Paul Carr on seeking soccer stats that matter and finding fascinating factoids

In 2010, Paul Carr learned that no U.S. men’s team substitute had ever scored a World Cup goal.

He was at that FIFA World Cup in South Africa, working as a senior researcher in ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. No substitute tallied that year either.

But four years later, John Brooks came off the bench at halftime. His 86th-minute header gave the USA a stunning 2-1 victory over Ghana, to open the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Carr was there, in Brazil. He remembered the factoid, and passed it along to Ian Darke. The announcer mentioned it before the ensuing kickoff.

That’s one type of statistic Carr has made a career of finding, remembering and passing along. He’s also adept at analyzing match statistics, like passes, and shots on goal.

But the business of analytics is now far beyond that. Thanks to technology – and an ever-evolving demand for numbers – the soccer world has access to stats like passing accuracy, line-breaking passes, runs off the ball, and one of Carr’s favorites: “expected goals” (the quality of a chance, as calculated by the likelihood of success from a particular position on the field during a particular phase of play).

Paul Carr (far right) with Bob Ley, Taylor Twellman and Kasey Keller (left to right).

Soccer was traditionally not a statistics-driven sport. Its free-flowing nature and low scoring made it less beholden to numbers than, say, baseball, where pitches, hits and outs, or football (yards, passes, tackles) can be recorded clearly (and easily, between breaks in action).

Traditional statistics, Carr says, can be misleading. “Shots on goal” may include worthless shots directly at the keeper, while missing the much more dangerous ball that whistles inches wide of the post.

But the evolution of the game has made soccer stats more easily measured and analyzed. There’s a market for them too, including coaches, players, front office personnel, broadcasters and fans.

Carr has always loved numbers. He played soccer recreationally as a youngster in Kansas, and was excited when the 1994 World Cup came to America. He arrived at Wheaton College in Illinois the year after its soccer team won the NCAA Division III men's national championship. From friends on the team, the communications major learned about the international game. He broadcast Wheaton games on radio, kept statistics and, he says, “played a lot of FIFA.”

After stints as a radio, television and newspaper reporter in Topeka, he was hired by ESPN. After two years with the “Mike & Mike in the Morning Show,” he moved to the Stats & Information Group. Carr worked dozens of international games, producing voluminous fact files on countries, teams and more.

In 2018, after 10 years at ESPN, Carr left Bristol, Connecticut for his native Kansas. He works for TruMedia Networks, building analytics platforms and metrics for over 100 teams and media clients in MLB, NFL, the NCAA, even cricket.

But there’s a special spot in his heart for soccer.

Carr knows that basic statistics don’t always tell a true story. One team can outshoot another, and lead in corner kicks, yet lose 1-0.

It’s the newer, more refined, dig-deeper stats that can truly help. Some of those numbers and metrics are available by computers. They can count touches, analyze who is where on the field, determine how quickly they move (and if they move as well at the end of a match as the beginning or middle). It takes milliseconds to record what human beings once labored to do. It costs less, too.

Soccer analytics can help “prove” what coaches, players and fans instinctively understand. “Everyone knew Xavi was great,” Carr says. “But you couldn’t really quantify the number of quality passes he made.”

Of course, soccer’s various stakeholders have different uses for statistics. A television announcer looks at numbers one way; a coach planning for an upcoming match, another; a scout assessing players, a third. “Context is king,” Carr notes.

The soccer world is still figuring out which statistics are important, and how to use them. But though they are his profession, Carr cautions they are not the most important part of the game.

The finish of last year’s Nations League final was “nuts,” Carr recalls. He got caught up in numbers, as the USA and Mexico battled back and forth, end to end.

But he’s a soccer fan. So when the match was over, he replayed it. He wanted to savor the beauty and tenacity of the Americans’ 3-2 victory, without any statistics in mind.

7 comments about "Paul Carr on seeking soccer stats that matter and finding fascinating factoids".
  1. Michael Saunders, April 22, 2022 at 10:22 a.m.

    Thank you SA yet again .....  Paul. Mike & staff always provide unique perspectives to this sport

  2. Kent James, April 22, 2022 at 3:59 p.m.

    I was first introduced to soccer statistics in the early 1980s when I was playing in college and my coach (who took a cerebral approach to the game) provided two things; unforced errors (essentially a bad pass without being under pressure) and a the passes a team made drawn on a mimeograph of the field, to show where the other team was having their possession.  I found both statistics pretty useful for helping to understand what was happening in the game.  

    While the game thrives on creativity (as Paul Gardner rightfully pounds his drum on) but statistics can help you understand and appreciate the game better.  And statistics (used intelligently) can help your team be more offective.

    The one common statistic that may be misleading, and could be used more effectively, is possession.  I think it is based on completed passes (% of) because I know they keep that stat, but I'm not sure. That of course allows teams that make a lot of short passes (Barca) to always dominate that stat.  But that counts passes among the defenders as equal to a thru pass that creates a break-away.  I'd like to see a stat on "penetrating passes" (a pass that beats defenders, and maybe giving more points to a pass that beats more defenders).  The point of the game is not to pass the ball, but to score goals, and penetrating passes do that.  It would document how often a team takes a risk (especially if their was a corresponding stat of penetrating passes attempted).  I hope soccer never becomes stat assessed (like baseball, e.g.), but I do think there is a role for using stats to improve the game (as long as it can be done without crushing creativity).

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, April 25, 2022 at 12:15 a.m.

    I wish they'd get rid of those Beep Bras.!!!... Creates Players that Run like Mice on a Tread Mill... Doesn't matter where they go... Just keep Running.!!!

  4. James Madison, April 22, 2022 at 4:52 p.m.

    Penetraing passes are, indeed, significant, but so are the passes that set up penetraring passes.  Watch, for example, the four passes that preceded the ball Mane chipped in front of Salah for Liverpool's first goal against Man U this weeks.  A dazzling sequence.  Passes around the back may be just that, or they may be like the activity of a tiger surveying prey and waiting for the ideal moment to spring with sudden series of quick moves and pounce!! 

    And the passes in the back may have a different significance if opponent is pressing than if it is not.

    The point is that different passes and other activities differ in significance depending on the circumstances.  The benefit of computers and computer programs is that they can digest masses of data, both ot support decisions on what is signficant and what is not, to determine when players are successful in what is successful and when not, and ultimately is showing players which is which and how to succeed in perceiving and doing what is significant.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, April 24, 2022 at 7:35 a.m.

    We see the game differently. Me, I don't think of "passes" as penetrating because the ball does not penetrate. The team penetrates by possessing the ball further toward the opponent's goal. Sending a ball upfield by itself accomplishes nothing and may actually give away possession to the opponent.

    I also don't define "through" passes as "penetrating", i.e., by their direction. A through ball in my view is defined by reducing the number of opponents defending between the ball and their goal. An effective pass changing the direction of the attack accomplishes this purpose. For that matter effective diagonal passes are better than "vertical" passes. Ask any experienced winger. 

    I believe part of the inability for US coaches to understand positional play is that they think the objective of soccer is to make a vertical pass behind the opponent's back line.

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, April 24, 2022 at 11:21 p.m.

    Yup Bob, Ask Dest about those Diagonal Passes, that probably just Cost him his Job at Farça.!!! 72% Possession para NADA.!!!

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, April 25, 2022 at 12:12 a.m.

    James; I guess the 4 Passes confused McGuirre so much that he Gave Mane 5yards Unmolested to turn and Pass Forward.!!!... Jajaja

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