Commentary

The (no) numbers game

Soccer will never become a dominant discussion sport if it can't engage a stathead

Updated: May 29, 2009, 5:07 PM ET
By Chris Sprow | ESPN The Magazine

Ask Nate Silver about how many stats he sees as crucial to analyzing baseball, and he's at a loss. We figured as much; it's like asking Ansel Adams about his favorite shade of grey.

"I don't know if there's any particularly good way to quantify the precise number," he e-mails, "but as Carl Sagan would say, billions and billions …"

If only soccer had such a problem.

Getty ImagesThe play can be breathtaking, but the box score is always a snooze.

In his current cover story on Lionel Messi, Chad Nielsen notes, "There is no quantitative method to compare players from different leagues and continents. Goals and assists fail to account for varieties of style and competition. Fans argue the point every day, in bars and cafés from Baghdad to Bogotá."

No kidding. This sport has no decent stats. And thus soccer's so-so popularity in the States has less to do with aesthetics and more to do with numbers … or a lack thereof. Think about it: The bedrock of nearly every bar argument you could conceive is a battle between what you can see and what the numbers say. Is A-Rod the greatest third baseman ever? Easy: You argue for five hours, juxtaposing raw numbers for concepts like clutch hitting and grace in the field or, yes, even the value of a high-quality hormone.

Or try it in football. How many stats does that sport have?

"I honestly don't know if I can answer the question," e-mails ESPN contributor and football guru Aaron Schatz. "There are a ton that I use, and to be blunt, I don't even have the time to go through and count them all."

Or hoops.

"Oh, [there's] too many to count," e-mails Henry Abbott of TrueHoop. "Honestly. Between [ESPN contributor John] Hollinger's numbers, basketball-reference, 82games, basketball prospectus, and the various private databases out there that I sometimes get to query, there's almost no limit.

"At this very moment, for a story, I'm scouring trying to find turnovers per possession in the Spanish league." (Update: Henry always gets his man.)

"At this very moment, for a story, I'm scouring trying to find turnovers per possession in the Spanish league."

Compare such responses to the people who write about soccer for a living. They won't even bother to defend the fact that the sport offers so little in terms of numerical backing. The current Soccernet Champions League stats pack on the site offers only goals, assists, shots and yellow cards. Four stats? Even ESPN.com's free fantasy basketball leagues offer 10, and there could be a dozen more.

"I honestly hardly ever look at stats," admits Tom Dunmore, who edits the excellent PitchInvasion.net.

But Dunmore isn't negligent. In soccer, traditional stats as argument currency will often confuse.

"Compared to most sports, statistics are often little help in breaking down a soccer game," explains Doug McIntyre, who (deftly) writes about it for ESPN.com. "For instance, if a team goes into a match determined to eek out a draw with a bunker-style defensive posture (which the visiting squad and/or underdog in almost every tilt does these days), the other team is obviously gonna have most of the shots, possession, etc. But if a defensive game plan is well-executed, not only would the statistically 'inferior' team have succeeded by doing exactly what it wanted to do, it could perhaps steal a goal on a counterattack and end up winning.

"In this case, the stats mean squat."

And in an argument- and fantasy-obsessed American sports society, soccer often does too. Part of the problem, of course, is the number of leagues there are. There's no table that can tell us that 23 goals in the Premier League would mean 37 in MLS. There's no algorithm to explain the assist rate from a Serie A midfielder as compared to the Mexican League. It's about styles, systems and results. And darn right, it IS the most popular sport in the world. But it could never win out as the subject for a good American "bargument."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But if soccer could ever aspire to gain the cultural hold on America that it desires -- this from a former college player who watches a ton of soccer and plays to this day -- the solution is easy: Give us more numbers. Make 'em the type we can really use.

At least more than this. Across the pond, some are at least trying to do more, though presentation is lacking some.

But until the practice advances, even the analysts will keep explaining away goals and assists, and Silver will keep talking up the elegance of VORP to a growing legion of statheads.