Atlanta United’s lone goal against Red Bulls on April 1 was a thing of beauty. Out of the defensive third, center back Miles Robinson switched the field with a 60-yard pass into space for winger Derrick Etienne Jr. In his first start of the season, Etienne controlled the long ball then took his defender 1v1. He passed centrally to his teammate and World Cup winner Thiago Almada, who was open for a quality shot on frame. The howling strike rebounded off the goalkeeper’s block right where Giorgos Giakoumakis was lurking, and the striker finished with ease from close range.
The goal occurred early in the match but ended up being the decisive game-winner. Two of those players involved in the play, Etienne and Giakoumakis, were acquisitions Atlanta United made to the roster this past offseason. They were players the scouting department, led by Vice President & Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, reviewed and pinpointed as players who could help the team improve.
The pair were identified as players who could boost Atlanta United’s play in three specific categories: counter pressures, attacking half re-gains and expected goals per shot.
- Counter pressures – Pressures exerted within five seconds of a turnover.
- Attacking half ball recoveries – The number of ball recoveries the team makes in the opposition (final) half of the pitch.
- xG per Shot – Non-penalty expected goals per shot.
These three metrics are considered a priority for Atlanta United, a team that wants to play attack-minded football. For a possession-oriented team under head coach Gonzalo Pineda, these stats align with the club's philosophy of wanting to have the ball as often as possible – and have the ball as high up the field as possible.
“A large percentage of goals in MLS are scored off transition moments,” Atlanta United data scientist Arjun Balaraman said. “The closer you are to goal, the quicker you’re going to be able to score. Winning the ball back in higher areas of the field is more advantageous to set up our future possessions.”
If diving into analytics equates to taking a look under the hood of a car, then Balaraman is the chief mechanic. He serves the role of data scientist at the club and is the resource for all things related to soccer data. With his work, the club keeps a running tab of consistent KPIs and metrics that they look into game-by-game. The team also takes from a large sample size, to allow for a holistic approach into how the team is performing their press and winning the ball back.
The goal is for Atlanta United to be toward the top of MLS in these three categories. Granted, some games require a different approach. New York Red Bulls, for example, the same opponent that Giakoumakis scored his goal on, plays a unique style. That might change Pineda’s tactical strategy, which also requires consideration when taking a close look at the numbers.
While that type of evaluation helps the technical side know how the team is performing on the pitch, it also impacts the strategy of the front office. For example, after their evaluation last season, they learned that while Atlanta United was one of the leaders in expected goals, the team was in the bottom half for expected goals per shot. With that information, they knew the team’s quality of shots needed to be addressed.
As a result, the scouting team and coaching staff worked together to make the team better in that area. The front office also turned their focus to players outside the club who could make up marginal gains in these statistical categories with Etienne and Giakoumakis ultimately selected as players the club could bring in.
“Across the board, we have a group of guys that we thought could improve us incrementally across the front, which in turn helps our team overall,” Bocanegra said. “That’s our thought process when we scout. We want to stay true to the identity of our club where we are high-press, high-intensity because there's physical metrics that go behind these as well.”
To take the analytics department to the next level, the club got a lift from President and CEO Garth Lagerwey. When he joined Atlanta United in November, he made it known that analytics was a priority. Early into his tenure, he delivered. Lagerwey brought in new data providers that offered a wider suite of metrics. He also approved the budget for the team to add a data engineer, something Bocanegra and his team requested for the fiscal year.
“I’m a firm believer that data can provide objective analysis to create the foundation of a winning product,” Lagerwey said. “When I joined the club, part of my evaluation process was to determine where we could be more strategic with our resources. It was obvious that we had a solid foundation in data and analytics, and that we were aligned philosophically to dedicate more resources to this area. We’ve added reputable companies like SRC FTBL, StatsBomb and SkillCorner to put us in the position to be an industry leader and to lay that foundation for everything we do.”
One of the products Lagerwey brought in was StatsBomb, a relatively new data provider. Balaraman approximates 24-25 clubs in MLS also use StatsBomb. From that perspective, Atlanta United doesn’t have a competitive edge. Anyone can look at a raw sheet of numbers, but it’s the analysis of those numbers that can make an impact.
Atlanta United was already ahead of the curve in MLS as one of the first clubs to have a data scientist on staff. And soon, the department will be growing with the addition of a data engineer. That role will build out the department and focus on deeper analysis to bolster Balaraman’s work.
“We're definitely trying to stay ahead of the curve, which is why we’ve added to the department,” Bocanegra said. “We're bringing on more technology. Other sports may be ahead on this stuff, but the soccer world is getting better. They're learning how to get value out of the metrics that that are coming to us. It’s getting more intelligent.”
With new and improved data, clubs can dig a little deeper and get more access to data like player tracking, something Atlanta United never had before. In terms of using analytics, basketball might be ahead of the game, mostly because they’ve had money to fund that information for a longer period. However, when it comes to usage and adoption, soccer is not far behind.
Not only does Atlanta United plan to use analytics to be the best on the pitch. The club will be using these stats to educate supporters in a variety of ways. The club will use StatsBomb for numbers in articles on the club’s official website ATLUTD.com and on social posts that recap matches. This phase of using data analytics signals a new era for the club – and one that still holds true to one of the club’s most important values: being the industry standard.