When Hart Zwingelberg ’15 was a midfielder on the Furman men’s soccer team, he dreamed of the day he’d be in the MLS. Last year, that dream came true – though not quite how he expected.
Since May of 2018, Zwingelberg has been manager of business intelligence for the Chicago Fire, a Major League Soccer team, where he’s doing more from an office to help the squad than he ever could have on the pitch. Zwingelberg is the person responsible for incorporating the rapidly growing field of advanced analytics into how the team is run.
Zwingelberg talked about that and more as one of two plenary speakers at the 2019 Carolinas Sports Analytics Meeting (CSAM) hosted by Furman on April 13 in the Watkins Room of the Trone Student Center. A mathematics/economics double major at Furman, Zwingelberg was thrilled to get the chance to give back to his alma mater.
“Furman meant a lot to me and has given me a lot of opportunities,” he said. “Opening in the morning for the conference was pretty special.”
Zwingelberg’s position with the Fire is a new one as soccer rushes to catch up to the data-driven approach to game strategy and player evaluation that began sweeping other sports more than a decade ago.
“We have just come around in the last few years with starting to quantify and understand styles of play and performance-based metrics. Those are the types of things that I presented,” he said. “My talk revolved around soccer analytics, in particular the new metrics and the different things going on.”
An example is a new category called “expected goals,” which is the score of a match based on the statistical probability of goals being scored compared to hundreds of thousands of similar scenarios in games already played. In other words, a 2-0 final may have actually been much closer than the score says – say 1.8-1.5 in expected goals – which theoretically allows a more accurate evaluation of performances by the team and individual players.
Zwingelberg, a native of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said he was offered a similar position by another MLS team shortly after graduation, only then it was an unpaid internship. The fact that the same job is now in the front office of the highest levels of professional soccer in the U.S. shows how quickly the field is growing, which in turn opens a whole new world of opportunity for young math – and other – majors.
“This wasn’t a thing even five years ago,” he said. “To see (teams) starting to switch to a more analytically based and project-oriented front office, it’s really great. And it’s only going to explode from here.”
The other speaker was Peter Keating, a senior writer at ESPN, who has worked with Furman math professors John Harris ’91, Liz Bouzarth and Kevin Hutson for several years to devise formulas to predict upsets in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He discussed his most recent project attempting to identify the most dominant athlete of the last 20 years from all sports.
Spoiler alert: It was Tigers Woods even before Woods’ dramatic victory at The Masters the day after CSAM.
One of Furman Business and Accounting Assistant Professor Ben Grannan’s top priorities when he joined the faculty two years ago was to bring CSAM back to campus for the first time since 2016, and with the help of fellow organizers Bouzarth, Harris and Hutson, nearly 50 people were in attendance for the latest incarnation. CSAM also presented the opportunity for approximately 15 students to get feedback on their own undergraduate research poster or oral presentation.
“One of the best parts of CSAM might be that you’ll have a professor giving their research agenda as well as an undergraduate student presenting, one after the other,” Grannan said. “It’s good for those students to gain confidence and get feedback on sometimes their first research project.”