MDS Employer Spotlight: Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Capstone Partner Profile

The Vancouver Whitecaps are Vancouver’s Major League Soccer franchise with a long and storied history dating back to their inaugural season in1974. In their almost 50-year history, countless players have put on the Whitecaps kit and ran onto the soccer field hard to capture the win.

With all those players hitting the field, Vancouver Whitecaps FC is utilizing data science to inform decisions across several areas of Soccer Operations, including decisions about athletes’ physical preparation, injury prevention, return to sport, player identification/scouting, performance analysis, and opposition scouting.

Some of the data the Whitecaps deal with include match data like event-based data (e.g. passes, shots, tackles, interceptions) and tracking data (the x/y coordinates of all 22 players and the ball, recorded at 25 Hz).

For training, the club also employs wearable technology on all players (GPS, accelerometry, heart rate). Player screening protocols include strength tests, movement screen data, aerobic capacity tests, etc…

To handle and analyze all the performance-related data at the club, the club has a Performance Data Science department comprised of three full-time members. “Beyond traditional data science coding and modeling skills, our data science team members are also involved in tasks that include collecting data in the field (e.g. live GPS data), building surveys or apps for data collection, orchestrating data pipelines/ETL processes, helping to build and maintain our SQL Database, and constructing final end-user interfaces, through web platforms or BI software,” explained Dr. Johann Windt, Head of Data Science - Performance at Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

The Whitecaps’ data science department works in two main pillars: 1) the daily training environment, and 2) research & innovation.

“A notable portion of the usual workday is spent in the daily training environment ensuring data is collected reliably – reports are generated and distributed as planned, and any necessary daily troubleshooting is taken care of. As time and bandwidth allow, we continue to drive research & innovation projects forward,” said Windt.

One of the ways the Whitecaps drive their research & innovation projects is through partnerships, like with the UBC Master of Data Science program’s capstone project.

“What the MDS program empowers us to do is to partner with a group of brilliant students to drive Research & Innovation projects forward that originate from challenges/questions in our daily training environment, but would take us a lot longer to complete given our other daily responsibilities. In essence, the MDS Capstone project allows us to collaboratively work with students to complete in 8 weeks what otherwise might take us a year,” Windt said.

The Whitecaps submitted two capstone projects this past year. The first project (winning the goal differential race) asked the group to use event data to build models of player performance. The second project was on modeling the physical outputs of the Vancouver Whitecaps and was built to model players’ fitness and fatigue over time, using available GPS data from training and match play.  

“We thoroughly enjoyed working with our two groups of MDS students. Our weekly check-in calls were the mainstay of collaboration with them. These conversations were so fruitful and so enjoyable that they often pushed beyond the hour commitment, and Friday mornings became the highlight of our week for the 8-week duration of the capstone projects,” noted Windt.

By capstone’s end, the Whitecaps had a position open up and several of the students from the projects applied for the position at its Performance Data Science department.

“We were incredibly impressed by the quality of the students and the quality of the work by both our Capstone project groups,” said Windt. “We were extremely pleased to hire a great person and gifted data scientist in Alexander Hinton.”

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