Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from October of 2023. It's called, "Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team.”

“The math should matter.”

A brief quote taken from The Athletic’s interview of Los Angeles Chargers coach, Brandon Staley, struck Ian Sarachan and Aidan Reynolds.

Assistant coaches for Creighton University in the American NCAA, the long-time friends latched onto the line and created a theme.

The math should matter, especially for this Creighton team. In an NCAA soccer scene that has been a slow adapter to data analytics, the Creighton coaching staff found their secret weapon. Head coach Johnny Torres wanted something different, something that connected to his love of attacking football and high pressing.

Investing in data analytics was the answer, both for the coaches and the players. “We really wanted to grow the minds of our players. To do that, we motivated them in so many different ways, and a lot of it was through the use of data,” said Reynolds.

Field Tilt

Torres wanted his Creighton side to bring his ideas of an attack-oriented brand with an intense press to life. That was really the starting point of this data analytics project. Sarachan and Reynolds were tasked with taking the team’s game model and determining the program’s KPIs.

The two assistant coaches had to develop a means of tracking possession dominance to build an attacking juggernaut. Field tilt immediately came to mind, but they weren’t satisfied with defining the metric based on final third touches. It didn’t fully capture the team’s ideals and ambitions. While taking the basic concept of field tilt, they created an equation centered on touches in the box. To Sarachan and Reynolds, it was those specific touches that better represented their side’s level of dominance in a game.

“Field tilt became a big one, especially how we were measuring it. It was how we determined the most effective ways to create chances. Obviously, that was about being in the final third, and more specifically, in the box looking for cutbacks and these sorts of things, so field tilt became an important metric to quantify how often we were doing that. Over the course of the season, we got to see how that trended.” – Sarachan.

Looking at data from the fall 2022 season, Creighton was in a league of their own in terms of touches in the penalty area P90 and among the national leaders in shots P90. Unsurprisingly, they also led the nation with 65 goals in 24 matches, a 2.71 goals per game average.

While it was the touches in the box that were of the utmost importance, it was the plethora of ways that Creighton entered the penalty area that kept opponents off balance. They could just as easily play over the top to Duncan McGuire, who now shares a stage with former FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain star Lionel Messi in Major League Soccer, or they could simply create wide overloads and act based on what the opponent was showing them.

Against Oakland University in the opening game, a 3v3 wide overload allowed the São Miguel, Portugal native Miguel Ventura to whip in a cross to McGuire at the far post. Notice that it’s not just McGuire waiting for the service. Creighton has a 3v3 out wide, preparing to serve a cross into any one of four teammates in or near the box. Those numbers in threatening areas were pivotal to Creighton’s success.

Watching each of their goals from that Cinderella run of fall 2022, one very noticeable theme was a high central presence as they looked to attack the box. Since touches in the box were a priority, attacking the box with numbers was a necessity.

Sarachan’s presentations linked each phase of play to attacking opportunities the team would encounter, and Reynolds’ detailing of the values of attacking actions resonated with this team. They knew where teammates would be and how opponents would respond and showed a collective awareness of which spaces would help them reach the box together. Watching each of the 65 goals, there’s little mystery as to why they led the nation in goals scored in 2022. The collective understanding was a massive advantage.

xG and xG per shot

There’s a right way and a wrong way to use xG. Small sample sizes to determine the superiority of a side in a singular match are one of the pet peeves of many analysts. So is the lack of correlation between the xG in a given game relative to the number of shots taken or saying that Team X should have beaten Team Y simply because of the xG outcomes? Frequently, the stat is used as a little more than conjecture and a means of stating why the teams we support should have won over the weekend.

Within a club or team setting, xG is a fantastic tool for framing shot quality. I can’t admit to identifying Creighton’s shot selection patterns prior to their data analytics movement, but what I can say is that the coaching staff believes framing shot quality in a mathematical language improved their players’ shot selection. “It wasn’t the end-all-be-all, but the use of xG for determining shot value, which decreased shot distance, was a huge one for us,” said Sarachan.

No one averaged a higher xG P90 among the Power Conference schools than Creighton. Few of the schools on the list could match their xG per shot value, either. The end result was a team with a high shot volume and even better shot quality.

One of the common themes in 2022 was how willing Creighton was to pass up a low or moderate percentage shot for one of a higher quality. That Creighton team prioritized the quality of their goalscoring opportunities, whether that was making an extra pass or having the courage to take on that final defender who had no coverage behind him. Sarachan and Reynolds mentioned that framing shot selection in terms of xG per shot changed the way their players approached both shot selection and box entries.

Castro takes the spotlight once again, this time for his goal against DePaul University. As he dribbled up the pitch, he cleverly approached the box in a way that isolated him in a 1v1 situation with his defender. He cut inside as he approached the box and directed his course towards the nearest centerback. Our image has him at the start of his feint. He sells the shot well and gets both defenders to commit, then takes a touch around the overly aggressive outside back.

In passing up the first shooting opportunity, he was able to dribble eight yards deeper into the box and power his finish past the unprotected goalkeeper.

The team’s understanding of when to dribble in the box was a problem few opponents could solve. In the same situations where most teams would panic and settle for a lesser shot or hopeful cross, this Creighton side was willing to take a risk and push for higher-quality opportunities. That’s where a poacher like McGuire was so effective. His movement and timing in the box, coupled with an understanding of his teammates’ tendencies, were at the core of his breakout year.

With the rise of xG, a concept like quantifying shot quality through xG per shot is a broad way to gauge the opportunities a team generates. From a coach’s perspective, it’s a valuable tool for preaching patience in the final third, developing a collective understanding of where to progress the attack (and enter the box) and reframing how your players think about shots.

This is precisely what the Creighton coaching staff did with xG. It was a learning tool that helped their players develop a better understanding of their collective objectives when attacking the opponent’s goal. Simple, yet such an effective tool when appropriately taught.

For the full article, which offers far more insight into how undersized centerbacks maximize their talents, head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

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If you'd like to know more about NCAA men's soccer teams or how to implement data analytics in a collegiate program, check out this three-part data analysis series.

1) Interpreting styles of play in the USA’s NCAA Division 1 college soccer system – data analysis

2) Guiding NCAA coaches on using data in performance and opposition analysis – data analysis

3) Picking and detailing our 2023 NCAA D1 Preseason Team to Watch – data analysis

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system

Day 19 - Training runs behind the backline in a two-forward system

Day 20 - How short centre-backs have a big influence

Day 21 - Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team