MLS, Opta partnership to pay statistical dividends

MLS and Opta announced a multi-year partnership on Friday, one that is designed to bring high-level statistical analysis to the American and Canadian top flight. It is the first partnership of its kind in North America, and mirrors the deal Opta has in place with Germany’s Bundesliga.

Opta has been on the forefront of the statistical revolution sweeping the soccer world for the past half decade. Thanks to their advanced metrics, teams and fans are allowed greater insight into what’s happening on the field, where, and thanks to whom.

One of the big revelations of Opta has been the ability to measure defensive statistics such as “balls won,” “tackles” and “passes intercepted.” Thanks to these metrics, it’s become apparent that the best teams now employ defensive techniques that stress interceptions more highly than tackles, a trend that began in Spain and has spread throughout the continent and even to England, home of the “crunching tackle” fetish.

MLS saw a similar change in the past several years, with both of 2010’s MLS Cup finalists, Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, using defensive schemes that increase the likelihood of interceptions in the middle of the field.

[inline_node:324392]This “funnel-and-press” technique will now be somewhat quantifiable, thanks to the statistics Opta will provide.

The other great benefit will be in the ability to measure possession statistics such as pass-completion percentage in various zones of the field, total passes made and attempted, and the overall amount of sustained possession.

Possession percentage will be a great statistical marker to use for broad-based analysis, as it is essentially a measure of a team’s ability to complete passes. Whether that will translate directly into wins in MLS, however, is a question as yet unanswered.

In Spain, for example, Barcelona are maintaining a stunning 73 percent possession rate in running away with the league. Conversely, German leaders Borussia Dortmund happily conceded more than two-thirds of possession in their recent 3-1 thumping of Bayern Munich.

Where will MLS teams fall? It seems a good bet that most will follow the Dortmund model, Cup champs Colorado included. Their bitter rivals Real Salt Lake, however, are one of the more dedicated possession-oriented MLS clubs. These different tactical approaches will add another level of intrigue to the already fascinating Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry.

Opta stats will also provide the ability to measure individual players against one another to a greater degree. Everything from the defensive and passing statistics mentioned above, to distance covered, to the number of times a player is involved in a goal sequence, will be tracked. There is also the chance to rate a player's effectiveness in various formations as teams adjust their tactical approach throughout the season.

Sebastien Le Toux, for example, thrived in Philadelphia's 4-1-3-2, but was less of a threat in the 4-4-2. Opta can provide the tools to determine whether that's because his game simply doesn't fit that particular system, or if he was simply being pushed to a different part of the pitch.

Fans will have access to selected Opta stats and heat maps, as well as analysis provided by both Opta and the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff.


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