Dec 31, 2007

Fantasy Soccer Is Good Fun, But Can Be Made Better: Here's How

As much as I enjoy fantasy soccer, it feels incomplete somehow. The addictive rush that other fantasy sports (American football and baseball, notably) supply just isn't there. Don't get me wrong, it's good fun and all. But something is missing.

Part of this is, of course, the very nature of the game itself. Soccer does simply not lend itself to statistical analysis the way many other sports do. Moreover, the statistics we do have (goals, assists and clean sheets, essentially) provide a very incomplete picture, both of an individual player's skill and his contribution to the team.

For example, a goalkeeper could have a great match and his team could win 2-1, but he would not get credit for having a clean sheet. Or a striker could get a tap-in goal, or capitalize on a goalkeeper's error or blown defensive assignment and his team could lose, but fantasy owners would still benefit. Or a defender could score a goal, assist another, but blow off marking assignments and cost his team two goals and the victory.

And what about the players who work tirelessly--be it on offense or defense--for their team's cause and are essential to its victory but do not show up on the scoresheet at all? The whole structure is made worse by leagues that incorporate statistics such as scoring attempts, passing accuracy and others that are, at best, misleading and, at worst, reward selfish play.

The solution is to incorporate the subjective elements of the sport (of which there are many) in a way that can be quantified, while making better use of data currently available. How to accomplish this? Behold a 10-point plan that seeks to make fantasy soccer more realistic:

1) Official and unofficial player ratings should absolutely factor in to the number of fantasy points a player produces. Some leagues already do this on a limited basis by awarding a "Man of the Match" bonus. This is a good start, but it should be taken further. Why not tally the various player ratings that pundits and fans award individual players and use the mean number as an additional scoring category for each player? Bonuses could be awarded when a player is included in a "team of the week." Each individual league could choose what pundits and media to include. Also, why not award a player's fantasy owner for a goal of the week, play of the game or save of the week?

2) Not all goals are created equal and not all should be scored equally. Create two (or more) categories of "goals scored," differentiating between the simple tap-in and the screaming strike into the upper 90. When a goalkeeper allows a soft goal, the "scorer" should receive a small fraction of points awarded to the player who scores on a bicycle kick or by bending a free kick around a wall--and the keeper should be penalized. This should also account for goals scored in different game situations, i.e. during a close game versus a blowout.

3) Instead of "assists" create a new statistic called "goal contributions" and award points to as many players as deserve them. Maybe the star striker was able to pull the defender out of position, creating more space for a teammate? Maybe a midfielder played a brilliant ball that another player ran on to, passed to one or two others, before the ball ended up in the net? What about the player who hit a great shot from 30 yards that the keeper tipped over the bar and the team scored on the ensuing corner? Or the one who was fouled for a penalty? Speaking of penalties, these are basically gimmes and should absolutely NOT count as much as a goal scored from the run of play or other set-piece. But the player who misses the penalty should be penalized--especially if the goal could have made a difference in the final score.

4) Find a way to award the same amount of potential points to midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. Different players contribute in different ways. It's not all about scoring and creating goals. Different players also cost their team in different ways. If a defender is clearly taken to school on a goal, his fantasy score should suffer--especially if the goal proves to the balance in the game.

5) Create the goal-saving-save (GSS) statistic for goalkeepers. Outfield players should also be eligible for this. See Richard Dunne's clearance off the line in the dying moments of yesterday's Man. City-Liverpool clash for one example (link should play highlights of the match).

6) Players from winning teams should get more points. Clean and simple. Find a way to reward players from a winning side and penalize those from a losing side--especially if they blow the game (see Petr Cech from the Arsenal-Chelsea clash the other day).

7) Award players who receive caps for their national team. Why not? It means something if a player has the attention of his national team's manager. If one receives a call-up his fantasy owner should be rewarded. This should of course be adjusted depending on how solid the national team is. If somebody gets called up to the Slovenian national team it should obviously not count as much as a call-up to Brazil's Selecao.

8) Count continental (Champions League, UEFA Cup, Copa Libertadores, etc.) competitions as well as league and FA cups. It's only fair if the players are going to partake in those games. Actually, why limit leagues to one country? Allow fantasy teams to own whomever they want, but adjust the scoring for minnow leagues. (A huge legal hurdle for sure, but if these managerial games have rights to all the players' names and attributes why can't a fantasy league?)

9) Allow substitutions for injured players. Real-life managers get three per game. Why not fantasy owners? Allow teams to dress 14 players or 13 outfielders and two goalkeepers. The highest-scoring goalkeeper and 10 highest scoring outfielders count toward the fantasy teams tally. The others don't. Simple.

10) Play for keeps. Create more keeper leagues and allow "franchise" leagues where teams start out with a set amount of virtual money. Allow players to be bought and sold, loaned out, etc. Create a formula where virtual gate receipts are tabulated for each home game--judging by the type of attacking football the team plays (points for goals scored or chances created or whatever), its place in the table and its opponents' place in the table. Visiting teams get a percentage. Allow teams to go into the red but at a cost--points from a game, future revenues, etc. Or allow them the choice of how to "finance" this. One day maybe corporations will line up to sponsor top teams, in exchange for shirt space or even the team name. Maybe even with real dollars.

An unrealistic pipe dream? Perhaps, but it's fun to think of what could be. But if anybody wants to finance and collaborate on this venture, I'm game. Also, please remember where you heard these ideas first. If anybody copies this without my consent I will sue you. (Hey, are there any lawyers out there looking for pro-bono clients?)

1 comment:

  1. All fine and good for Fantasy Soccer, although scoring may become a logistical nightmare, some of it is subjective. What worries me is, the MLS will see your list and implement it in the league.