As Sounders FC looks to defend MLS Cup title, use of sports science remains a ‘competitive advantage’


Sounders Sports Scientist Sean Muldoon adjusts a GPS tracking device. (GeekWire photos / Kevin Lisota)

For the Seattle Sounders, sports analytics remains an important part of winning matches and keeping players healthy.

The defending MLS Cup champions will make their 2017 home debut today at 4 p.m. in Seattle as they take on the New York Red Bulls at CenturyLink Field.

Sounders forward Clint Dempsey passes the ball during a training session as the team’s director of performance & sports science Dave Tenney looks on.

The team held its annual Media Day on Friday and GeekWire caught up with Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey to get his perspective on sports science.

The Sounders have long been pioneers, at least among MLS teams, in using sports science to help make on-field improvements. The club, which won its first MLS Cup last year, utilizes a variety of gadgets like GPS trackers and heart rate monitors to measure how exactly their players are performing during training and games. The resulting data is used to help make tactical decisions and prevent injury.

“It’s critically important to the success of the team,” said Lagerwey, who became GM in 2015. “We have a competitive advantage in that space.”

The Sounders have built out their sports science department since Director of Performance & Sports Science Dave Tenney joined the club in 2009, with continued support throughout from team owner Adrian Hanauer. What started with only Tenney and a few Excel spreadsheets has turned into a team of four analysts — including Ravi Ramineni, who worked at Microsoft for seven years on projects like Bing and fraud management — that are utilizing technology like Tableau and SQL to provide more than 20 training reports each day to coaches.

“It’s a huge part of what we are,” Lagerwey said.

He added that the team’s use of technology and data also matches the environment of its home city.

“In order for a sports team to be successful, you have to mirror the community in which you play and work because you’re hopefully going to reflect the values of your fans,” Lagerwey said. “This community in Seattle is a very tech-savvy, tech-oriented community so it’s important for us to be savvy in those things, too.”

Sounders Sports Scientist Sean Muldoon monitors player tracking technology at a Sounders training session.

While data and analytics can certainly help with strategic decisions, its value is perhaps most valuable for keeping players healthy. That was evident during the team’s late-season comeback last year, when the Sounders had no margin of error and many players coming back from injuries.

Lagerwey said the GPS data or stress test information can help coaches and sports scientists figure out how to most effectively bring a player back from an injury or long layoff. He pointed to Sounders forward Clint Dempsey’s recent return after missing the last half of 2016.

“We’ve been really successful in ramping him up in a safe manner such that when he rejoined the team, he’s been able to stay on the field,” Lagerwey said. “We did the same thing with Roman Torres last year. That’s a credit to our medical staff and sports science staff.”

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