The future is now at York9 FC.
Since its final game of the 2019 CPL season, the team has improved in almost every area, from its attack and midfield to its front office. The changes implemented by new assistant coach Paul Stalteri and managing consultant Angus McNab have been extensively detailed, with new technology now paired with old-school training discipline.
The latest news from York9’s camp, though, was the addition of on-field analytics director Sam Gregory, a 27-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., who is tasked with supporting the Y9 coaching staff through metrics and statistical insights.
Gregory worked for years at noted sports analytics companies Opta and Montreal-based Sportlogiq, often with McNab, where he spent much of his time building analytical metrics out of data, and trying to push them into the public consciousness through clubs and media. He gave the example of expected goals — a stat that tries to measure how likely a given chance is to result in a goal — as something he’d been trying to help popularize while working for Opta in the U.K.
When Gregory left Sportlogiq just over a month ago, McNab reached out to offer him a role at York9. Gregory accepted, assured that he’ll be able to work for the club while also completing sports analytics research (virtually) through a university in Australia.
Where does Gregory come in for York9, though?
“A lot of what I’m doing at the start is just really answering the coaches’ questions,” Gregory told CanPL.ca. “Taking a question that they would need to watch hours and hours of videos to answer, to try and answer those questions using data, and help prepare for games.”
He elaborated: “Maybe the team was working on something in training, and they want to see, okay, which teams were most likely to concede against this type of attack, because this is a type of attack we’ve been working on in training.”
In some circles of the sports world, clashes between the analytically-inclined and old-school coaches are common. That doesn’t appear to be the case for York, with Brennan and Stalteri both keen on finding any type of advantage they can.
“Basically my one question or requirement before taking the job was I wanted to make sure I was gonna be working with coaches that are interested in this stuff, because otherwise I don’t think there’s any point,” Gregory explained. “(Brennan and Stalteri) are both interested, both asking good questions and willing to take this on. They’ve been part of the decision of bringing on analytics, so they’re definitely open-minded towards it.”
Gregory is doing as much as he can to help York9 refine its system and determine what strategies or lineup combinations might be effective. Still, he feels that he’ll be more useful to the club once games kick off.
At the moment, without individual opponents or matchdays to prepare for, there’s only so far he can take them. Soon, though, he’ll be able to help the coaches prepare for games with a quick turnaround.
“It’ll start to be looking at things specific to a team,” Gregory said. “So we’re playing this team this week, what are this team’s strengths and weaknesses, who are the players we should watch out for, that sort of thing. … This is sort of just part of the puzzle, this isn’t replacing pre-existing setups for pregame analysis and opposition analysis.”
Gregory pointed out that a potentially shortened, congested 2020 CPL season will change the ways he’s able to contribute, particularly if opposing clubs have less time to establish a rhythm or a regular starting lineup. He looked at recent North American soccer restarts in the NWSL and MLS as examples, where squad rotation has been very frequent and matches have been difficult to handicap.
As a result, it’ll be hard to know what to expect from an opponent. Still, Gregory can see at least one major advantage that incorporating analytics will give York9.
“Preparing for an opponent takes loads of work, you have to watch through loads of video, and using data can make that process faster,” Gregory said. “I think that’s where you’ll see the biggest edge in tournament play or whatever format the CPL decides to go with.”