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The beautiful game embraces high-tech analytics for Russia

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Friday, June 15, 2018 – Page B15

The advance in technology at the World Cup is evident in more than use of Video Assistant Referee. The 32 teams will have stats tablets to see ingame positional data on players and the ball.

It's another tool in the analytics arsenal that top soccer teams are increasingly relying on.

"It's natural. Analytics is so tied in with technology," said Bret Myers, a Villanova professor who is an analytics consultant with MLS champion Toronto FC.

"Why we have that term analytics is because of the data that technology can generate. In sports, in competition you want any kind of edge that you can get."

Each World Cup team is being offered two devices: one for an analyst watching from the media centre and another for the sideline coaches.

The tablets, approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), draw information from two optical tracking cameras located on the media centre.

Processed data as well as live footage is sent to the media tribune staffer, who can analyze player metrics, review plays and highlight areas using an analyst application. Material can then be sent to the technical area at field level for discussion via a radio link.

The technology can be used for analysis during halftime in the locker room. FIFA provides teams with a post-match analysis.

Toronto FC hired Myers as a consultant in 2014. The next year, Myers helped bring Devin Pleuler on board full time to help the team establish its analytics framework.

"I do as much as I can from afar," Myers said of his work with TFC.

Myers, 38, is an assistant professor of management and operations at Villanova University, in Philadelphia's northwestern suburbs. He also teaches at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies in New York.

Defending World Cup champion Germany is no stranger to making use of technology. It partnered with SAP, a Germanybased software company, ahead of the 2014 World Cup on a program called Match Insights, which analyzes raw game data and video.

The technology was improved ahead of Euro 2016. SAP said its "SAP Challenger Insights" provided "data-driven insights surrounding an opponent's offensive and defensive tendencies, formations, and more," all of which could be reviewed on tablets.

A "penalty insights function" provides goalkeepers and goalkeeping coaches with footage and penalty-kick tendencies of opponents.

SAP is also partnered with English champion Manchester City.

"When it comes to analytics, you can't really prove the cause and effect, but I think there's an association," Myers said. "The teams that are managed well tend to want to invest in analytics as well because they feel like that could be useful information."

The advantage of FIFA providing the information is that it levels the playing field, helping countries that may not have the resources of bigger teams. But the information is only as good as the person analyzing it.

Major League Soccer teams often use technology for sports-science purposes, relying on GPS to track their players' workload. It's used to monitor players during training, but is usually reviewed only postmatch, according to Myers.

Using cameras to track playerposition data offers a different wealth of information, with more tactical uses. Toronto started using it this season, trialing the data to see how it can be used and whether it is worth the cost, which Myers says is not cheap.

TFC is using data and video analysis applications from Metrica Sports, a Dutch-based company that said it was servicing six MLS teams at the start of the 2018 season. The information Toronto gets is not real-time but instead is provided postmatch.

In the past, teams made do with performance data - shots, passing, tackles etc.

This new data source tracks all the players on the pitch, regardless of what's happening on the ball.

It takes considerable processing power to handle the data, not to mention time and effort to "wrap your head around it," Myers said. But it can offer a rich vein of information for parts of the game such as defence, which often revolves around positioning.

Myers's first research paper on soccer was called "A Proposed Decision Rule for the Timing of Soccer Substitutions." His conclusion was that a team, if trailing, should make its first substitution prior to the 58th minute, the second prior to the 73rd and the last prior to the 79th.

Myers played soccer with current TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko at the University of Richmond.

He also was an assistant coach there during Bezbatchenko's time there.

When Bezbatchenko worked in the MLS head office, he invited Myers to come in and present his findings on substitutions.

That led to a dialogue on the use of analytics and Myers was asked to make another presentation to club coaches and technical directors at the 2013 MLS combine.

That, in turn, led to a consulting job with the Philadelphia Union, helping then-coach John Hackworth - now coach of the U.S. under-17 team - with opposition scouting. When Bezbatchenko left the league office for Toronto FC, he persauded Myers to join him.

Once again, FIFA is using goalline technology in Russia, saying it "supported the referees" in three incidents at the 2014 World Cup and in as many as eight goal situations at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada.

The technology processes information from 14 high-speed cameras and sends a signal within one second to the referee's watch, indicating when the ball has crossed the goal line.

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