Top innovations at the '16 NSCAA convention

Top innovations at the '16 NSCAA convention
by Will Parchman
January 28, 2016

Each year, the NSCAA Convention show floor evolves to reflect the changing tides in soccer technology. There’s perhaps no better place to be on earth to better gauge the shifting wind pulling soccer inexorably toward innovation.

The convention is perhaps best known as a petri dish for soccer ideas, maybe the biggest one-off of its kind in the world. Coaches of all stripes descend on one convention center or another every January to attend seminars, meet with colleagues and exchange ideas for a couple beneficial days. As soon as the lecture and on-field demo list is released, you can almost see coaches from everywhere mentally marking their schedule.

Ah, but that’s only part of it. The technology side shines when you enter the showroom.

The convention hall is inevitably packed with booths and showcases from every walk of the game imaginable: tournaments advertising their benefits, trophy manufacturers showcasing their wares, new apps unveiling in public for the first time, major corporations touting their involvement in development. The list continues into the horizon.

This year, for the first time, TopDrawerSoccer.com is selecting awards for some of the the best products from the showroom floor.

Each year, we’re impressed by a bevy of new products, but these in particular from Baltimore 2016 caught our eye as serious innovations that should have groundswell impact on the markets they serve. Be on the lookout.

Best full-field training product

SKLZ: Goalshot

Carlsbad, California-based equipment company SKLZ made its debut splash on the convention scene in Philadelphia in 2015, and it was hard to mistake the grandiosity of its coming out party. The Skillz display is enormous and occupies a square spot smack in the middle of the convention hall, and they upped the ante in 2016 with the public rollout of the Goalshot.

SKLZ licensed the product from an inventor who took into account shot placement heat maps in the English Premier League from 2004-2014. What they found were four zones in each of the four corners of the net where 84 percent of all goals were scored. The net stretches across the length of a regulation-sized goal, with four crescent-shaped holes where those zones are. The net is so precise that if the apertures were six inches smaller, the goal percentage drops to 60. What that means, essentially, is that the vast majority of goals aren’t going perfect top corner every time. More often than not, they’re just beating the keeper’s fingertips.

“The big takeaway in all the data is that you’re four times more likely to score a goal if it’s in one of these scoring zones on frame,” SKLZ soccer category manager Brian Farber said.

SKLZ does a lot with soccer training equipment, but it's clear the Goalshot has already begun carving a unique niche in the company's stable of products. At the 2016 convention, it certainly stole the show at the prodigious SKLZ display area.

That should frame the way players look at the goalmouth in a fundamentally different way, angling their mindset toward these four zones in a transformative manner. The product doesn’t hit the open market until April, but it’s already hit a mainstream wave of viral buzz. Don’t be surprised to see these soon at a training session near you.

Best new app

Sportxast

The inevitability of the highlights package in modern soccer is ubiquitous. The U.S. is a staggeringly large place, and it’s no secret the scouting framework has hardly kept pace. That’s created an increasingly wide demand for video highlights packages, which are circulated for a variety of purposes all aiming at one goal: to get a talented player’s abilities in front of the right set of eyes.

Thousands of talented players often fall by the wayside because they don’t have adequate visibility. That’s where Sportxast aims to bridge the divide.

New Mexico-based Sportxast has been evolving for the better part of two years as an app that allows parents, coaches and scouts to come together over a single font of highlights. The app allows players to market their abilities by having the option to upload highlights taken directly from smart phones. Alongside their uploaded highlights, they can list a full profile that essentially serves as a soccer resume that uploads to their own channel.

“One of the most difficult things, and especially in youth sports where these kids are trying to get to the next level - or if they just want to see their goal - is parents will spend hours trying to get video, and very rarely will they have the time to pull it all apart and do something with it,” said Molly Cernicek, the app’s CEO and founder. “We have an app that makes it easy for multiple people at the game to take clips.”

The “secret sauce” of the app, as Cernicek terms it, is the ability to essentially record the past. Since mid-game action is often hard to catch, the second a user clicks the record button, the app automatically ropes in the previous eight seconds of action. A nifty 21st century trick.

The app is set for a redesign rollout in March, which will allow players and coaches to use all the clips to create highlight reels easily on the website. Making editing and publishing highlights as simple as possible could have a profound impact on the way players are scouted and signed in the future.

Best player equipment

G-Form shin guards

If you’ve seen Robbie Keane, you’ve seen G-Form’s latest and greatest. One of the soccer equipment maker’s most famous clients, Keane has been an open advocate for the newest advance in the typically staid world of shin guard technology. In truth, the basic design of the guard hadn’t changed much in decades, until G-Form developed something entirely new to bring to the market.

G-Form’s shin guard is the first soft shin guard in the marketplace, which provides enhanced protection from the typical hard shell players have been using since they first strapped tree bark to their legs 100 years ago. The PRO-S is actually a sleeve, with a cobbled molded composite surrounding a circular pattern at the center. Through third party testing, G-Form has routinely outperformed some of the leading shin guard sellers in terms of impact testing.

It’s already beginning to filter into the pro ranks despite its relative young age on the market. While the science behind its success begins to slowly seep into the public consciousness, professional players are beginning to get wise. This is only the second year the G-Form shin guards have been available in the U.S. market and third year in the international market, but it’s catching like wildfire.

Yes, that includes Keane, but Pele has also signed on as an ambassador in addition to several highly place international players. G-Form also has a rapport with FIFPro, and European unions have begun distributing the shin guards to players all over Europe.

G-Form may still be a new name in the shin guard market, but it’s clear they won’t be a niche one for long.

Best individual training innovation

Munin Sports: M-Station

Munin Sports co-founder Joachim Christgau does not mince words around the topic of his company’s benchmark innovation, the M-Station.

“It is, I guess, the best rebounder in the world,” Christgau said.

On a basic level, there have been rebounders as long as there has been soccer. What started as the side of a building evolved to where we are today, with pro-grade material creating the feel of another human being in a rebounder. It took years, but Munin Sports thinks they finally perfected the formula.

It’s hard to disagree with the praise emanating from Europe where the M-Station has filtered out of the company’s Denmark headquarters with zeal. Its design and utility has been praised by everyone from the Danish FA to academy coaches at Arsenal, Benfica, AC Milan and beyond. Now, Munin Sports is attempting to bring that design to the U.S. for the first time.

What makes this rebounder different? For one, it extends to the ground, providing full coverage for ground passes, but it also eliminates sweet spots with the high grade material used for the strings. In lieu of rubber or more typical composite, the M-Station essentially uses tennis strings, which gives it more consistency, a more realistic pass feel and gives it corrosion resistance. According to Christgau, the rebound effect is the world’s best.

And then there’s the app. Users can download a free app called MuninPlay and plug their phone directly into the rebounder to connect with 108 different drills. Players can track their progress with a profile and keep hold of stats and share those socially.

The science behind the rebounder would seem to back up Christgau’s opinion as well. In a recent study by the Danderyd Elite Soccer High School in Stockholm, Sweden showed 42 percent improvement over four weeks of practice with the device. And just last spring, a survey from 1,116 customers revealed that 98 percent of its users claimed improvement from their players, while 58 percent of that group said the improvements were significant.

Best uniform innovation

Inaria

Among the booths at the convention, Inaria’s enormous display of 2015 MLS MVP Giovinco was among the most impossible to miss. Giovinco is the hottest player in MLS right now, and he also happens to be Inaria’s brand ambassador. Pan your gaze downward and you’re greeted by scores of jerseys in a virtual peacock’s tail of colors and designs.

One other thing you’d notice is the drip test.

On one side, a constant drip of water fell onto a piece of fabric representing a typical uniform worn by players around the world. On the other, the Inaria uniform fabric. Both were poised over a clear canister. While the  water saturated and then fell through the generic fabric, Inaria’s jersey fabric soaked up and distributed its water to the point that it was hardly visible at all. There was no water collected in the Inaria canister.

The excitement at the Inaria booth, which had its sixth convention in 2016, revolved around the brand new 37.5 fabric the Toronto-based company uses for its jerseys. According to the maker, 37.5 jerseys have “patented active particles permanently embedded at the fiber level capture and release moisture vapor. Not only do these active particles provide 800% more surface area to the fiber, they also provide a unique driving force to remove moisture vapor unlike any other technology. By actively responding to body heat, the particles use this energy from the body to accelerate the vapor movement and speed up the conversion of liquid to vapor, significantly increasing drying rates.”

What this means in a practical sense is that players feel the jersey material less. The fact that not a ton of jersey companies have switched to the fabric yet gives Inaria a distinct edge in the marketplace.

“It’s a nice light, comfortable fabric is the thing we always hear from the people that wear it,” Inaria’s Joe Ketley said. “And then adding now the 37.5 material into that is a real bonus. So not only is it light and feels comfortable, but it’s brilliant at dissipating the sweat, essentially, and keeping it light and dry.”

Inaria’s only been in the U.S. market since 2009, so they’re still making inroads into the team space. And since adidas has the full rights to all of MLS, they (along with every other jersey maker) won’t be in the top professional tier in the U.S. any time soon. But their sleek designs have already found their way to the NASL and college soccer, and there are assuredly more on the horizon.

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