Three years on from its initial launch, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) has big plans afoot to firmly establish itself as one of the leading professional soccer leagues across the CONCACAF region.
Following its inaugural season in 2019, the league expanded to eight teams this year with Atlético Ottawa, owned by LaLiga giants Atlético Madrid, joining the competition. Despite having to navigate challenges faced by Covid-19, which resulted in a truncated second edition played during August and September, under the banner of The Island Games, the CPL remains committed to developing the league in the years leading up to the 2026 World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the United States and Mexico.
Engaging With The Next Generation of Data Analysts
At the heart of the league’s strategy to enhance its fan engagement and player identification is data. Prior to its first edition, the CPL struck a four-year data partnership agreement with Stats Perform, which has resulted in Opta data being deeply integrated into the league’s website and apps, as well as on the digital platforms of each member club.
Using data to break down boundaries between the league and its audience is integral to its plans for future development, both in terms of enhancing a fan’s matchday experience and with the league’s direct interaction with the next generation of performance analysts who want to work in the sport professionally, as the league’s Head of On-Field Performance and Recruitment, Oliver Gage, explains.
“In terms of digital engagement and how fans interact with their teams, the world is so different compared to 10 years ago,” says Gage, who spent over five years working in analysis and recruitment for MLS franchise Houston Dynamo prior to joining the league.
“The CPL is probably the only football league in the world that truly started from scratch in the modern digital era and we want the CPL to be known as the league that is forward thinking when it comes to the sharing of data information.
“Stats Perform data is integrated into pretty much everything we do across media, performance and fan engagement. The data powers the website and our apps, so there’s an awful lot of data flowing through the whole league ecosystem.”
As well as giving fans the ability to review interactive statistics from every CPL match, the league has gone one step further in terms of making advanced, detailed data available to budding analysts, via its Centre Circle Data initiative.
Gage believes that the project, which includes detailed statistics on every ball touch that occurs in matches, is proving to be a vital first step in getting Canadian analysts engaged with data from their own domestic competition.
“Centre Circle Data started off as a 100% football-driven initiative,” says the Englishman.
“It wasn’t something designed to help get us more people into the stands or increase website visitors, this was all about driving the next wave of analysts in Canada.
“We want analysis as a culture within our clubs and we want to encourage objective decision-making – and ideally, we want Canadians to be filling analyst roles. Therefore, if we want our clubs to be hiring Canadian analysts in 3-5 years’ time, we need to give aspiring analysts the ability to hone their skills. Centre Circle Data does exactly that.
“It’s a live data set, so people can grab data on all the CPL teams and start importing data into their dashboards to build their own models. Then they can start doing their own visualizations.
“We are currently going through a process that a lot of European countries went through during the 2010s, when various fanalyst accounts started appearing with new and innovative ways of analysing and presenting data. Now we have Canadian fanalysts tweeting out insights about various players and teams and who knows, one of these people could eventually get hired by someone moving forward.”
Infographics generated using Centre Circle Data, courtesy of @6yardscreamers
Identifying Recruitment Targets For The Inaugural Season
In a sign of the league’s growing maturity around the adoption of advanced analytical processes, earlier this year one of its member clubs, York9, added a Director of On-Field Analytics, Sam Gregory, to its backroom staff to support its match analysis and recruitment processes.
This is a far cry from the early days following the league’s launch, where the CPL’s central scouting and analysis operation, based out of the league’s central office, was given the task of assembling an extensive pool of recruitment targets to help the initial seven member clubs build-out their rosters from scratch.
Gage headed up that five-person team, who all worked together to identify players, including Canadian nationals playing overseas, who could potentially become part of the new competition.
To assist with that process, the team of recruitment staff worked with Stats Perform’s ProVision tool, using data insights to analyse the performance of prospects who at the time were playing in other competitions in North America to establish how their performance compared to that of the leading performers in the leagues they were involved with.
“When you are recruiting for a club, generally speaking, that club will have a way of playing and you have a very specific style of player you want in each position,” says Gage.
“However, when you’re recruiting for seven different teams across the League, we found that it was more about gathering a diverse pool of players rather than looking for the best player in a specific role. If we take one role in isolation, for example a right-sided winger, the requirement was to bring in between 14 and 20 wingers to fill out the rosters of each team. Therefore, we were looking to find around 50 options for right wingers, all with different styles, for the teams choose from.
“In terms of domestic players, our player pool was mainly assembled by Aaron Nielsen. He has gathered an awful lot of information and tracked pretty much every Canadian player that’s ever kicked a ball either inside or outside of Canada. So, when we looked at the domestic player pool, Aaron was a huge resource.
“Because there was no professional league in Canada, we had a number of Canadians that were playing in other leagues around the world, whether that was somewhere in Europe or right on our doorstep in MLS or USL. So immediately it was obvious for us to acquire data for those US leagues from Stats Perform and use the ProVision platform to do detailed data analysis to ensure we had up-to-date information on the Canadians in those leagues.
“As well as data analysis, there are other key factors with international recruitment, like suitability and playing styles. The challenge of getting a player to settle in a new country was fine because all the players were Canadian, but from a playing styles point of view we struggled with league strengths and league suitability, because we hadn’t kicked a ball in our league at that point. So, when it came to assembling the final pool there was definitely a little bit of guesswork and trying to cover off all scenarios.”
Enhancing Overseas Player Identification
Following on from the first CPL campaign, which was won by Ontario-based franchise Forge FC, the recruitment operation within the league’s soccer operations department looked to refocus their priorities and provide additional support to the teams, who, following a year of competition, had started to instil their own unique identities linked to the playing styles implemented by their coaches.
One area highlighted by Gage and his team where they could help the teams, who by this time had begun to bed in their own recruitment processes, was in the identification of young emerging players based abroad in key recruitment markets.
As a result, the league embarked on a partnership with another Stats Perform partner, 21st Club, who used Stats Perform event data to create a database made up of international players aged 23 and under, fitting the league’s key overseas recruitment criteria.
As all the work from central office is conducted on behalf of all member clubs, the league cannot make individual player recommendations to one club, however Gage believes that the initiative has provided teams with another valuable resource in 2020 to potentially make better informed decisions when recruiting players from abroad.
“International recruitment is very difficult. Even the best teams in the world can get it wrong when they recruit players internationally for millions of pounds,” says Gage.
“All our teams work independently so at all times they make their own decisions. What we’re trying to do is provide an additional resource that helps our teams in international markets, because they are incredibly difficult to navigate.
“The inner workings of our partnership with 21st Club are very complex, but the philosophy is actually quite simple. For example, one of the basic concepts is based on 21st Club’s World Super League, as we want to recruit foreign players from clubs that are ranked equal or better than the CPL.
“Then we want players that are going to be towards the younger end of the scale, under 24, and have played significant first team minutes already. Through applying those filters, we want to identify players where we can say, with a fairly good level of confidence, that if recruited they are going to improve our league and strengthen the competition.
“It’s all about being a bit smarter and bit more targeted with our recruitment, and we are very pleased with how it has progressed so far.”
All of the information in the database is openly accessible to every team and since the announcement of the partnership in January 2020, a number of overseas players identified through the centralised scouting system have gone on to be recruited and featured in The Island Games. This included Mexico youth international Alejandro Díaz, who signed with Pacific FC and midfielder Erik Zetterberg, who was the league’s first overseas player to be recruited from Europe, who plays for FC Edmonton.
Establishing the True Value of The League’s Assets
Following on from the success of the project, Gage believes that 21st Club and their applied use of Stats Perform data will also be able to further support the league with some of its ongoing work into developing a player valuation model.
The model is being devised to help the CPL establish the financial value of every player involved in the competition in the wider context of the global player market, so in the event of one of the league’s players being coveted by a leading club from abroad, they can ensure they receive financial remuneration in line with the player’s true valuation.
“We’ve obviously got an idea of how good we think an outgoing player is, and from using 21st Club’s World Super League, together with their team strength and player contribution models, we can try to establish a baseline player valuation, which would be the starting point for any negotiation,” says Gage.
“We can look at precedents set by previous transfers, so for example when one of our players last season, Tristian Borges, was sold to a club in Belgium, we could establish what the typical transfer fee would be for a player of his level going into Belgium, based on what had happened previously.
“One thing we don’t want to do is undersell some of the league’s most valuable assets, so we have to make sure that player valuations are correct from day one.”
Using Analysis as a Tool to Develop Young Prospects
The league’s analytical approach to valuations also stretches to the performance evaluation of every contracted player in the league, with Gage’s team analysing Stats Perform data against relevant on-field KPIs to make recommendations as to what salary bracket each player should fit into.
At the heart of the league’s strategy to grow and develop is to integrate young talented players, from both home and abroad. To help facilitate that, the Englishman thinks that the CPL’s commitment to encouraging a high-performance culture across each club will have a big part to play in achieving that.
“We are trying to be smarter than other leagues of a similar size,” he points out.
“So, if we are trying to compete with certain leagues around the world, of course we’re going to have to spend money, but we can also be intelligent with where we spend that money.
“I would like to think that an analyst is a pretty good example of a good investment. When we talk about the domestic player pool, having an analyst that works day-in, day-out with the coaching staff on tactics, opposition analysis, player feedback and who can actively help individual players improve, through devising development pathways and KPIs to help measure their performances, is only going to be hugely beneficial.
“This is how analysis can help us squeeze more out of our existing player pool. If we then switch our attention back to recruitment, a good recruitment analyst is going to be worth ten times their salary in the value they bring to a club.
“Domestic Canadian players are going to have a big part to play in growing our league, but that is going to be a slow burner. You won’t see investment in domestic player development come to fruition for a number of years, because of the time it takes for youth players to develop into elite performers. But in the short-term we can look to target young players from abroad that would improve the calibre of the league, so recruitment analysis can play a huge part in finding the right international players for us.
“If you’re recruiting a young international player, the theory is that they should improve with you and in turn, improve the league as a whole. Then if the opportunity arises for them to play at a higher level, for the benefit of their career, we will embrace it.
“After the first league season we sold four Canadian players, but we didn’t sell any international players. We want to change that. We want to be selling both types of player and reinvest the money we recoup back into the league to further strengthen the competition.”
The Road to 2026
Following this year’s Island Games, where Forge secured their second successive title, the CPL will be looking to return to a normal match schedule going into 2021, as they push towards achieving their target of firmly establishing themselves as one of the leading leagues in CONCACAF by the time the World Cup returns to North America in six years’ time.
What’s more, Gage thinks that the foundations that are being laid now will reap rewards further down the line, to ensure that the league punches above its weight through the intelligent investment and application of data.
He says: “In terms of the on-field product, we have a very specific plan leading up to the 2026 World Cup of how we are going to get from where we are now, to where we want to be by 2026.
“We know that each year we have to grow, demonstrate incremental improvements and use this plan as a template for how we’re going to go about doing that.
“To help achieve that, we have looked to instil a culture across every department, from the ownership groups down, where decision-making is more objective, targeted and evidence-based, so it goes without saying that data has a huge part to play.
“Intelligent player recruitment and performance analysis are vital elements of this plan. We have just finished our second season and I am seeing already that analysis conversations in clubs have moved on a lot from year one. Coaches are asking some really intelligent and creative questions around ‘how do I investigate this aspect of the game using data?’ or ‘what does the data tell me about this?’ which is a really good sign.
“As we grow, analysis infrastructure is going to be something that’s essential to our clubs, so it will not be a question of ‘should we have an analysis department?’, instead it will be ‘how big should our department be?
“That is something which is incredibly exciting to be a part of.”
To access the CPL’s Centre Circle Data, powered by Stats Perform, please visit the official website.