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John Sexton / Gavel Media

Getting to the Heart of It: Brennan Klein on Goalkeeping Data

Brennan Klein denies that he can see three seconds into the future with a drawn-out no. But he doesn’t seem surprised by the question while sitting in Addie’s booth during an off hour. The Eagles' goalkeeper dodges the follow-up with an easy “I know, it seems crazy,” before sliding into a technical explanation of the process. The explanation boils down to the idea that the save “just happens.” That’s not a no to seeing the future, but it’s decidedly not a yes. Fans who have watched Klein make the improbable save more than once might be suspicious, but there’s a scientific method behind his heart-stopping saves: data from experience.

The Eagles' goalkeeper, returning for a fifth year, much to the relief of BC soccer diehards, thrives as a paradox. Tall and lanky like a goalie, he still walks with the swagger of a center forward. He claims, repeatedly, that he doesn’t “try to get too caught up in the numbers,” but ask him about a particular moment in a game and he’ll be able to name at least five different data points that no one else saw. Klein would rather not “be making saves.” Instead, the “coolest part of being a goalkeeper” is having the ball at his feet. Authenticity is crucial for a goalkeeper and Klein’s paradoxes don’t matter because he doesn’t think through them, he just is them.

Analytics can be a contentious subject in the world of sports. Most sports, whether they admit it or not, are now in their Moneyball era, where advanced analytics play some role in the decisions made by the organization. However, deeply ingrained within sports culture is the idea that you can’t measure heart and there are some things that data and analytics can’t tell you. The eye test, where an athlete’s performance is measured simply by watching them, is old, but it’s not outdated. At its most useful, analytics and the eye test combine to determine the floor and ceiling of an athlete or a team. Not everything is a number, but not everything is a heart either.

Klein understands this marriage of sports and science. He acknowledges that the relationship is “definitely growing” but he’s also quick to issue a warning about it being pure science. He uses numbers recorded by his Catapult, a device that tracks things like distance and intensity, from practice as his example. The point of those numbers is, “obviously, to take care of your body and make sure you’re not doing too much.” But Klein breaks away from the example to point out that stats depend on interpretation. What’s important is “the balance between what you feel and what your body is doing.” There are days when that’s a perfect match and there are days when a player hits their numbers but feels good and doesn’t want to step away from the drill.

The goalkeeper doesn’t necessarily care about traditional goalkeeping stats. Despite having five shutouts in his senior season, that number isn’t mentioned once in his interview. Nor is his .703 save percentage. For Klein, the most important stat, and one he wants to see more of, is ball retention rate. He’s explicit in that he wants retention data that includes goal kicks and a separate set that excludes them, since about half the goal kicks taken in a game go long and thus are harder to retain. Klein is also quick to point out that how those stats were calculated would need to be addressed, as retention could mean one pass out or five. It’s also the stat that matters the most to his coaches, in addition to “making sure the goal kicks are up and wide.” Data collected over the season, based on whether or not the Eagles still had the ball two passes after a goal kick, placed the retention rate at 50 percent.

He’d prefer simply to use analytics to “know which one’s my weak side for diving, but I don’t try to get too caught up in the numbers.” Part of it is that every game is different and part of it is that “it still depends on how they interpret the numbers.” For example, throughout the season if a significant amount of goals are scored at the near post, Klein wouldn’t want to automatically start overcorrecting to cover that space because the problem might not be his positioning and could lie in the defensive structure. Only by looking at the whole picture could it be determined if he was weaker at the near post than far post.

As for where he’s most comfortable defending, Klein answers to the right immediately, before clarifying if the question is for diving or something else. That changes his answer, as “feet wise, I don’t care.” Midseason especially, he’s equally comfortable with either foot. But at the beginning, he’d prefer to start with his right foot. His answer matches the distribution analytics, which overall have Klein distributing more to his right in the first half before going more to his left in the second. Averaging 36 touches a game, Klein ended the season with two more left distributions than right.

The data for diving is a little more complicated, as Klein prefers to dive towards his right, but saves more goals diving towards his left. But the Eagles' keeper doesn’t like looking at his stats that way. He especially doesn’t like thinking about being weaker at the near or far post because in a game, “these guys could just have two good shots near post and they go in.” Klein has seen it all in his three years of starts for BC, with the data showing he let in only near-post goals his first year, more far-post than near-post his second year, and slightly more near-post goals this season. Those numbers don’t particularly interest Klein because he thinks those numbers “just happen.” More adamantly, “I genuinely think it just happens.”

He pivots immediately to feelings. For him, the data isn’t the whole picture because it’s about how he feels on any given day. For example, he offers a goal during the spring season. “On a good day, I probably save it, just 'cause I would feel more comfortable.” He taps his phone on the table a few times, thinking of how he wants to phrase the second half of that thought. “It’s based on training and how I’m feeling that week.” He pauses. “Always something hurting.”

Here’s another Klein paradox: the self-proclaimed emotions guy who collects hundreds of data points per game refuses to label that information as data. It takes a long time for him to settle on what data points he’s collecting in a game, mostly because he rejects the term data and instead pivots the question to what he looks for in a game. “Reading the press” as a goalkeeper is “probably the biggest one too.” Though, “that’s something you feel. It’s not something that you’re looking for.” Whether or not a team presses is part of the data that Klein is given before a game, “but it’s not always right, because anything can happen.”

For a guy who’s “normally not thinking too much” during a game, Klein processes his teammates’ attitudes in-game and their positioning on every pass. He also records the opposition’s positioning and the likelihood that they press any given ball. Then he factors in the angles, timing, and distance of every freekick, breakaway, set piece, and shot, as well as the game conditions, his positioning, and adjustments made based on what is or is not working. That collected data “resets” every half, because, “it’s two separate games,” as the keeper adamantly states at several points in the interview.

Klein wouldn’t call that a paradox. He feels the numbers, he doesn’t read them. Data points on which of his teammates like the ball delivered a certain way aren’t recorded as data points. Instead, Klein simply chalks it up to personality. “Players play how their personalities are.” Klein shrugs. “Pretty much, you know what a person’s gonna do every time they get the ball.” The goalkeeper waffles for a second, sliding his phone across the table a couple of times. “I would say that’s data,” he admits before another long pause, “…player-relationship data.”

That player-relationship view dictates the way he sees the game, not personal statistics. Part of the reason that analytics doesn’t work for Klein is that analytics calculate the game in numbers, not relationships. For Klein, it’s important “to play how you want to play” while also keeping in mind that “there’s still an overarching game plan.” He grows more animated explaining that if he wanted perfect stats, he would just “play simple, play defensive, not try and do anything.” But ultimately, “you have to look at the whole game as a picture.” Taking a risk might lower his retention stats but “it’s not about you” and a perfect game doesn’t mean much if the team as a whole doesn’t win.

When it comes to his life outside of soccer, though, Klein seems to purposely avoid overlap. He’s an environmental studies major who plays video games in his spare time, both of which generally utilize analytics. But Klein doesn’t think either of those things translate over to soccer or how he views analytics. There’s a pause, as he tries to think of something, before explaining, “I try to do school, do soccer, and not think of them both.” For someone focused intensely on the game unfolding in front of him, it makes sense that the keeper “doesn’t think about [environmental science] like that.” 

However, something that does translate into how he views the game? Golf. Klein fidgets as he offers the answer up, trying to find the right words to explain the connection that, again, he feels instead of analyzing. “When you’re golfing, you’re always thinking about what type of shot you’re trying to hit,” he settles on. “Now [during soccer games] I think more about the type of ball I’m trying to play, or how I’m trying to hit it.” Klein’s selection of golf shots has given him a new way to categorize his soccer intuition in a hands-on way that makes sense to a player who doesn’t need to see his analytics but instead needs to feel them.

He circles back to the video game part of the question. Klein sees no translation between his video game play and his soccer play, except, perhaps when it comes to competitiveness. Candidly he admits that video games frustrate him “a lot” in the same way that soccer does. He easily classifies himself as competitive but offers no explanation, just lets his “yeah” sit there. Unintentionally, the goalkeeper provided a perfect example earlier in the interview, where Klein pointed out that he likes looking at analytics post-game because “a lot of times I run more than the subs in a full game.” It’s also another situation where the recorded data of Klein running more than subs lines up with how the goalkeeper is feeling about his running game. The data and emotions go together, so Klein enjoys the conclusion.  

Speaking of video games, seeing into the future isn’t a FIFA player attribute on the video game’s player cards, but reflexes are. Klein, avoiding numbers to the end, offered to rank his attributes instead of assigning each a number. He decides on the order of reflexes, handling, and positioning as his top three, before taking a moment to think about the next few. He admits he thinks “diving’s probably my worst one.” He adds dribbling above positioning, though “I’m not always supposed to dribble…it’s just more fun.” A second later he adds, “It stems from me wanting the ball.”

That’s the paradox Klein summarized: thinking versus feeling and allowing both to happen at the same time. Positionally the last player back who wears the number one, stands alone in the mouth of the goal, and just wants to be more included in the run of play. A goalkeeper who prefers to answer to soccer players rather than a positional label: He’s an urban John Wayne who plays soccer, and considers charging out to collect a ball and dribble around the opposing forward safer than waiting to see if his defense will get there first. Klein prefers making a pass to making a save—he’d rather have the ball at his feet at midfield than being in his 18-yard box. It works for the senior because while you’re losing the whole picture puzzling out the paradoxes, he’s simply playing his game, thriving in the nexus of improbabilities. 

He's not a numbers guy, but Klein will spend an hour digging into data and how it impacts his game.

 Thank you, Brennan, for giving thoughtful answers about a topic you’d prefer not to think about, and for doing so during a tied Barcelona game.

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