clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Damned Lies and Statistics

How do we put such a crap result in context? Is context even possible for an expansion team? Lessons in proportionality from Captain Ahab.

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

—Mark Twain

...till it almost seemed that while he himself was marking out lines and courses on the wrinkeled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead....

And have I not tallied the whale, Ahab would mutter to himself, as after poring over his charts till long after midnight he would throw himself back in reveries---tallied him, and shall he escape?


—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Sometimes I feel that I over-complicate things.1 I'm reaching pretty far afield for the most precise way to get at something that really might best be asked simply:

Does anybody know what the hell is going on?

And to venture, just as simply, an answer: Probably not.

Fin. Thanks for reading.

***

NYC 3 - 1 DC. CLB 2 - 2 NYC. LAG 5 - 1 NYC. With performances just as spastic as the scorelines. Nah, this is sound and fury, folks.

If I take the longest possible route to this conclusion, the reasons are clear to me, and perhaps not unfamiliar to the long-suffering (the ever-longer-suffering) supporter of our club. To put it in Captian Ahab's terms, it is the impulse to have "tallied the whale" that drives us to such deferral of the realization. Ahab sits up late in his cabin, tracing historical migration patterns of whales, spilling them over his navigation charts, hoping to fulfil by sheer maniacal passion the terms of his vow for revenge on the singular White Whale. Anyone who has tried to compare schedules for NYCFC, Montreal, Toronto, and Orlando might recognize the impulse of that particular quantitative madness.

To venture an accounting, which both Ahab and the table-happy supporter, is a basically optimistic act. It expresses faith that the object of your accounting is rational. And if something is rational, it is knowable. And if it's knowable, then surely, someone who knows about it is steering the ship. To make an accounting of something one fears is to foist that knowability, and thus security, onto it, and in doing so to disarm it.

Unless, of course, you're trying to force an accounting on something that you know follows no discernible or rational rules. That's madness.

See, for example, Ahab. "And have I not tallied the whale...tallied him, and shall he escape?"

***

How easy it would be to have Kreis make the full maritime circuit from an Odysseus (as I have fashioned him before) into an Ahab. How easy to imagine that progression—from a leader whose vision is strong enough to split Scylla and Charybdis and steer past the sirens to one who has, to use a commentator's cliché, "lost the plot entirely." How easy: as easy as it would be unfair.

Most serious fans of any team, I imagine, wait impatiently for the hour before kickoff when the lineup is announced, but none so anxiously as the expansion team supporter. More than names, it contains information enough to deduce the sum total of a manager's work. More than personnel, it's formation, tactics in a broad sense, the basis of what the manager has been working on all week and, really, all year.

(The slimness of this document should stand in, in miniature, for what I have to guess is the basic frustration of managing a team. It hints at how very little there is, really, that can influence the extraordinarily complex interaction of players on the pitch.)

For the expansion team spectator, the team sheet simply contains more information, with "information" here more or less meaning the extent to which a given set of data permits new conclusions to be drawn from it.2 There are bound to be more changes, for one, and the more chaotic a system the more potential there is for a given outcome to surprise you. Think of the total number of left backs before Angelino (at least four, maybe five) compared to the number of left backs since (basically one, actually about two); I bet you'll agree that seeing Angelino slotted in yet again against the Galaxy was less surprising than the first time Calle started there. By the same logic, the expansion team's starting eleven is going to be a lot less obvious on average than a hundred-year-old team with a low rate of turnover. Less is settled, and the settling looks like chaos until the moment that it cools and hardens into something like consistency. The lineup that is chosen out of a situation with such richness of possibility, therefore, tells you a lot more about the mind choosing it, and the values of that mind.

("...till it almost seemed that while he himself was marking out lines and courses on the wrinkeled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead....")

If the team sheet's all there is to judge a manager by, the judgment has to be allowed to go both ways. It has to be allowed to exonerate as easily as it is allowed to hang.

So how many of us were waiting to see exactly the lineup Kreis delivered on Sunday against the Galaxy? And how many of us were heartened by how little surprise there was in store versus the two that preceded it?

It was almost a test case. If the problem was that Kreis didn't know his best eleven, seeing the best eleven in the lineup would solve the problem. Likewise if the problem was consistency. The performance we saw from the lineup most prefer denied both hypotheses without offering an alternative explanation.

It is possible for Kreis to do everything right, even go beyond what most would think a manager capable of, and for everything to still reflect chaos. In an irrational system, even Odysseus would look like an Ahab.

***

We cannot succeed more than modestly this season for the same reason the game itself is beautiful. Those who think we ought to succeed by simple virtue of our roster are wrong. Those who caterwaul that we are buying the league (which rests on the same assumptions) are bitter—and wrong. The game resists reliable description and manipulability because to do otherwise would be to slump into not even predictability, but into a mechanistic tameness that defies the reason we seek it out. Reliability (in a striker, say) is so unusual as to almost take on the cast of the supernatural.3

It's a fine line, because too much chaos makes the league impossible to follow with any sense of pleasure. Kant tells us in The Critique of Judgment that aesthetic pleasure derives, in part, from our ability to project a sense of "purposiveness" onto something (even if we know it was not purposely constructed). So it is possible to appreciate a natural occurrence aesthetically precisely because we can think of it as though it had been built by a rational agent. The too-chaotic system lacks this illusion of purpose too much to be beautiful, then; but surely the too-ordered system is the slow lane on Snoozetown Blvd.

The English Premier League is so popular, I think, because it strikes a balance between the two. Chelsea can draw Swansea and Arsenal can lose to West Ham in the opening weekend, because it is a league in which the mid-table teams are really quite good. But there is a historical consistency that gives these matches context as upsets and allows you to wonder if it is the beginning of the end for Mourinho's stay at Chelsea or Arsenal's hopes for a long-awaited title.

The greater degree of chaos that seems to reign in MLS is only heightened by the presence of expansion sides, who can do any damn thing on pretty much any damn weekend and everyone will just scratch their heads. This madness usually leads to a losing record on the whole, but I think it's a losing record attained through wide swings of the pendulum locally. Consider that Orlando beat LA 4-0 in May, we beat Orlando 5-3 more recently before going down to LA 5-1. Two of these results were pretty much what you'd expect on average, but there's a massive degree of variation embodied in the third.

NYCFC, then, is on the frontier of a frontier of a frontier. In a new league, they are a new side, and they're approaching their new-sideyness in a way that hasn't really been tried before. It opens them up to a great deal of criticism, as we have seen; but it also makes them pretty hard to track. It will be years before anyone can say how we've really fared with this new approach. And in the meantime, in my opinion, the critics and those who assume it's the coming of a new order should just can it.

***

My initial question, then, should be revised. It's foolish to ask, "Does anybody know what the hell is going on?" The better question is whether what is going on now matters in any meaningful sense beyond the individual match. And my answer, in the spirit of concision with which I began, is no. There has to be a period of settling, and that is only ever going to look like it has looked this season.

Even a first-season title would have been less important than the inauguration of the club itself and the rise of soccer culture in the five boroughs. I am writing this from Portland, which I am seeing for the first time. Here it is easy to get a sense of what matters in a club. Maybe it's just because I'm staying near Providence Park, but you see a Timbers badge in the window of most bars, in front lawns, on car windows—and they've qualified just once for the playoffs before this year (albeit in some fashion when they did). Obviously, New York and Portland are very different sporting landscapes, and it's hard to draw too many comparisons between cities of such a different size. But they've gotten something fundamental very right indeed; and I think it's save to say that, this season, we've started to as well.

To revise a final time, then. The question isn't, "Do these results matter?" The better question is, "What does?"

  1. "Moby Dick Week" is a good time to come to this realization. Especially in a footnote.

  2. I'm pretty sure I'm building on the definition of information used by Claude Shannon, one of the inventors of modern information theory. But, you know? I'm on vacation. Not looking that up.

  3. Feeling this way about it is probably just the inverse of my long-standing—sorry—loathing for baseball. If it's going to go on for so damn long, it could at the least have the decency to be less measurable and modelable. If you can model it, you can keep it—not interested. (With notable exceptions like physics and the movement of astral bodies. I don't think I could do without those.)