Larson: Mastroeni is right – analytics are too often used as a crutch

Hats off to Pablo Mastroeni for refusing to completely kowtow to soccer’s sometimes overzealous analytics crowd (watch the video above).

Colorado’s head coach has no time for basic possession numbers and shot percentages and other mind-numbing data.

The Rapids’ bench boss didn’t just take a veiled shot at statisticians last weekend. He went full Bruce Arena, barking back at anyone daring to delegitimize the way his side "grinds." You could tell he’d been holding it in for some time.

The fourth-year coach pushed back after the Rapids withstood an absolute onslaught — they were outshot (24-6) and out-possessed (73-27) on the night — by Sporting Kansas City, en route to a critical 1-0 win.

“People have lost the plot,” Mastroeni said, singling out statisticians and soccer academics whose numbers will, as he put it, “lose to the human spirit every day of the week.”

They were comments that drew ire from fans and pundits worshiping at the advanced stats alter — a crowd increasingly turning to data in search of black and white answers within a game laden with unquantifiable intangibles.

“The stats were wrong tonight,” Mastroeni repeated.

Where stats miss the story

Mastroeni's opponents would argue they’ve been wrong since last year, when some statistical models suggested the Rapids (15W-6L-13D in 2016 with 1.14 goals scored per game) were overachieving. Perhaps they were, but that’s beside the point.

It’s hardly surprising Mastroeni would downplay the significance of numbers that consistently diminish his side’s uncanny ability to win games in ways that fly in the face of present day statistical analysis. Of course he’s going to defend his players.

And to his credit, he willfully admitted — and bluntly so — that Colorado’s success hinges on spirit and organization and a collective commitment to defending, all immeasurable pillars of the game, for the most part.

In other words, Mastroeni knows his team, its identity, and doesn’t shy away from it. He’s had one 10-goal scorer (Deshorn Brown) since his return to Colorado in 2014. He knows what the postgame data’s going to look like before his team takes the field.

“We have to be difficult to break down,” Mastroeni added, the passion evident in his voice. “That has to be our forte because we aren’t going to put four [goals] on the board. It’s not going to happen. It’s not who we are.”

My response: What’s wrong with that? I prefer Mastroeni’s take to the usual alternative: Losing managers grandstanding postgame about “being the better team” amid erroneously citing in-game analytics to bolster their arguments.

They rant and rave about “possession” and “chances” and “expected goals” without context — as if they somehow need to prove they didn’t “deserve” to lose, whatever that means.

Numbers as a crutch

Mastroeni’s spot on: Advanced stats are great, but there are still many in the field who struggle to comprehend the immeasurable aspects of the sport. Sure, there's useable data, but there are also plenty of numbers that fall into the junk category because they're not accompanied by meaningful context.

It's OK to be skeptical of the numbers.

As one well-respected analytics guru told me this week after watching Mastroeni’s rant, much of the conversation surrounding advanced stats right now, the stuff in public view, can be seriously misleading. Another added that the field has become “too academic.”

Furthermore, the advanced stats we see every day are five years behind models that top experts within the field currently analyze, they said. Perhaps these best practices haven’t reached every MLS club — which could explain Mastroeni’s reluctance to concede the long-term relevance of data analysis within the sport.

Like Mastroeni, though, I too find that postgame analysis has become far too convoluted with in-game data that not only over-complicates things, but should solely be used to discuss long-term trends that stretch over multiple seasons.

Instead, numbers are pervading postgame press conferences too often, causing people to ignore how goals change games.

Mastroeni’s annoyance wasn’t the result of the numbers telling him he was statistically "outplayed." It’s with the “Yeah, but...” people who discount other key facets of games.

And, in doing so, they devalue much of the work that goes into sides like Colorado actually winning games.

Kurt Larson is an MLSsoccer.com contributor who covers Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun and the Canadian national teams for Postmedia.

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