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Sounders head of analytics provides a peek behind curtain

Ravi Ramineni talks to the Sounder at Heart podcast about his rise to one of the top data analysts in MLS.

Photo courtesy of Jane Gershovich / JaneG. Photo

As recently as 2012, Ravi Ramineni was effectively an unemployed soccer blogger looking for a big break. After several years as a data analyst with Microsoft, he had given himself 6-9 months to chase his passion.

He found an open mind in Dave Tenney, then the Seattle Sounders High Performance Director. Tenney and the Sounders had started gathering huge amounts of data — mostly based on GPS tracking — and needed someone with Ramineni’s expertise to help make sense of it all.

Thus started a nearly 10-year journey that recently resulted in Ramineni’s promotion to Vice President of Soccer Analytics. During that time, Ramineni has helped bring the Sounders to the forefront of statistical analysis in MLS.

Ramineni recently spent nearly an hour with the Sounder at Heart podcast to discuss his own journey, his philosophy and how open-mindedness to new types of information has helped keep the Sounders near the top of the league.

Although Ramineni started out mainly handling fitness data, Garth Lagerwey’s hiring prior to the 2015 season started a transition into more technical sides of the team. Ramineni now helps build statistical models that help shape the Sounders approach to both talent identification and tactics. He’s also tasked with managing the Sounders’ salary cap.

“For any decision, we want to use all the information we have available,” Ramineni said. “Some of that will come in the form of a personal interview, some of it in analytics, some from watching video, some from watching in person. We want to get all of that and see how it will fit and how we can use to make as good of an addition as possible.”

Ramineni likens the role of data to that of side-view mirrors on a car. While the team could still operate just fine without his input, data helps the Sounders limit the number of blind spots they have to deal with.

“It’s not to make risk zero,” Ramineni noted. “You can always do the right process and still get some things wrong because we’re operating in a world where information is imperfect and incomplete. We have to make decisions based off that. In such an environment, it’s important to turn every stone to get the best information.

“The success criteria I look at for my job is that once I have my list, at that point I should be happy if we pick any one of them. That’s what I aim for.”

When Ramineni first started working for the Sounders, data was still relatively scarce. But the number of providers has exploded in recent years and he’s now sorting through millions of lines of data from a given game. The biggest challenge Ramineni faces isn’t gathering the information, it’s making sense of it while acknowledging that there are still problems he can’t solve.

“At the highest level this is much more of a communication problem than an informational problem,” he said. “We need to just be able to say ‘I can’t answer that question.’ That’s something I find incredibly powerful as a communication tool. It’s better than trying come up with something you don’t believe in.”

The Sounders seem to appreciate Ramineni’s approach. While there are other teams around the world and maybe even in MLS who spend more on statistical analysis, few have incorporated it as thoroughly as the Sounders.

Ramineni’s background as a fan and blogger — among his outlets was fellow SB Nation site Villarreal USA — seems to have come in handy. He clearly sees the game as much more than a collection of 1s and 0s.

“The biggest thing I learned when looking at analytics, all the numbers are just what happened in the game, they’re just collected differently,” he said. “The game still tells us a lot of things. If you look at a good team and how they’re creating chances, we’ve all done those plays or those movements involuntarily, but the secret is identifying which are the good ones and repeating them. You have to repeat those actions over and over again and then try to recruit players for them.”

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