOTA rankings for baseball.

It's not perfect, I’m aware, I’m merely throwing out ideas. More importantly, I think MLS could do a lot more with this. While other leagues tend to ignore statistics, this is a way we could potentially gain more domestic interest while showing foreign leagues a thing or two. We could do so much more than we currently do. If it was up to me the statistics that need to be tracked in addition to the current set are:

 

  • Cross completion percentage
  • Short pass percentage
  • Long pass percentage
  • Tackles won
  • Giveaways
  • Time spent in possession

 

Just from there you could start getting stat junkies like me even more interested. You’d also give pundits on ESPN something to talk about other than regurgitating the “He’s in form” or “He’s not in form” rhetoric. Tell me why he’s not in form, you can quantify it, so do it. Perhaps the most frustrating part for me is that I have a hard time believing teams don’t have these statistics stored away somewhere. For example, the Chicago Fire did a trivia contest via Twitter during the season. Most of the questions were historic stat based questions. Other than being a long time fan, there was literally no way to answer the questions. Great for a trivia contest,  but atrocious for someone that just wants to learn more about the history of a club. MLS teams, I assure you that your stats are not top secret, and that other teams have them as well. Share them with your fans!

If I can easily find out how often the LA Lakers win when Kobe shoots more than twenty shots a game, I should be able to some day tell a child how many tackles per game CJ Brown averaged in 2005. MLS, we can do better, so let’s do it. Nobody is going to complain about statistics, so let’s track them. If nothing else, maybe with some statistics John Harkes can do something besides ruin the commentary.

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