Atlanta United FC - Analytics blueprint
Rudy Calderon/MLSsoccer.com

How analytics are helping Atlanta United FC build an expansion roster

For four years, Darren Eales worked to take Tottenham Hotspur from the butt of fifth-place jokes to the top of the English Premier League. As executive director of the North London club, he helped oversee transfers totaling in the hundreds of millions of pounds as the club backed up its ambition with a sizeable budget.

And yet – despite international stars such as Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Hugo Lloris, among others, in the squad – Tottenham never finished higher than fourth in the league, never came closer than within 17 points of the title and only once qualified for the UEFA Champions League.

In September 2014, Eales traded White Hart Lane for the Peach State, becoming the first-ever president of Atlanta United FC, where he believes MLS’ structure will reward the sort of efficient management he hopes to bring the expansion hopefuls.

“In the Premier League … you’re trying to get the most effective bang for your buck,” Eales told MLSsoccer.com. “But there is always a ceiling because you can be as efficient as you like but if a team like Chelsea or Manchester City choose to spend four or five times your total salary, you are never going to be able to prove [somebody] wrong.

“Major League Soccer is different because you have that salary cap. It’s the same for everyone except for Designated Players. If you are more efficient, if you can find a way to build a roster more effectively, then you should be successful.”

In a league that prides itself on parity, neither Eales nor owner Arthur Blank are likely to be overly patient in the pursuit of success, and the former feels Atlanta can gain an immediate edge via the use of analytics before a team ever hits the field.

That success, at least early in the club’s life cycle, will be predicated on how well Atlanta United navigates the next 11 months. With the Waiver Draft, Re-Entry Draft, Expansion Draft, SuperDraft, international player market and inter-league trades at their disposal, Eales and general manager Carlos Bocanegra will have a wide variety of means with which to build competitive roster from scratch in less than a year.                              

That means thinking outside the box. It means analyzing the team-building efforts of previous expansion sides, Supporters' Shield winners and MLS Cup champions. It means identifying cost-efficient players outside of MLS as well as within. It means going beyond traditional, qualitative analysis.

To help guide that process, Atlanta hired Lucy Rushton from English Championship club Reading FC, where she was a senior performance analyst for eight years, to lead the club’s analytics department and work with Bocanegra to fine tune the scouting process.

Their first task? Determining how to construct a squad constrained by MLS’ roster rules and player acquisition mechanisms in the most efficient way possible.

“Technical scouting and using analytics can help you to narrow down the field, particularly in soccer, which is a world sport. There are areas where we can look at what previous expansion teams have done in previous drafts,” Eales explained. “What is then the trend in MLS? How are rosters are put together? Where do the dollars go? In the SuperDraft, we know we are going to get pick No. 1 or 2. How do we make the most effective [pick]?

Last spring, Eales was among those in the Atlanta Falcons’ war room – both franchises are owned by Blank and share analytical resources via the AMB Sports & Entertainment Group – during the NFL Draft. Of particular interest to the Cambridge-educated attorney was the use of game theory to help dictate when and why the Falcons chose to use their picks.

The two teams share more than just resources. Though the sports are vastly different, both front offices must identify players whose skill sets slot into specific roles on the field and compliment one another while navigating a salary cap system that prevents the financial stratification Eales saw up close during his time in the EPL.

“We will have, as we are building up, a style of play we want to play at Atlanta United and ideas about how our right back wants to play, how we want our No. 8 to play,” Eales explained. “Then we feed that into technical scouting to try and narrow down the targets that fit into our system. At that stage, we get the technical side with Carlos and then we start to [scout] and see who fits.”

So far, Atlanta’s roster puzzle has just two pieces. Earlier this year, the club signed their first two players in goalkeeper Alexander Tambakis and midfielder Junior Burgos, currently on loan to the Charleston Battery and Tampa Bay Rowdies, but it will be the next year or so that will tell the story of Year 1 on the field.

Of course, it doesn’t take in-depth analysis to point out that no expansion team has won MLS Cup since 1998, when the Chicago Fire took home the trophy in their inaugural season, and the last expansion team to make the playoffs was the Seattle Sounders in 2009.

Will Atlanta United be the next to expansion side to experience immediate success? With the help of targeted analysis, will they sign the right Designated Players and find enough diamonds in the rough to make the playoffs? Or will their quest for efficiency fall flat?

“We are just trying to use every edge we can to try and help us make the best selection we can to build the rosters,” Eales said before acknowledging the obvious human component that the club hopes will make all these efforts sing during their 2017 expansion season. “Hopefully we will [also] have a head coach that will make us competitive as possible from the start.”

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