Evangelo Spartiatis, 18, still remembers seeing professional soccer players on Facebook and Instagram wearing "some vest" during training. "What is that?" he recalls thinking. "Why are they wearing it?" Well, as it turns out, what was once a curiosity for him three years ago is, now, something he's all too familiar with. That "vest" Spartiatis talks about is part of a GPS-tracking system he has to wear every day he trains at the Atlanta United Academy, where he plays for the Under-19 development team of the current Major League Soccer (MLS) champion. He's one of Atlanta United's 155 youth players training with the Apex GPS, a wearable designed to measure their distance covered, acceleration, deceleration, speed and work rate.
Developed by STATSports, a company founded in 2008 in Northern Ireland, the Apex Athlete Monitoring system consists of a vest that goes between a player's shoulder blades and a small, lightweight GPS device that attaches to it. During a typical training session, its system will collect millions of data points from players, which, STATSports says, can be streamed to a laptop, smartphone, tablet or smartwatch in real time. This allows coaches and training staff to monitor a player's performance live, both in training or in an actual match. If a player isn't covering ground they're supposed to, or if they're not running as fast as they could, the team's staff will know immediately.
Atlanta United's use of the Apex Athlete Monitoring system is part of a deal between STATSports and US Soccer announced in March of 2018 as the "world's largest-ever wearable performance tracking device partnership." Together, they brought more than 6,500 Apex GPS units to professional players for the men and women teams of US Soccer, as well as the organization's 74 development academies. The goal with the latter, US Soccer and STATSports said, is to benefit youth soccer at the grassroots level, where data produced by the Apex Athlete Monitoring system could help shape the stars of the future. At the very least, it can determine who is committed and who isn't.
At the development stage, young players need all the help they can get to make it to the next level, and coaches at Atlanta United are using data from the Apex GPS to push and accelerate the development of prospect players -- those who have a real shot at playing in the senior MLS squad. Just four weeks ago, Atlanta United sold Miguel Almiron, one of its young stars, for a reported fee of $27 million to English Premier League club Newcastle United. And while Almiron wasn't a homegrown player, it shows you the business potential of proper youth development.
In December 2016, three months before Atlanta United had even made its MLS debut, Tony Annan took the role of the team's Academy Director. While the club was founded in 2014, Atlanta United didn't actually play its first MLS match until March 5th, 2017, but by then its development academy was already in full force. Annan told Engadget that his job is to ensure he gets youth players, all the way from 12 to 19 years old, ready for Atlanta United's professional team. His role entails anything from planning training sessions and communicating with other coaches to dealing with parents who want to check on the progress of their kids.
Right now, there are 12 prospects across three to four age groups at the Atlanta United Academy, all of whom are going through individual development work to help them take the next step in their soccer career. Annan says this means using data and metrics from the Apex Athlete Monitoring systems to know what players are doing right or wrong, and to know how much they can be pushed to their limit. "A lot of technology these days is used to push players," he said, "but we can use it to pull back, as well." Pulling back, he added, is essential to avoid injuries, which can be crucial early on in a player's development.
"You call them gamers. They don't train very well, they don't look interested, their numbers are rubbish, and then they come to a game and they light it up."
As much as it helps to get an unprecedented amount of insight into an individual's performance, though, there are players whose data points may not be particularly positive. But they stand out in a different way: These are players who have the intangibles needed to succeed in soccer, that magic touch. They're players who maybe don't run half as hard as everyone else in training, and who would be flagged by the Apex GPS devices as underperforming, but that during a match they'll do better than their entire team.
"You call them gamers," Annan said. "They don't train very well, they don't look interested, their numbers are rubbish, and then they come to a game and they light it up." He added that these are anomalies in football, where a player does whatever they want in training and, yet, the game seems to come easily to them. "They don't really put forth an effort, and all of a sudden they win you the game," said Annan. "As a coach, you've got to respect that. You've got to leave it alone, 'cause if you start messing with that and start fiddling about with that player, you can actually put them the other way."
In cases like that, the best you can do with the data from the Apex Athlete Monitoring system is use it to encourage those special players to work harder. "The idea is to try and teach kids how to train, so using the [data] to show them how little they work is useful," Annan said. "Even if they light it up in games, there's still got to be some accountability to how hard they work as youth players because when they make that step to a professional level, they won't be able to get away with it. Unless they're very, very, very special."