Sports science, analytics, data, statistics, they’re all words that have shrouded the world’s sports landscape as leagues and teams continually invest extensive amounts of resources into finding an extra competitive edge. But few people truly have an appreciation for how these vast swaths of numbers and technology are integrated into every layer of the decision-making process related to professional athletes.
Atlanta United’s Director of Sports Science, Ryan Alexander - who quite literally wrote the book on soccer conditioning - and Vice President/Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, sat down with Dirty South Soccer to give insight into how the club has developed and used technology and data to add immense value to every club conversation from individual player fatigue to training sessions to player contracts.
“The GPS technology that we use is a way of us tracking the physical work that players complete. At what intensities, speeds they can cover, specifically max speed for players by positions, and we also track overall work: total distance, work completed in specific velocity zones. We’re very fortunate that we have been able to have this technology all the way from the first team down through the Academy,” praised Alexander.
The technology used for Atlanta’s Academy and the 2’s is developed by Player Data while the first team uses Stat Sports, but ultimately the information gathered is integrated in a similar manner. This allows the club to map out the growth and maturation process from a U-12 Academy kid all the way up to a Five Stripe playing in front of a packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Some easy-to-spot examples include George Bello, George Campbell, and Caleb Wiley, but other youngsters are now benefitting from the growing library of information the club has at its disposal.
When Caleb Wiley was first signed to his own contract, the growing library of data analysis was used to establish a baseline in which to compare him - and other future, potential signings around that age. Caleb, at two years younger, was performing in the 90th percentile of statistics as compared to George Bello, whose own data helped establish and fine-tune that baseline.
As a more recent example, Carlos Bocanegra confirmed that the data was a huge factor in the recent homegrown contract for Adyn Torres to make the jump from the Academy to the 2’s. He noted that based on information from the GPS technology, Adyn’s physical output over a large sample size - such as high-intensity running, repeated sprintability, top speed - gave them comfort and confidence to make a signing. Ryan and Carlos also noted that in some fields, Torres was already on par with some MLS players.
“At 15 years old from a physical demand standpoint,” said Ryan, “he has been hitting very similar marks [90th percentile] as our central midfielders.”
Bocanegra and Alexander explained that the sample size they can create on players like Wiley or Torres can fill in the gaps when making the jump from a lower division side to MLS. The physical demands of a week’s worth of 2’s training and matches aren’t going to be the same as the demands of the first team, but the GPS tracking equipment can show whether or not a player has demonstrated they have the ability to ramp up to the necessary physical output.
The info isn’t just for player development, though. It’s used on a daily basis to help prepare for training sessions and actual games.
“We get all of the league’s data, which is another aspect of this,” Ryan noted. “By syncing up our training data with our match data, we can actually see at what portions our players are performing at what percentage of match demands, but by having the entire league, we’re also able to compare our match performances and their consistency with other teams and other players - specific to teams that play a similar formation to us, a similar style to our style of play vs player’s positions that play in a different formation or style.”
Ryan and his crew have built what are called “session libraries,” which can probably best be described as separate plans based on a ton of varying factors pertaining to a match week. These session libraries are just one piece of the large puzzle that goes into prepping for an opponent, and has contingencies based on a heavy match week, a lighter load, ramping players up to fitness, and so much more.
“At the first team level, we’ll take Gonzalo’s cadence of training and we’ve built out session libraries. So those libraries are specific to topic or theme, moment of the game when we’re addressing specific things that relate back to the opposition we’re preparing for,” Ryan explained. “You’re going to see the collaboration of how all the departments feed in here: The [film/match] analysts are able to identify specific moments that are important for the next opposition, we [Sports Science] pull out our session library exercises that are related to that topic or theme, and then we fill in the dimensions, the number of players that Gonzalo has interest in working with for those specific topics. And then that’s where we’re able to predict or estimate the work that is done throughout the week. Then as players get closer to the match, we relate that back to the medical staff if they’re reporting soreness in different areas of their body, we’ll say ‘Yes, this is similar to what they reported last time we did this exercise, we know this goes away in a day or two’ vs ‘this is not a trend that we’ve seen before, then we raise a flag and bring in to the coaching staff to address it.”
And it’s quick. The technology uploads automatically and almost instantaneously after each training session, so within literally minutes the team can have the relevant information immediately available for the staff meeting to prepare for the next day’s training session.
Carlos Bocanegra also clarified that the session libraries are built very specifically based on positions, players, weather, time of the year, and many of the other aforementioned factors.
“The output of what [a player] is going to do in this specific exercise is through the GPS that they’re monitoring.” Therefore, if a particular player is recovering from an injury, or had a different load that week due to possibly playing for the 2’s or any other factor, the team can let Pineda know which training sessions or exercises that player may need to be held from.
The entire process may seem complicated - and it is - which is why Atlanta United and Arthur Blank have portioned the resources and brought in the talent who can lead this initiative - all the way back to before the first team ever kicked a ball. Ryan mentioned that Arthur Blank has given the club the freedom to explore options and be on the forefront of sports science and analytics efforts. Every day, every training session leads to more data they can use to prevent injuries, assist the teams in training and in matches, and make decisions on contracts.
“This information is so specific and so detailed all with how we like to play,” Bocanegra explained. “Say we want to be a high-pressing team, transitional. That goes back to the players we recruit in. And when we’re recruiting, I’ll speak to Ryan and say ‘Hey this guy, give me a summary of his numbers, what does he look like?’ Does that fit into how we like our outside backs from all the benchmarks we’ve built up that these guys have done a great job with over the years, so it all tails back in.”
At that point in the recruitment process, Ryan and his team would be able to compare the available information on particular players in comparison to what Atlanta United needs at that position to give Carlos and his staff a clearer picture of whether that player would be a good fit to attempt to sign. Obviously, information on another club’s player isn’t as simple to obtain as it would be for Atlanta to go and just check their own info from an Academy or 2’s player, but that data is slowly becoming easier to gather. Back in the early days of the club, the sports science team was establishing baselines from guys with accessible history, like Michael Parkhurst and and Jeff Larentowicz, and they’ve fine-tuned it ever since.
“From the beginning, the type of team we wanted to be, the run-and-gun type team, absolutely affects the type of players that we have to bring in to play our style of play. It’s a massive part of our recruitment, knowing physically what a player can do,” noted Carlos.
But one theme was constant from everyone interviewed at Atlanta United about this technology: none of it can replace football knowledge, experience, and tactics. Instead, it heavily supplements every aspect of the club.
“I don’t want anyone to get confused thinking that GPS runs the club or dictates everything,” said Carlos, “but it is such a major factor for our learnings, decision-making, planning, and preparation. It touches so many portions of the club, so it’s really cool to be able to have that.”
“We’re the creative problem solvers for the club. Data doesn’t run the club, data informs the club,” Ryan explained.
So how does Gonzalo Pineda feel about having this massive and valuable tool at his disposal?
“For us, it’s very valuable, for many reasons. Evaluating the performance, the performance within the league...how we’re doing, who’s not performing at the mark we have for each position, and preventing injuries,” Pineda said. “Of course, rule number one is football, it’s a complex game. You have to really understand the game to really understand which areas of the data you are going to use to make decisions. For example, if a center mid ran one game 8 kilometers, and normally our center mids are hitting 10 kilometers per game as the average, you have to look at the game and what type of game it was. Maybe it was a game where the opponent had one less player in the fifth minute, and then you are dominating possession and probably the center mid didn’t have to go to a lot of transition moments. He was just in the attacking half just passing.”
Pineda noted that the collective data helps the coaching staff make informed decisions for training and matches, and GPS is one of the many data points they receive and utilize.
Perhaps now, more fans can truly appreciate and understand the unicorn that is sports science and analytics. The technology is only moving forward and any club or team not delving into its depths will be left behind. But Ryan and his team clearly take pride in keeping the Five Stripes at the forefront of this burgeoning industry as MLS - and soccer in Atlanta - grows exponentially.