Teenaged boys, full-grown adults, and certain ordained local rabbis spend untold hours tinkering with imaginary soccer teams on Football Manager or FIFA 16 to assemble the right team, the best talent, and the right mix to have a winning soccer team. A winning soccer team that, of course, only exists in zeros and ones.
But Padraig Smith (pronounced ‘Porrick’) has what many would consider a soccer-lovers dream job: he, along with other members of the Rapids front office staff like Claudio Lopez, Paul Bravo, Tim Hinchey, Brian Crookham, and Pablo Mastroeni, actually find the right players each year to build a real live soccer team.
At the same time as it must be incredible fun to play ‘Football Manager’ in real life as your day job, the pressure is no game. Never has MLS been more talented, and never have the margins between good teams and teams been as close, as they are right now.
I was lucky enough to meet with the ever-gracious and incredibly kind Padraig Smith in his office in Commerce City. Stacked next to books like ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, on the history of soccer tactics from 1870 to today, and ‘Richer than God’, the story of Manchester City’s rise to power, are books on economic theory and baseball sabrmetrics. It clearly shows that, while Smith is rooted in the beautiful game, he clearly is a broad-thinking intellect that tries to use metrics and statistics to apply the ‘Moneyball’ theory - using numbers to exploit inefficiencies in a marketplace, or scurrying out undervalued talent - wherever he can find it.
Smith is a brilliant, easy-going, charismatic guy. An Irishman with that fantastic lilt, he thinks big thoughts, rapid-fire, without cease. In the span of a brief period we discussed advanced metrics, his love for baseball, what he learned working in FIFA headquarters with the Financial Analysis Group on FIFA Financial Fair Play , and his trips to Tel Aviv. He talked thoughtfully about the challenges of identifying and acquiring players.
My favorite thing, though, was that Padraig had a very human touch when discussing personnel decisions. When I asked about a certain player, Padraig invariably began his comments on that players role or growth with “So-and-so is a wonderful guy” or “He has an incredible work-ethic.” Despite his role as the sabrmetric whiz on the Rapids staff, tasked with quantifying aspects of player performance in order to improve team play or find an upgrade at a position, Padraig doesn’t sees people as numbers: he sees people as people first, and an important second that they are also soccer players that help the club win.
Below is the text of my interview with Padraig; the topic in bold, his words below. Thanks to Mr. Smith for taking the time to meet and chat, and also to the Rapids Communications department for making him available to Burgundy Wave.
Interview with Padraig Smith
On the challenges of building a roster in a league with complicated cap, designated player, and allocation money rules...
I look at it, first and foremost as a big jigsaw puzzle, basically. I think it’s very exciting, and it gives us a level playing field, ultimately. We can carry, with all the different technicalities, we can essentially carry a twenty-nine man roster, so every team starts with that, and it means that other teams can only have three players that they can spend wildly on. So we’re really all in the same boat for twenty-six players. And I think that means that if you are intelligent, and if you’re smart with your player acquisition strategy, that you can put yourself in a position to be successful year-in, year-out. And that’s really what we want to do here. We want to be a perennial playoff team. And I think that, while there are constraints in place, the constraints are the same for everybody. And I certainly believe that what we’re putting in place here now; the strategy, the player evaluation database, and the structures that we’ve got in place, will enable us to be strong for years to come and on a consistent basis.
On the success of three off-season acquisitions that might have been a bit of an unknown coming in for Rapids fans, Micheal Azira, Shkelzen Gashi, and Eric Miller, and what the team saw in those players...
It helps that I was living in Switzerland for a while*, so I had good knowledge of the Swiss League and there’s no doubt that Shkelzen Gashi was doing exceptionally well there. He’s been top scorer, two years running, and not just with (FC) Basel, he’d done it with Grasshoppers as well. He’s also been the MVP, or their equivalent of the MVP over there. So he had a lot of pedigree, and he was certainly somebody we knew about. We have a very simple saying that we don’t sign anybody based purely on the data, nor would we sign anybody without examining the data.
He was one of those that, straight away, he had the pedigree. When you watched him play, his goals were coming in lots of different ways. He was a real striker. He was lethal from inside the box, when he was following through, coming from the left-hand side. But when he played in the ten** he would get on the ball, and he’s got a shot. They haven’t all necessarily gone in here as of yet, but I think the best is yet to come from Gashi, and he’s been a great addition. He sees the game in a slightly different way than others. I think he’s obviously played at a very high level over there, played Champions League, played against the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, that competition, and I think he’s going to be a big bonus for us over the years.
Azira was very different. Azira was a data find, really. When we looked at the information that we had, and the data that we had from MLS for the last couple of years, while we didn’t have massive amount of game time, we did have enough so that it wasn’t necessarily a small sample size, and we saw a couple of things in there that we felt would make him a good addition. And what we do is when we find someone by using data that really kind of pops out in our rankings, we then spend a little bit more time analyzing them. Everybody, especially our director of scouting, Mitch Murray, had a good look at him, and we all felt as we looked at him as a group, that he was somebody that would fit in quite nicely.
I would add Eric Miller to that list as well. Eric is another player that wasn’t getting a huge amount of game time, but in our ranks, was right up there. We actually had him as the second-ranked right back in the league last year. So these are players that we’re looking for. We’re always looking for value players, because I think it’s important that you bring in players that can contribute in the first team without taking up a huge amount of the cap space. That’s a big part of the jigsaw puzzle, and when you get those sort of players and they do contribute obviously it allows you to go out and use the rest of the cap space in other areas.
On how the Rapids under Smith have used specific types of data to find the right players, and what stats or data they like to use...
There’s not any one number that is going to differentiate any one player for another. But we have a clear idea in terms of how we want to play. Pablo understands what he wants to do and how he wants to go about attacking every game. We break that down then in a formation basis, essentially looking at a 4-2-3-1, that’s the first formation that we use, and within that formation, each position has a set number of attributes that we want players to exhibit if we think they’re going to fit into our team. We have them broken down in terms of your fullbacks: 2s and 3s, your 4 and 5 centerbacks, 6s (usually a defense-first type defensive midfielder), 8s (a two-way midfielder, sometimes called a ‘box-to-box’ mid), 7, 11, (wide midfielders) one that comes underneath (cuts inside), one that goes beyond, different types of forwards, a number 10 and a number 9 (lone striker).
And we know how we want the player in each of those positions to perform. we know what we want them to do, and we assign attributes to that, and then metrics to those attributes. So we’ve got twelve metrics for each position, and we’ve really weight those metrics out, to develop a ranking system for each position.
(Some of those stats are Opta Stats)... and some of those are proprietary to us. What I’m certainly looking forward to is when we have our player database up and running, which will take some of the manual working out of this, and I’m very excited about that and I think we’re getting close to that as well.
Rabbi- So you’re looking to draft a Harvard PhD in statistics as much as you’re looking for first round picks at forward...
We’re looking to bring on someone who can help us in this area, and we’ve had some incredible candidates for that, some very talented people. So that’s exciting.
On exciting signings over in Europe during this summer transfer window, both large and small...
Irrespective of the money; it’s a huge amount of money to spend; but for Manchester United to go out and buy a Paul Pogba is a real statement acquisition. And from my time in UEFA, I’ve got a good understanding of the financial situation for those clubs. A team like Man United will recoup that transfer fee relatively quickly.
Those teams; the Manchester Uniteds, the Barcelonas, the Real Madrids, the Bayern Munichs of this world, thats a level of acquisition that they can make, and make, I don’t want to say ‘comfortably’, but its something they can do because they know they will recoup that money from a commercial perspective. And I think, for United, when they are outside of the Champions League, attracting players of that level, that’s an added challenge. That signing made a lot of sense for them in that it brings them back to a certain level, and I’m sure they believe it’s going to bring them back to the Champions League, which will be a huge financial windfall to them as well.
(On the topic of a ‘small’ signing) Gent had just bought Emir Kujovic from Norrköping in Sweden.*** I’m not exactly sure how much they’ve spent on him, but he’s a good player. I think he led the Swedish League in goals scored. Gent have got a good reputation in terms of developing players in the Belgian League, and I think he’s somebody who will go there and do quite well for them.
* Note: Padraig worked for UEFA in Basel from 2011-2014.
** number ten; the creative attacking midfielder at the center of the offense.
*** When Padraig said this, it sounded, like this: “Hyenntc have just bought Aymeer Kooyovich from Nooring Kolping in Sweden.” I needed to google five words in an eight-word sentence phoenitically to figure out what the hell he was saying.