In Friday’s World Cup match between South Korea and Portugal, Korean player Hwang Hee-Chan scored a crucial goal in injury time, then stripped off his shirt and paraded before screaming fans wearing what appears to be some kind of harness, or a sports bra for dudes. Indeed, watch soccer long enough, and you’ll notice that many male players wear what appear to be sports bras under their uniforms. You’ll see them as a substitute changes out of his warmups before entering a match, or as players exchange jerseys after the final whistle. Though women’s soccer players benefit so much from a properly-fitted sports bra that one researcher compared them, in importance, to wearing the right shoes, it doesn’t seem like men’s soccer players need the support. Why are men’s soccer players wearing what appear to be sports bras under their jerseys at the World Cup?
For science! Specifically, for the collection of individualized player GPS data. These harnesses—officially, they’re called “GPS tracker vests,” though there is nothing vest-like about them—contain, in a small pouch on the back, a small GPS tracking device. Team managers and trainers collect that data to learn precisely how far and how fast players have run in practice and during matches. This information can help managers make decisions about how hard to push a player, whether to let someone take a day off, and the like. Presumably, teams can also use the data to see who’s actually running a lot on the pitch and who only runs when the manager’s looking at them.
Like all big-money sports, soccer now employs endless data analysts to crunch the numbers on behavior, tactics, and fitness. Trackers register how often a player shoots with one foot or the other. Consultants assemble statistics on how often players complete their passes. Teams even use A.I. to game out certain game scenarios and see how players might respond, based on the behavior of thousands of players before them.
Science can even change a team’s tactics. While data (and Steph Curry) convinced NBA teams to attempt far more 3-pointers, data has persuaded many soccer players to attempt fewer long-range shots, because they connect so infrequently. “If you look at any league in the world, the distance from where players have taken shots was much higher ten years ago,” an MLS data analyst recently told the journal Nature. “That all happened because data-analytics people have started saying: ‘Why are you shooting from there? It’s only a 2% chance!’ ” (Maybe soccer should juice things up by awarding 1.5 points for a shot taken outside the penalty box.)
But the baseline level of data-collection in soccer is answering the simple question: How much does this guy run during a match? That data, collected by the sports bra, is useful in helping teams train and avoid injuries. But it’s also useful in gauging how totally bananas a player goes during a game. U.S. midfielder Brenden Aaronson, for example, seems totally annoying to play against (but is extremely fun to watch) because he’s like Dash from The Incredibles out there, chasing after every single ball and pressing every single moment of the game. And indeed, the stats back that up: Aaronson ran 13.2 kilometers for his club, Leeds United, in a recent win against Liverpool, the farthest any Premier League player has run during a match this season.
You can learn more about these vests on the website for Catapult Sports, a company that sells them, which includes this very convincing FAQ:
Q: Are GPS vests helpful for football players who aren’t professional athletes but just want to take their game to the next level?
A: Arguably, even more so.
Anyway, it’s nice that men’s soccer finally has an iconic undergarment moment to rival women’s soccer. As New Yorker staff writer Jay Caspian Kang tweeted Friday: