Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it...

Advanced stats in hockey are a part of the game now, and almost anyone not trapped in their own 1970's idealism would probably agree with that thesis. There are still a few holdouts (hello there Steve Simmons), but the vast majority of hockey executives, players and fans all now at least acknowledge the role of advanced stats in the modern game. One of the more notable holdouts wasn't any one individual person, it was an organization: the Toronto Maple Leafs. But as Kyle Dubas moves from Sault St. Marie in the OHL to the Leafs front office, the most famous of knuckle-draggers may now be on the forefront of the cutting edge. And that's a great moment for all of hockey.

Following the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last couple of seasons have been an astonishing view into the advanced stats debate in the sport. The Leafs would get off to these fast starts only to fall off (last season spectacularly), and the advanced stats usually bore the warning signs that a demise was coming. Some denied it, but the Leafs amazing capitulation at the end of last season could well end up changing not only that organization but the rest of hockey for the better. Now out go some of Brian Burke's brain-trust, who were some of the true old school in hockey executives, and in comes a 28 year old who has made his name in turning a junior hockey club into one of the best in all of hockey for advanced analytics. Finally, the supposed $10 million analytics budget will now be spent instead of collecting dust in a Rogers utility closet. As amazing as it was that the NHL's glamor franchise was so adamantly against advanced stats as the team became the game's biggest case study, it's for the betterment of everyone that has finally changed.

Hockey is not near baseball in terms of widespread acceptance of advanced stats just yet, but as a sport hockey has come a long way. Fans are blessed with the advent of sites like Extra Skater and Boucher Scouting being greater among equals, and public figures who have already accepted them like James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow and others who have made advanced stats as mainstream as they can be. Turn to them if you want a numerical and analytical approach to what the Leafs hiring Dubas will really mean for hockey's biggest team, but in terms of a global perspective something has to move the needle, and this may well be the move that makes it. Not necessarily insofar as individual teams, since it's common knowledge that if most teams don't use Corsi and Fenwick they use their own numbers for analytic purposes, but maybe for the public that hasn't yet accepted the role of these stats. What stock you individually put in them is up to you, but as a piece of an overall analysis they have proven to be remarkable sturdy in predicting future outcomes and giving us a clue into a deeper performance by players and teams.

The Leafs being the battleground team was important to move the debate along, and now what the Leafs have just done is important for the widespread acceptance of analytics on a larger scale. Even among some hockey fans who have incorporated things like PDO into their basic analysis, the Leafs going in the direction of advanced stats will have more people turning to sites like Extra Skater, or even asking the basic question of "what is Fenwick anyway?" and hockey absolutely will be better for it.

In Toronto this is being analyzed, dissected and carved up in almost every measurable way, and for the "center of the hockey universe" to be having this discussion in the dead of summer about something that 2 years ago would have been regarded as almost witchcraft is a bit of a watershed moment. Soon we'll find out more about newer stats to tell us about true possession of the puck, or how a goaltender has really been performing, or maybe even what individual teams are using as their advanced stat of choice. The tip of the iceberg was found years ago, and now most of the hockey world is finding out how deep the iceberg goes, and as baseball found out with moneyball and the A's years ago, that's how the sport will move into the future and adapt with the times.

Maybe this will start the trend for casual fans talking about a players FF% in the same breath as they talk about his compete level and truculence soon enough. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Well the US is out... so Soccer is Done for 4 Years Right?

The US is now out of the World Cup at the hands of Belgium (and I will not quote what Monty Python thinks of Belgium in this piece... not PC), and that has hurt everyone from those who have been around this team since Asamoah Gyan did the same thing 4 years ago to those who just realized the Sunday before the Ghana game that the US even has a national soccer team. This team bridged long widened gaps and hopefully put to bed a few long held stereotypes about soccer and the people that follow the game in this country. Unfortunately, because the World Cup is a perfect combination of noxious patriotism and big event marketing (2 things America loves the most), many who have been captivated by this tournament will go back to ignoring soccer until the World Cup circus turns up in Mr. Putin's garden in 4 years. This is not a plea to them, but some advice: soccer never stops, and maybe giving it a little more of your time will reap rich rewards. Here's how:

Amazingly, the European club season kicks into high gear only about a month after the World Cup Final. There is quality soccer played in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France, and in other places too. Our modern media world means it is no longer incumbent on you to have FOX Sports World or go to a hole-in-the-wall pub in Soho to watch the games every weekend. The Premier League is on NBCSN every weekend, and they make it so easy to watch the games and enjoy it as a die-hard or newbie. Need a club? Usually this is not something I advise, but Tim Howard plays for Everton, Geoff Cameron plays for Stoke, and Jozy Altidore plays for Sunderland (now at least). That could be your way in. If none of that suits you, there are many US players that play in Germany too. If all of that just made your head spin, go and ask someone what club to latch on to. They'll help you find a club that makes sense, and one that you'll get into quickly. International soccer is only a small fraction of the game. If you also need help with a club, odds are one Euro club is playing a friendly in your town this summer. Look around and find out, because you may soon find that Real Madrid is playing Manchester United at the Big House in Ann Arbor (that is happening by the way).

Speaking of that, the US national team plays again in Prague against the Czech Republic in September. They'll play many more friendlies from now until next summer, when another edition of the Gold Cup (CONCACAF's confederational tournament) rolls around. The US will likely win that. Also next summer: The FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand (for someone who really wants to be a soccer hipster), the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup, and many other things too. If you can't wait that long, there will be "competitive" European qualifiers for Euro 2016 on FOX and ESPN coming up this fall as well. There is no shortage of international footie to watch even when the next World Cup is a distant dream of the future.

But what if you're itching to watch footie at home? There's MLS, and yes it's not the highest of quality in the world, but it is just as fun to watch and has some of the same atmosphere you saw with the US watch parties this summer. 2 new clubs are coming into the league next summer, and more big name players are coming over every day. No MLS club near you because you live in say, Atlanta? Try the NASL's Silverbacks, and if somehow MLS or NASL doesn't cover your back, try even USL Pro. It's soccer, and while it isn't amazing quality, it's soccer, and live it is a sport that you can't beat in the stands. It may never trump a day out at Williams-Brice stadium for excitement for many, but seeing the fun at low levels may make you clamor to see it a higher ones.

Soccer doesn't stop between World Cups; in fact it never really stops. There is always something going on in the game every day of every year, and while every sport in this country usually takes a break, soccer never does. It may never be your number 1 sport, but it is something worth adding into your repertoire. It is harder to follow than the Big 4 and college sports in this country I grant you, but the initial effort is the hard part, and everything once you've figured out how to follow the game with ease is downhill from there. The internet is a magical place...

It's said that true heartbreak often begets true love. Lots of people just experienced true heartbreak with the US National Team. I just hope that 10 people are soon going to find out what true love of soccer really is because of it.

All you need to do is ask.