Researchers use science to identify soccer stars

Until now, rating the world’s best soccer players was often based on a fan’s personal sense of the game. But researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., recently developed a computer program that, for the first time, measures player success based on objective assessments of performance instead of opinion.

Luis Amaral, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern, says that while basketball and baseball offer a wealth of statistical data to gauge the performance of individual players–such as runs batted in, strikeouts, steals and rebounds–this isn’t the case with soccer.

So he and a team of researchers used their computational skills to write software that pulled play-by-play statistical information from the 2008 Euro Cup website.

Their results closely matched the opinions of sports reporters who covered the matches as well as the team of experts, coaches and managers that subjectively chose players for the “best of” tournament teams.

Amaral says this kind of analysis, published today in a Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE, can be used outside of the world of soccer. For example, companies could use the method to measure the performance of employees working together on a team project.

The National Science Foundation’s Science of Science & Innovation Program, in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate, partially funded the research. The project is the outgrowth of an effort to develop transparent, statistically-sound methods to describe the productivity of researchers and institutions, and the impact of their work.

Read more about Northwestern’s soccer study on the university’s website.

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