By Eric Beard
When only one adjective can be used to describe something, the word “smart” naturally catches us off-guard and makes us a little bit skeptical. Maybe that’s because when it comes to proving itself on an intellectual level, the human race often lets us down. Let’s be honest, for every rocket scientist, there are 99 Sepp Blatters. Even those odds are hugely optimistic. Maybe I’m not in the position to set odds on human capabilities, but regardless, rocket scientists exist, and we’re on Mars. That’s the important thing. There is intelligent life around us, even if we don’t encounter it on a daily basis. Now, it’s equally important to realize that findings on Mars might not directly influence your life for a while. (That’s not to presume the AFR audience isn’t filled with rocket scientists, but I’m comfortable with the assumption.)
While we - as humans - gaze upon the Curiosity rover on Mars with curiosity, in recent weeks there has also been a new development sparking curiosity for us - as football fans. You’ve seen it advertised during every single match over the past month, filling your eyes with numbers and your ears with dubstep. It’s called Smart Soccer, and it could alter the way we see the beautiful game. …. Okay, allow me to take a few small steps backwards from that giant leap of a statement.
As a natural cynic when it comes to things that declare smartness, let’s start with two questions that are probably on your mind.
- Will I actually be able to use this, whatever it is?
- Why would I (or anyone) want complex numbers being thrown at me (or them) when watching football?
Actually, the answers to your questions are remarkably blunt. No, you will not be able to use Smart Soccer technology to its fullest. And the complex numbers and statistics aren’t primarily for you (the fan). Not what you were looking to hear? Well, let me elaborate.
The thought process is actually quite clear: to enhance the sport, tools must be given to those who create the spectacle. Smart Soccer is indirectly for fans, but only in the sense that the goal of the technology is to enhance the understanding of players’ strengths and weaknesses for both a manager and a professional footballer’s benefits.
Are you with me? Oh, you’ve another question? Ah, good one. No, this will not fade into irrelevancy. Beyond Major League Soccer’s commitment to the technology for its 2013 season, some of the world’s best players and coaches (think of the best teams adidas is partnered with) can’t wait to use the newfound technology. Now that we’ve established that Smart Soccer isn’t a superfluous ploy, but rather a potential competitive advantage, let’s delve a little deeper…
I was covering the MLS All Star game against Chelsea in Philadelphia a few weeks back, which was also the first Smart Soccer match to ever take place. I had the opportunity to learn about it beforehand, and even question the men and women who developed the technology that turns ridiculously complex algorithms into simple information that any coach or player can interpret.
Just as being on Mars seems more awesome than for the purpose of pragmatic scientific findings at the moment, the Smart Soccer technology is going to need time to develop into something substantial. It needs to collect data from actual training sessions and matches to help it leap from infancy into legitimacy. MLS implementing the technology throughout the league creates a huge sample size and an enormous opportunity for Smart Soccer to develop. An ambitious idea will finally have the ability to strut its wings, which is perhaps why the likes of Wired and Mashable have noticed such a rare opportunity.
But MLS isn’t volunteering for the sake of volunteering. If the technology lives up to its potential, then the quality of MLS players and teams will improve. The technology is a small device that goes directly underneath the back of a player’s neck. It tracks everything from heart rate to distance traveled to sprint speeds. As an instrumental member in Smart Soccer’s developmental team told me, the magic of Smart Soccer doesn’t necessarily reveal itself in a match, but particularly in training sessions. Rather than fixating on player strengths, the technology (it’s called the miCoach Elite System) identifies weaknesses with impressive precision. Coaches can use this information to help determine fitness levels on the pitch or assist with squad selections; players can similarly use the information to more effectively make themselves more complete athletes and learn how to use their energy most efficiently.
At the moment, Smart Soccer is for the elite athlete. In the future, this could very well change. Admittedly, it doesn’t feel terribly tangible for you and me right now. But when so many world class players and coaches have said that they’re excited to utilize the technology, it’s ignorant to reject the potential benefits this could have on football (or even basketball, tennis, etc). Every serious professional wants to better himself, and every coach wants a more complete team. With these new tools, the logic seems sound. It’s all about where we go from here, and I - for one - am kind of curious to see what happens next.