Not every soccer player gets to become a professional on the field. But some can put their passion to work behind the scenes. Such is the case with Aztec alum Devin Pleuler, manager of analytics for Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Devin when he was in town for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. At the conference, Devin took part in the Hackathon, which was focused on finding ways to measure so-called intangibles, such as chemistry, instinct, heart and leadership using basketball data. Devin’s approach gave him the win.
“I chose mental toughness and looked at how defenders behave after being posterized,” Devin says. “They tend to sulk back up the court and get back half a second later. This is useful for a coaching staff and GM so they could know who is sulking and who is not.”
Originally from New York before growing up in Gloucester, Devin played for Gloucester High School and finished his club career with Aztec’s boys and men’s teams. Devin’s family had significant connections to Aztec, as his sister Clare also played for the club’s youth and women’s teams. She played in college at Boston University and was also recently signed by Skövde KIK in Sweden.
After high school, Devin went on to the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, graduating with a computer science degree. While in college, he was a goalkeeper with the men’s soccer team.
During his time studying computer science, Devin became interested in how data could be used as a tool in soccer. He created a network passing graph that illustrated elements such as a soccer team's tactical movements, passing and territory covered.
“One of the great things about Wentworth was its cooperative programming that gave me the ability to do a lot of work programs,” Devin says. “I developed the computer science skills and started to look for ways to use computer science in a soccer context.”
Early in his career, Devin worked for the data analytics and quantitative marketing company Autotegrity. His initial forays into working in soccer came about in part because Devin decided to start a blog on soccer analytics, which got the attention of Matt Doyle, a senior writer with MLS. This got Devin working on the league’s website writing the "Central Winger" column for mlssoccer.com. His work also brought him into touch with Opta, and Devin started working as a statistician for the sports data company. As Opta and MLS shared office space in New York City, the opportunities were extremely synergistic. Writing for the league and serving as statistician with Opta was the perfect spot for Devin’s career to take flight.
“I was a part time writer for the league website, and with Opta I worked as a consultant, interfacing with teams, leagues and federations as a consultant on all things soccer data-related,” Devin explains.
As time went by, Devin realized he wanted to work with decision makers to help implement the suggestions his analytical work was devising. Working directly with a team was the logical next step.
“A few years ago, Toronto had a part time consultant named Brett Myers, a Ph.D at Villanova who played college soccer, and I had gotten to know Brett,” Devin says. “When the opportunity came up to join Toronto, I saw that it would be a great place to be.”
Reporting directly to the team’s general manager, Devin’s responsibilities include analyzing the opposition, helping with recruiting and forecasting team performance. His work has helped make Toronto FC - last year’s MLS Cup runners up - a data augmented club.
“There are a few thousand events that take place in the average MLS game,” Devin says. “We take all of this information in a raw fashion and get it into our systems, and we have algorithms and models that we apply to the data. We can look at trends over many seasons and see how teams and players deviate from the norm. We look at the value teams create when they do certain things in certain areas of the field. That helps to drive video analysis for coaches so they have things they can look for during preparation periods, during and after the season. Data allows us to see all kinds of pieces of potentially useful information. In many ways, I see my job as social engineering, not technical engineering. I have to sell my models and projects so I can make a difference.”
In the future, Devin believes that soccer will follow the example of every other hyper competitive industry on the planet by relying on data. This will help to change the game at the professional level by, for example, making the transfer market more efficient and giving teams diagnostic tools that can help them perform better. At the same time, Devin doesn’t want data to drive creativity out of the sport, particularly during development.
“We want young players to play the game, not to worry about having the best passing percentage,” he says. “They need to be able to play and take risk, and we don’t want to strip creativity out through over-analysis. But there are gains to be made by using sport science and understanding individual player physical profiles and growth trends to create personal training programs that will be beneficial for long-term development.”
Ultimately, it all comes back to passion for soccer. Devin loves the physicality and cerebral nature of soccer, and he believes that many young athletes can find ways to use their passion for the sport to help shape their careers - even once the cleats come off.
“Transitioning out of playing can be a hard adjustment, but you can put yourself into positions that can lead to interesting opportunities,” he says. “More than ever, the game allows smart people into it, even without a professional playing pedigree. Soccer is becoming a meritocracy, and although the pathway is difficult, there are opportunities for new and innovative thinkers.”
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