There was something quite different about this year's MLS All-Star game outside Philadelphia on July 25. Different, that is, beyond the fact that the league's leading lights earned their most impressive victory yet over international competition—after successive drubbings by Manchester United—with a 3--2 extra-time defeat of UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea.
This year's game marked the debut of the miCoach Elite System, a five-piece wireless setup that communicates players' physical metrics to the sidelines for in-game viewing by coaches and trainers. MLS players on the field at PPL Park wore an Adidas-created undershirt that had woven into it electrodes capable of measuring players' heart rates. The backs of the shirts held a 1.83-ounce data pod that uses information from a GPS, an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a magnetometer to measure a player's intensity of effort, speed and acceleration, as well as the distance he covers on the field. All of the encrypted data gathered was sent in less than a second to a base station positioned on the sideline and then disseminated by a slick iOS app to iPads, allowing coaches to read full-team overviews and charts and graphs for specific players in real time. Information was stored online for postgame analysis.
When Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry burst down the left side midway through the first half and sent a cross through the penalty box to the Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski, who scored the game's first goal, All-Star (and D.C. United) coach Ben Olsen knew that Henry was running 11 mph and using 93% of his maximum effort. Then, with the All-Stars down 2--1 late in the second half, United's Chris Pontius broke loose down the center of the field—at a game-high 20 mph and with his heart rate thumping upwards of 190 beats per minute—to tie the contest off a centering pass from D.C. teammate Dwayne De Rosario.
We've always known Henry had power and Pontius—who also assisted on the game-winner and earned MVP honors—had speed, but the fully personalized stats in the actual moment put a number to those qualities while giving coaches a valuable in-game measure of player performance. Pontius says clocking the game's top speed was "cool," but he's more interested in the fact that he covered 1.9 miles in his 45 minutes on the pitch. "I think you will see smarter players running less," he says, "finding the good spots on the field and conserving energy."
Whitecaps center back Jay DeMerit, the game's defensive standout, says miCoach was "nonoffensive" to wear. That might not be the opinion of some other pro athletes who have reputations for coasting. Imagine if miCoach had been available to Bill Belichick during Chad Johnson's underwhelming 2011 season with the Patriots.
At least five Adidas representatives on the sideline buzzed over their laptops and iPads, trying to keep the data flowing. Positioned near a suitcaselike base station between the team benches, the crew was thankful the data pods worked (a downed battery could pull a player off-line). Matt Hymers, the project manager for Adidas, watched calmly with his iPad in hand as his "final prototype" refreshed information continually, making it hard to know whether to look at the screen or the field. (Hymers missed the first goal while looking down.)
During the game a few MLS players in attendance down on the sideline peppered Hymers for a peek at his iPad. Philadelphia Union interim coach and All-Star assistant, John Hackworth, spent much of the game bouncing his eyes from his iPad to the field. He says it will take time to "get educated" on how to best use the system in-game.
Two years in the making, Adidas doesn't plan on miCoach being a one-off gimmick, announcing plans to roll the system out for the entire 2013 MLS season. Hackworth says he's eager to track work rates. "All the numbers are in one place, and we will learn about guys who have a lot more to give," he says.