Soccer

The Rise of Performance Analysis in the MLS

Over the last few seasons, Major League Soccer has seen a shift. The league has put an emphasis on utilizing video analysis, and we sat down with a pioneer in the space, Oliver Gage of the Houston Dynamo, to talk about how it’s changing the landscape.

Last spring, mlssoccer.com wrote a series of articles on the current landscape of analytics in Major League Soccer in an attempt to peel back the curtain on what’s happening behind the scenes. The series provided insight into how clubs are using video and data to not only uncover the next generation of talent, but also to shed some light into how clubs use video to win games.

There’s no denying that it’s making inroads into the league. Oliver Gage, Head of Performance Analysis for the Houston Dynamo, one of the league’s first in this field, provides specifics on the evolution in MLS, how it has taken root in the league, and the future of video in America’s flagship soccer league.

Gage is in his third season with the Dynamo. He previously spent time at the University of Virginia, where he served as the operations assistant for the Cavaliers. His work on analysis played a crucial role in their National Championship run in 2014, which ultimately landed him his role with the Dynamo. “It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been crazy,” said Gage, who went to the NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia in 2012 with a tracksuit and a stack of resumes, looking for any job he could find. “I put my resume up on the job board and literally the plan was to take any college job. I was really close to working for James Madison for free just to get my foot in the door. The way everything’s fallen has been crazy.”

It was those experiences that helped guide his journey into the MLS and how he built the analysis department with the organization from the ground up. “ I think that when I came into the league, there were maybe five clubs that had an analyst,” said Gage. “I was fortunate, in that when I was looking for a job in the league, there were a few different teams all looking for analysts. So there was a huge need there, and a real lack of quality analysts at the time.”

But it’s not just in Houston that analysis has taken hold. Analysis is becoming more and more prevalent across the league and most teams now have analysis departments in some form. “Now, there’s 22 clubs in the league and there are like 15 analysts,” Gage added. “So there’s been an explosion almost of hires, and moving towards that technical side of things within clubs.

Tools like Sportscode, and now Hudl, that have aided in the evolution. From talent development to scouting opponents, there is no limit to the analysis that clubs are doing. “Take a player who wants to see all of his touches,” said Gage. “In a rudimentary way, you’d have to sit down and watch the entire game, fast-forward it, stop it or whatever to get through it would take forever. The ability to use Sportscode and Hudl is that you can clip it [live], upload it, and it’ll show up for him. It’s right there. It’s literally two hours and it’s done for every single player. Every single aspect of analysis [is done].

“It’s all about being efficient, and giving you more time to do more things to get better. It’s a tool that makes something that could be quite complicated, quite simple.”

As far as the type of analysis that he sees becoming more and more prevalent, it’s all based on what he’s seeing day after day in the field. “You’re measuring moments in the game that aren’t objective,” said Gage. “So you measure good pressure or a good pass or whatever, that is your opinion rather than a fact. But while you’re measuring it, you’re also measuring how often it occurs and whether or not it’s a problem for your team. But you’re still kind of seeing the frequency with which it happens… as a coach, if you’re saying we didn’t put enough pressure on in the last game, that’s because you’ve measured it and you’ve seen how many times you should’ve done it and how many times you didn’t. That’s essentially an objective measure and at the end of the day it’s something subjective that you might be coding, but you’re still giving it a number or frequency for how often it happened.

“Although you might be measuring subjective things, it’s all basically drilled down to how frequently this is happening, which is data.”

It’s that transition that Gage sees as the future of analysis. It’s not just with video - it’s going to be about having the data to qualify those thoughts, and it’s only going to become more ingrained into clubs across the league, maybe even around the world. “I think it’s going to be within 5 years that every club has someone who is a data analyst,” said Gage.

The excitement around performance analysis within leagues like the MLS is a sign that staffs are not only paying attention, but investing heavily in.

Why? Because it truly is a valuable tool. The influx of new-age thinking has truly benefited the league as a whole. “As the stakes get ramped up and the league starts gaining momentum, gaining the extra 2-3% that having an analyst might gain you is worth it, and it’s an important need for a club [now],” said Gage.

That’s the power of data.

Be sure to follow the Houston Dynamo on Twitter and Facebook during the 2017 MLS season.