A few weeks ago, I argued with a friend over coffee that Instagram photos of soccer analysts holding trophies over their heads will do far more to popularize footy analytics than any Sky Sports analyst making passing mention of Expected Goals.
Well today we can do one better: a video.
— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) December 10, 2017
I have no idea if some Canadian (or American) sportswriter is planning to write a book about Toronto’s record-breaking 2017 MLS season. If they do, they will need to speak to Devin, Bret Myers, (and a few others) whose tireless work behind-the-scenes for this club over the past few years influenced not only Greg Vanney, but the playing staff as well, some of whom showed personal interest in some of the front office work up at the Kia Training Ground in Downsview.
Yes, there will be some who will argue that Toronto’s sizeable wage packet undermines this analytics feel-good story, but then anyone who has supported Toronto FC over the past decade will know spending money cannot guarantee the kind of dominance Toronto showed this season, *cough* Jermain Defoe *cough*.
I’ve made the argument before, but it’s worth repeating now: though there are apparent competitive limitations to a league without relegation, one of the significant positives is that it provides an incentive for teams to experiment, to try to put into place a winning process and refine it over time comfortable in the knowledge the bottom won’t suddenly fall out from under them.
It was a personal thrill for me to see, albeit as an amateur viewing from very far away on the sidelines, that process slowly come into place at a club that was once as awful and useless as Toronto FC. I don’t think it would have been possible without the buy-in from TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who is as open to the advantages and drawbacks of analytics as any GM I’ve ever spoken to, nor without the open-mindedness of manager Greg Vanney, who spoke not too long ago about his approach this way:
Talked to both coaches about their use of data. Vanney:
"From an old-school perspective, subjectively we watch the game and we feel like we're seeing some things, but maybe the numbers tell you something a little different." Calls it "the marriage of the database & the eye test"
— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) December 7, 2017
And then even today, we had a drunken Jozy Altidore make mention of the ‘laboratory’ where Toronto FC cook things up for their fans every week, a sign of the integrated approach to match preparation within this team.
As for the story’s details—the metrics, the stats sheet reports, the extra 2%—that’s for another writer to find out and divulge, even if only in part. But the details here maybe matter less than the bigger story, of a team that hired top analytics talent and connected them with decision-makers at the very top of the club hierarchy, and patiently waited as they put into place a working process that gave the team a small but vital edge.
And now Toronto face the even more significant challenge of working that edge in the much-maligned CONCACAF Champions League, to perhaps finally demonstrate the MLS’ best club is not MX Liga mid-table fodder. But that can wait until next year. For now, though, a hearty congratulations to all involved.