|The SMU Mustangs kick off the season Feb. 6 at Memphis, and host their first home game of the season Feb. 20 against Tulsa (photo by SMU athletics).
In a way, Billy Nayden was like so many other current and former SMU students. While in school from 2010-14 while working on his Bachelor’s of Business Administration in Marketing from the Cox School of Business, he became a PonyFan, with season tickets to football and basketball.
That might be where the similarities to other PonyFans end.
Nayden is an SMU student again and will earn his Master’s of Science in Data Science in May. In addition to football and basketball, he became a loyal supporter of SMU’s men’s soccer team — “obsessed” with the sport, as he put it — and created a plan to combine his academic study his love for the sport, all in an effort to reach a specific career goal. To reach it, he reached out to SMU men’s soccer head coach Kevin Hudson.
| (photo by SMU athletics).
“I e-mailed (Hudson) cold,” Nayden said. “I told him that I’m in a Master’s program, working with analytics, and wondering if there was anything I can do to help out. We hopped on a Zoom call, I pitched him on what I could do for him with a kind of deep dive into the data of the game.”
Hudson, who graduated magna cum laude
from SMU with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration (finance) and a Bachelor’s in psychology, and later graduated magna cum laude
with a Master’s in the Science of Accountancy from Notre Dame, was intrigued by the academic approach to the sport he played and coaches.
“We got to talking, and Billy had done some studying on analytics in soccer that some teams have used, some big professional clubs,” Hudson said. “He had ideas about how he could help, but needed more information. But he said he couldn’t get all the data he needs. Some of it is out there publicly, but he wanted some positional data and coding off a program we use called InStat — it helps with match analysis — in order to produce any real analytics.”
Hudson added Nayden to the Mustangs’ staff as a data analyst.
“We have helped him acquire all of our data from last year, 2019,” Hudson said, “so he can build a program with some friends, a computer model that can be replicated and run with our data.”
As Nayden’t appreciation for the sport grew, so too did his realization that what he was considering was largely uncharted territory in the sport.
“When I got in to my Master’s program, I wanted to figure out how to get in to sports analytics,” he said. “I started reading about what people did in different sports, but I also realized that nobody had really cracked the nut with soccer. I started reading research papers, studying the expected goals, how teams think about this. It’s sort of the soccer equivalent of the ‘Moneyball’ idea in baseball, how to get the most out of what you have.
“There are some teams in Europe — the Liverpools, the Dortmunds — that track a lot of data, that rely on some algorithms for additional information, but there certainly isn’t a lot of it here, especially in college.”
Hudson said he and his staff will take some of the data Nayden compiles and implement it into their game plans for each week; the Mustangs, who were picked to win the American Athletic Conference title this season in a vote of the conference’s coaches, kick off the season Feb. 6 at Memphis.
“Eventually, what he’s doing will provide us with bits of data that can help,” Hudson said. “We’re looking for things like positions that you have players take up, positions to find the ball, things that lead to better opportunities at goal.”
“I’m not trying to tell him how to coach. He’s a great coach — he obviously does a lot of things right,” Nayden said of Hudson, who kicks off his sixth season as the Mustangs’ head coach with a record of 66-22-10 (.724). “It’s more about using data to compile trends, study passing sequences and consider different ways to create chances. This isn’t going to reinvent the way the team plays, but could it produce information that leads to winning a close game instead of losing that game? I think it can.
“I said ‘this is what some of the biggest European clubs are doing, and I think I can help you bridge a gap.”
Nayden doesn’t see his contribution to the Mustangs solely as head-down number crunching.
“I started to think about how you balance the art and science of what is clearly an artistic sport — it’s why they call soccer ‘the Beautiful Game.’ What I can offer won’t change the players physically, and I’m definitely not telling the coaches how to coach.
“The information I’ll work with just looks at different ways to get the best players in the best positions, to give them a chance to be successful.”
Hudson said that even in his early conversations with Nayden, he began to consider some ideas that could represent soccer versions of outside-the-box thinking.
“He gridded off the field into 18 zones,” Hudson said. “The zone at the top of the box — the most goals come from that zone. If we can create chances in optimal spots on the field, the success rate should go up, which makes time possession a less relevant number than it is often considered to be. Possession doesn’t correlate to wins and losses. Goals do.”
To that end, Nayden again drew on the parallel between soccer and baseball.
“It’s the easiest entry point to soccer analytics and the normal (soccer) way of thinking,” he said. “It’s sort of like in baseball: you know who hit the most home runs, but on-base percentage is critical. This is the same thing, the same abstract kind of thinking.
“Crossing the ball comes from the English game — the idea is that if you throw the ball into the box, into the ‘mixer’ (in front of the goal), your guy can jump up to get a header. But the way we look at it, crossing is not efficient. In Europe, a lot of crosses don’t even get to the goal, and that number is even lower in college. Instead, there are times when we should think about cutting in and dribbling to the top of the box, or recycling the ball to the top of the box to get the ball to the striker or wings.”
How Nayden’s metrics affect the Mustangs remains to be seen. The addition of a data analyst is not unique in college soccer — Oregon State had one when current SMU assistant Ben Stoddard coached there — but it is far from common.
“Having someone like Billy work with our team is a new idea, but every coach is looking for ways to find an advantage,” Hudson said. “Hopefully Billy can be that for us.”