MLS Cup overlay: Greg Vanney - Toronto FC - close-up
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Harnessing the data: Why Toronto-Seattle MLS Cup clash is the "nerd derby"

TORONTO – Everyone can see the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, the large, gleaming piece of hardware waiting to be hoisted by the triumphant winners of the 2017 MLS Cup at BMO Field on Saturday afternoon (4 pm ET | ESPN and UniMás in USA; TSN and TVAS in Canada).

But trophies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and two of the quietly crucial contributors to the success of the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC have their own tongue-in-cheek talisman up for grabs this weekend.

A bit of explanation for the uninitiated: Devin Pleuler is TFC’s manager of analytics, while Ravi Ramineni is his Sounders counterpart, and Oliver Gage, the one dredging up last year’s playful bet, plays a similar role for the Houston Dynamo.

Many clubs across MLS have invested heavily in quantitative analysis and various other data-crunching practices in recent years. But as’s Ben Baer wrote a year ago, the back-to-back MLS Cup finalists are two of the industry leaders on that front. And both clearly believe strongly that mobilization of information has fueled their success, making Saturday part two of the “nerd derby.”

“I’m actually very old-school and some of that stuff is like reading Chinese to me,” Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters upon the Sounders’ Wednesday night arrival at their hotel in Toronto. “But our guys do a really good job. Ravi Ramineni, any question I ask him about any sort of statistical data, running data, I get that information.

“It helps a lot now where we’re pushing into the scouting: Can we get a profile of a player that can play in a certain position? What are the meters he covers, what’s the speed … So we’re using that now in our scouting, as well as what we see on the field in training and in games. So it’s a very big part of our club and it’s a very useful tool for me.”

Beyond tactical preparation, the Sounders use a range of cutting-edge analytics to manage player fitness and performance, scout potential acquisitions and synthesize expertise across multiple departments. It’s all part of what the organization dubs an “evidence-based culture” that aims to back up every major decision with objective data and facts.

Toronto have made a similar commitment, with general manager Tim Bezbatchenko involving Pleuler’s work at multiple levels of team management. Head coach Greg Vanney has seen particular benefit from applications in scouting – both of the opposition, and his own team.

“I think it's the marriage between what you feel like you're looking at subjectively, and what is actually in the numbers objectively that our guys are pulling out,” Vanney told on Wednesday. “Every week we get scouting reports about the opposition, but it's over a lot of games, maybe even an entire season. So we take those statistical analyses and we use what we think is relevant in terms of our preparation. We also do that about ourselves, by the way.

“From an old-school perspective, subjectively we watch the game and we feel like we're seeing some things, but maybe the numbers tell you something a little different.”

Both coaches stress the importance of practical application, rather than merely crunching numbers for their own sake, and praise their data analysts for effectively translating complex metrics into a concise, understandable message.

“How we use the information is always the key. Because if you just compile data but you never use it, it doesn’t do you any good,” said Schmetzer. “So I’ve had them dumb it down for me a little bit and then we actually use a lot of that information in one-on-one situations with player and coach, in smaller group settings with the defenders, and certainly in the full group setting with the team.”

Vanney admits that analytics wasn’t always central to his work in previous stints with Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. But you won’t hear him berating the growing influence of the field like his former Colorado Rapids counterpart Pablo Mastroeni memorably did earlier this season.

“Over the past four or five years it's become much more commonplace in Major League Soccer,” Vanney said, “but having an actual dedicated person in your club who's looking at statistical stuff is unique and I think that is, again, taking over.

“It's much more sophisticated now and obviously with Devin, he does a great job of taking what the numbers say and actually put putting them into a meaningful sort of paragraph of, ‘This is what we should take from these numbers, this is what's important.’ … He makes meaning of it and then we utilize the information he gives us.”

ExtraTime Radio Podcast

LISTEN: The 2017 MLS season comes down to this... Seattle vs. Toronto, an MLS Cup rematch that might just be the best final of all-time, depending on who you ask. Will the Sounders repeat? Will the Reds lay claim the best season of all-time? David Gass and Sam Stejskal get things started from the Six, and Andrew and Matt finish things off from the Green Room back in NYC. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!