Is Smart Soccer in the MLS the Dawn of Football's Moneyball Era?

Will TideySenior Manager, GlobalJuly 20, 2012

photo courtesy of adidas
photo courtesy of adidas

There will be no place to hide in the MLS next season. Smart Soccer technology will provide coaches with real-time data tracking the performance of every player on the field—offering new insight and ushering in a new era of football analysis.

The implications are far-reaching. Coaches will be able to monitor players' activity so closely they could in theory calculate substitutions in the same way Formula One racing teams plan tire changes. Trades may end up being subject to statistics in the same way house sales are subject to inspections.

Some players will prove themselves worth every cent. Others may show themselves to be contributing far less than their talent demands. Smart Soccer could make or break careers, and it will almost certainly influence the way we think about footballers and the contribution they make.

Read the official press release from adidas:

By measuring every move, heartbeat and step and relaying that to a coach on the touch line in less than a second, the technology enables a better understanding of the physical and physiological impact on the team, or any individual, during a game or training session.

From analyzing trends to preventing overtraining and risk of injury, the micoach Elite System will help maintain optimum levels of player performance week in, week out throughout the season.

Could it be we're about to enter football's Moneyball era?

Some would argue it's already dawned. Arsene Wenger is a famous advocate of tracking statistics and basing his moves in the transfer market on factors such as players' recovery rates and the distances they cover during games.

Former Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli is another who takes a scientific approach to the business of player recruitment. Comolli counts Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane among his friends, so has a direct line to the theories that led first to a book and then a film starring Brad Pitt as the man himself.

Whatever Comolli tried, it didn't work at Liverpool—see Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam as examples. Perhaps he didn't have enough information? Perhaps he didn't know how to read it properly? Maybe it takes time for theories to catch up with the increasing wealth of statistics at our fingertips?

Regardless of Comolli's failures, interpreting the data revolution is now a focus at every major club on the planet and plays a far bigger role than most of us realize. With demand growing by the season, it's big business for the companies who crunch the numbers too.

Opta Sports are the market leaders in Europe and provide bespoke statistical information to the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and the Italian national team. Their data is used to analyze performance and also to help teams research upcoming opponents and make educated decisions in the transfer market.

Said Chelsea's performance director Mike Forde (as per Opta's official site): "We've sought to gain an advantage over the competition, especially in terms of how we recruit players and how we used information and data to do that."

What Opta do well is supremely detailed analysis, the best of it being done after the fact. Having visited their offices in London, I've seen firsthand the techniques used to track game data and player performance, and it's hugely impressive. But up until now, no stats provider has agreed to a deal for players to help them do their work.

That's about to change with adidas Smart Soccer. The 2013 MLS season will see players carry small data cells stitched into their shirts, with real-time information being relayed wirelessly to coaches' iPads in the dugout.

The numbers they read will quite literally be a game-changer.

Moreover, you get the feeling Smart Soccer technology is just the beginning. Football data is being calculated and consumed like never before, and we're already living in an age where the possession and completed passes numbers for Barcelona and Spain form the focus for every post-match discussion.

It's no longer enough to spout subjective opinions on the game without foundation. Fans and coaches can now come to any conversation armed with stats to back up their argument and base their opinions on players on them too.

Whether we like it or not, football really is becoming a science.


Will Tidey is a World Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained first-hand.