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Deep data analysis, another parity-beating Sounders investment

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No one knows if Osvaldo Alonso will be fit to take the field on Sunday in the home leg of the conference final. But the right guy to ask may not be Sigi Schmid, or even Alonso himself. If you really want to go to the best source, you might ask Ravi Ramineni.

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Can Ozzie return to make his mark on Sunday's game?
Can Ozzie return to make his mark on Sunday's game?
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Ravi Ramineni is the Sounders' performance analyst, and he's the master of the "mountains of data" on player performance, recovery and fitness that prompted the team to create their own SQL Server database.  Somewhere in those mountains may be the story of how Ozzie is likely to respond to these weeks of recovery.

The Sounders are a very numbers-focused team.  Dave Tenney's latest title, Sports Science and Performance Manager (he used to be Fitness Coach), says a lot about how seriously the team takes using data and the latest science to keep the players performing at the highest possible level.  Tenney has been with the MLS Sounders from the beginning.  With the support of Adrian Hanauer, a numbers guy, and Sigi Schmid, who has been open to new techniques, he has driven the adoption of new technology in the training and recovery regimen.

Early in the 2013 season, Forbes ran a piece on Tenney, Ramineni and the new approaches to managing workloads and fatigue over the long season.  It's definitely worth a read if you missed it last year.

OptaProzoneMatch Analysis.  Polar heart rate monitors.  Catapult GPS units.  Post-match fatigue tests from Omegawave.  Sleep tracking tech from Fatigue Science.  All to measure exhaustion and fitness in ways that the naked eye and players' self-evaluations can't.

The problem with collecting numbers, of course, is that they're useless until they can be organized to tell a useful story.  Tenney's system apparently produces over 350 columns of data.  Anyone who has stared at an endless Excel sheet knows there's a long way to go from there.

One of the benefits of being a Seattle team is not having to look far for experts on innovative data analytics.  Enter Ramineni, who formerly had been designing search engine algorithms at Microsoft.  Well, he entered last January, but since then he has taken on the role of organizing and presenting all this data to the coaching staff in ways that are meaningful and efficient.  As Ramineni told Forbes, "Sigi, only has so much time to look at data. So we put more of a premium on presenting the data in the right way, and the right type of data."

Microsoft PR recently interviewed him and Tenney about their use of SQL Server and fitness tracking.  The performance analyst remembers one moment in particular this season (it's a moment fans haven't forgotten either):

One payoff came Aug. 24 during a match against Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers, when Dempsey sprinted 80 yards to score a goal in the fifth match of the five matches in a 15-day stretch. "That was all our work coming together," Ramineni says. "Our objective is to ensure that the best players play the most amount of games. To win games, you have to stay healthy and prevent injuries."

In MLS the value of a team's best 11 being on the field is immense.  Chad Barrett doesn't make that 80-yard, goal-scoring run (no offense to my man "Ballerina" Barrett).  The salary cap and other parity mechanisms obviously limit the power of deep-pocketed owners to buy depth that can replace the production of their stars.

If the team can mine data in new ways to predict injury and poor performance due to fatigue and strain, they can make better decisions about player rotation, subs and even which depth players to sign.  These advantages around the margins in a parity league can be the difference between Supporters' Shield winner and also-ran.  It helps that Sigi, Adrian, and Sporting Director Chris Henderson have bought in -- according to Tenney they're constantly considering the data along with their own expertise.  Injury risk is broken down to percentages for each match.  Fatigue level is not just a green or red bar ala EA Sports FIFA, but is an array of data based on nearly every past game played (over 150 data points for Alonso, for example).

The Sounders want to be the top team in the league.  The ownership has been clear that they invest in anything they're allowed to improve the on-field results.  A top-notch academy, great facilities, medical staff and coaches are major parts of this effort.  Bringing on a former designer of Bing algorithms is another.

If Alonso defies expectations and returns to the field Sunday to help clinch an MLS cup berth for the Sounders, it will be an impressive recovery.  But it won't come as a surprise to the Sounders data experts.

It will be just one more thing Seattle invented.

Check out Microsoft's video below:

[Source: Microsoft]