Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Moneyball meets football...

Can Baseball genius Billy Beane, an avid Spurs fan, translate his penchant for statistics into success in the MLS? The Toronto Star examines how he will fair with his involvement in San Jose Earthquakes, coming to the MLS in 2008 - its an interesting read about the future of soccer in America as well.

It is impossible to talk about Beane without mentioning his baseball philosophy. Beane championed the outsider idea that certain statistics revealed more about a player's quality than physical makeup or mere observation could.

Given legitimacy by Beane, the movement became pejoratively known as Moneyball, after the title of the 2003 book in which the Oakland GM starred. Though Beane has enjoyed remarkable success with the small-market A's, his ideas are still controversial in the baseball fraternity.

Maybe that's why he talks so cautiously about bringing the same philosophies to assembling a soccer team.

"Everybody in sport is using some sort of objective analysis," Beane said. "The biggest key is collecting and utilizing data that is linear to winning games."

The most obvious hurdle is the dearth of statistical data in soccer as compared to baseball.

"I'm too respectful of the sport to say I have the formula for success," Beane said. "But it's something we'd like to explore."

The world soccer equivalent to Billy Beane and the A's is Anatoly Zelentsov and Dynamo Kiev.

In the 1970s and '80s, Zelentsov was the Ukrainian scientist who brought an early version of objective analysis to the world's most popular sport.

Dynamo Kiev's players were taught a series of computer-designed plays and warned against improvising. The field was dissected into grids. Players slid into the grids assigned to them, knowing beforehand with iron certainty whether or not they were due to receive the ball. The result was Total Football with an enormous brain and no heart. Dynamo players were often likened to robots.

But the results spoke for themselves. An underfunded club from a satellite nation dominated the Soviet soccer system for decades and twice won the European Cup Winner's Cup – in 1975 and 1986.

Once the wall came down, top western clubs snatched up Dynamo's biggest stars. Most were abysmal failures once removed from Zelentsov's system.

Dynamo not only used computer models to train the team. They were also used to pick it. Measures that tested reflexes (by, for instance, hitting the same keyboard button as quickly as possible over a long interval) or memory games were thought to reveal a player's true speed and intelligence.

It sounded wacky, but Zelentsov was invited to use his tools to winnow down a 40-player pool to a 20-man Soviet squad. The team chosen by Zelentsov's computer was sent to the 1988 European Championships, where they were surprise finalists.

Right now, Beane doesn't have a system, just the belief that one must exist.

"In everything, there is something. It's just having the ability to mine the linear data from all the background noise," Beane said.

He's even more certain about soccer's future in America.

"It's the vacuum effect. You have the world's richest country. And you have the world's biggest sport. `Collision' is the wrong word, but the vacuum is going to have to be filled."

That "collision" became apparent to him this summer in an unlikely venue – on HBO. In an episode of the hit series Entourage, the show's star, a Hollywood actor named Vincent Chase, spends an afternoon watching a Manchester United game at Dennis Hopper's house.

The episode didn't get it all right – wrong players, wrong games. But it was English soccer in America's coolest homes.

"It's not just sports culture anymore," Beane said. "Now it's become pop culture."

Beane talks down his own knowledge, which seems considerable – he chats easily about the quality of Fernando Torres' "touches" or Arsene Wenger's scouting coups.

If Beane's history is any indicator, his hoovering for raw data will soon transform itself into profitable play on the field.

"I don't pretend to have any answers," Beane said. "I'm just hungry to find them."

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