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USL Partnership with Opta Promises Benefits for Teams, Players, and Fans

Partnership raises profile of the league, offers competitive advantage to teams, and more in-depth knowledge for fans.

orange ball podium
orange ball podium
Steve Aibel/ LittleOrcaSports.com

USL announced today that they have entered into a three-year partnership with sports data provider Opta. The partnership is set to begin with the 2016 USL Cup.

According to the press release, in 2017 Opta will “manage and deliver statistical analysis” for regular season games, playoff games, and the USL Cup Final. Not only will this data be available for teams, it will also be available in some form for fans on USLSoccer.com and (if the team chooses to do so) team websites.

This move to partner with Opta can be seen as another step that USL is taking to improve the way it is perceived both by those inside and outside its current sphere of influence.

The Opta partnership holds the promise of not only competent stats-keeping, but of exemplary stats-keeping. Those of us familiar with the league and its less-than-stellar record with stats generally set our expectations low. We may have been disappointed when the league’s new website didn’t include stats from past seasons, but we certainly weren’t surprised.

This is different.

Opta is, from my admittedly layman’s view, the gold standard of soccer data. Among the multiple leagues they cover are the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, NASL and MLS. And now USL has thrown its name into that list.

That is where the league benefits with those outside its sphere of influence, with fans, players, or anyone who has never heard of USL before. Anyone finding USL for the first time will now see a league with their stats provided by the same company as top-tier leagues around the world. That’s worth something when a league is fighting to take over Division 2 sanctioning from NASL.

While the benefit to the league as a whole is largely one of perception, the benefit to fans and teams is a practical one.

The simplest way to put it is that there will be more information out there for us to look over. USL as a whole hasn’t done a terrible job at keeping track of what they can, but as a quick look at the current stats page will tell you, what they have tracked is woefully basic. Shots, shots on goal, minutes played, assists, fouls, yellow and red cards.

A look at the Opta-powered stats section of the Matchcenter for MLS’s recent San Jose Earthquakes game against Real Salt Lake shows us something else. It shows passing accuracy, not just overall but in both the attacking half and final third as well. It shows which team had the advantage in possession, both overall and broken up into five minute intervals. It shows things like clearances, tackles won, and shot accuracy.

Compared to USL’s current bare-bones stats, the corresponding section of the MLS Matchcenter is fantastic.

And while the MLS Matchcenter is favorable to what USL has, what NASL puts together on their Matchcenter is even better. Here’s an example using a recent game between the Ottawa Fury and Indy XI, two NASL teams with Republic Alumni.

The big difference from the MLS and NASL Matchcenters is readily apparent in that the NASL version includes stats for both teams and individuals, something the MLS version does not. Using it we can see that Nemanja Vukovic played all 90 minutes in the game against Ottawa, had 59 touches on the ball, made a pair of clearances, had two shots — one outside the box and one inside - one goal, completed 21 out of his 33 passes, completed 0 of his 2 crosses, and drew two fouls.

That is so much more information for a single player than has ever been available for USL teams or fans. And the same goes for the team-wide stats.

That is where the big benefit to the fans and teams can be found. A matchcenter like NASL’s would give the public so much more information on which to judge team and player performances. With a matchcenter like NASL’s, people would be able to look at the raw numbers to help inform their opinions on the way a particular game went or the way a particular player performed.

The difference between the benefit for fans and the benefit for teams is that where the former might now be able to become more informed and form better opinions, the latter can now use these more advanced numbers to inform, change, and develop on-field strategies.

It is obvious that the USL partnership with Opta is positive. The league will benefit with a higher perception regardless of how the stats are presented. The teams will almost definitely have access to a huge database to use or neglect as much as they choose.

The only question is how much the partnership will benefit the fans. Will USL go all out and have an in-depth Matchcenter similar to what NASL has? Or will they go for the better-looking, but shallower version that MLS uses? All we know is that we’ll get a glimpse of what is to come September 21st with the 2016 USL Cup.

What do you think of the USL’s partnership with Opta? Are you hoping for an NASL-style or MLS-style Matchcenter? Sound off in the comments below!