During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, SportTechie and N3XT Sports are surveying key soccer experts around the world to understand the current state of soccer technology and innovation. (More soccer technology viewpoints.)
Tyler Heaps in the manager of analytics and research at U.S. Soccer. Heaps oversees sports data analytics initiatives within U.S. Soccer, and helps national team staff with researching opponents and scouting potential talent. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 2013, Heaps balanced coaching soccer with working as a data analyst for human resources firm Ceridian. He made the full-time jump to U.S. Soccer in 2016.
The United States Soccer Federation is the governing body for the sport in the U.S. It is a member of FIFA and CONCACAF, and supervises all variants of soccer in the U.S., sanctioning both referees and tournaments. The top tiers of both the American men’s and women’s games, the MLS and NWSL, respectively, are both affiliate organizations of U.S. Soccer. The U.S. women’s national team has been dominant on the international stage, winning four Olympic gold medals and three World Cups. After victory in Canada in 2015, the USWNT is the reigning world champion.
According to Heaps, an increased availability of data and the belief in its relevance has had a significant impact on soccer in recent years. “There aren’t people out there just blogging about the sport anymore, there are people inside the team environment on a daily basis helping make objective decisions,” he explained. “You are starting to see a new wave of coaches that see this area as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.”
He believes that one of the most interesting data sources is optical tracking, in which computers can determine the locations of players by processing camera feeds. That location data can then supplement more basic event data, such as the count of shots and saves. “While event data can be really useful, it can be difficult to track defensive efficiency when you don’t know where those players are at all times. As leagues begin to invest in these systems, it will allow opposition and self-analysis to advance even further.”
The major challenges facing U.S. Soccer in the implementation of new technologies surround the need to transport those systems and to be able to use them across the federation’s levels. “Our teams are a traveling circus and never training or playing games in the same location consistently,” Heaps explained. “Therefore, any technology that requires installation and ‘fixed-solutions’ is a struggle for us to implement in our systems. We need technology that allows us to track our senior teams in the biggest NFL stadiums in the country, but also at a grass field with no stands in Honduras.
“We also are looking for technology that is scalable. Not only are our senior and youth teams playing games throughout the year, we also are overseeing thousands of games across our development academy.”
In March, U.S. Soccer signed a deal with STATSports to track the federation’s four million registered players—the agreement is the largest GPS partnership in sports. “Providing thousands of units to our development academy players allows us to track and benchmark players as they progress through their pathway,” Heaps noted. “This unique, and huge, dataset of biometric youth data will give us the opportunity to really dig into the progression of athletes over time.”
U.S. Soccer also has a deal with analytics company Opta to collect and manage data to help with scouting and performance assessment. According to Heaps, “this allows us to provide objective data to our talent ID team and scouts so we are better allocating our resources and track players who fit our system and style. We don’t have the ability to watch every game across the country, so this allows us to look at a large sample of data and sort players based on key performance indicators.”