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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Union droning on with new practice tool

The Philadelphia Union aren’t often at the forefront of much in MLS. But manager Jim Curtin Wednesday discussed an intriguing technology of which the Union seem to be early adopters: Drones.

That’s not a goalkeeping joke. It’s a factual statement about the Union’s use of drones as an aid to record and analyze practices at the training facility adjacent to PPL Park.

What started as a bit of a novelty has become a low-cost, high-tech way to provide feedback to players and coaches about training techniques and drills. Here’s what Jim Curtin had to say:

“At first, it was just kind of a casual, let’s see what it looks like up high, to view a training session with a drone. And then you get the footage back of it and … first of all the quality is unreal, in terms of HD and you can zoom in and it gives a nice broad picture as well. Obviously the height of it dictates that. We were pretty amazed with the quality and the details it covers. Full-field, transition exercises, you can see all the movements of your back four, you can see the shape of your team, you can see the runs that your attackers are making, what spaces are open. And we’ve started to use it a lot just to break things down in terms of just trying to improve.

You’re looking for every little advantage that you can. We’ve stumbled into it, and it’s become a good little tool, one that, and maybe it’s unique and a little strange to have that thing hovering over you during a practice. But it gives you certainly a view that you can’t replicate with a handheld on the sidelines or even the camera angles from TV. It’s a unique view for sharing and showing what that looks like. It’s pretty impressive though, and it’s something that we’ll bring out there.”

In a sporting context, drones for unmanned aerial recording remain primarily a nuisance, whether they’re sparking soccer riots or disturbing tennis matches and soccer games or spying on paranoid French players. The initial appeal of such affordable, democratized technology would seem to be in an aesthetic, marketing sense, filming from unique viewpoints to package video content to fans as the Union have done.

But there’s a much more practical advantage, and the teams utilizing it remain few and far between. English Premier League club Everton made a huge, non-sports-site-trend-piece-level splash when they started recording practices with drones, and there are indications of Seattle Sounders doing the same late last season, though that "experimental" usage doesn't appear to have taken root. Heck, it’s got Thierry Henry’s seal of approval. There may be other MLS teams using the technology for tactical reasons – beyond Omar Gonzalez’s off days and FC Dallas bird-invaded stadium tours – but if this article on MLS teams’ use of analytics is any indication, it’s probably a closely-guarded secret.

In any event, Curtin is too excited by the possibilities of drone usage to keep it under wraps. He’s enamored with the unique perspective offered a few hundred feet off the ground at relatively low cost, and the club is using the recordings to build a compendium of drills as a reference for coaches with the first team, academy, etc.

Curtin said he’s integrated drone recordings into team film study, going beyond game-tape to share pointers with players on specific aspects. The manager seems genuinely excited about the future of this technology.

“I sat on the plane to San Jose next to a couple of guys and showed them things on it,” Curtin said. “Every little advantage that you can get goes a long way. Again, the view is a unique one. There’s nowhere to hide in it. Sometimes on the TV, you watch the tape and you kind of wonder where your back four is or you wonder how our guys close a space or are they organizing. This really gives all 20 guys in there, how they’re moving, how they’re playing together. So it’s a unique view and it’s maybe a little outside-the-box, unique advantage that can help us.”

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