The Seattle Sounders have been Major League Soccer's best team in the final 15 minutes. They have outscored their opponents 15-4 over that time, with no other team scoring more often nor allowing so few goals. The 11-goal difference is four better than any other team. But we already knew that, thanks to the reporting of Matt Gaschk.
What is not quite as clear is how the Sounders have built such a sizable late-game advantage. Surely, training and fitness are part of it. The Sounders rarely seem gassed at the end of games, and have exploited that to great success. Of those 15 goals, five have come at 90:00 or later or later. The Sounders have not allowed a single goal that late in the game.
But being in better shape just feels a little too simple of an answer. After all, this team was in great shape last year, too. During those same final 15 minutes, the Sounders were outscored 12-9 in 2010. So I dug around a little more to see if I could find any other clues that would possibly help explain why this Sounders team has performed so well late in games.
What I found may not be the magic bullet either, but I do think offers another plausible contributing factor: The Sounders have used more substitutions and allowed them to play for longer periods than they did last year. The big takeaway is that those subs have contributed seven goals and six assists, as opposed to four goals and three assists a season ago. Roger Levesque, Lamar Neagle and Sammy Ochoa each scored two goals off the bench this season. Alvaro Fernandez had the other bench goal.
But it's not just that subs have been scoring more, it's that they've been playing more too. Maybe it's out of necessity --either because of injuries or increased fixture congestion -- maybe it's by design, maybe the coaches saw something Dave wrote back in February, but Schmid has been going to his bench earlier in games than he did in 2010.
The total number of subs Schmid used this year was not dramatically different on a per game basis than a year ago. On average, he used 2.82 subs per MLS game in 2011; last year, he used 2.80. He used all three of his subs roughly 79 percent of the time; a year ago it was 73 percent. Those aren't necessarily big differences.
Where you do start to see a difference is in the average number minutes those subs played. This year Sigi went to his bench 96 times and extracted 2,222 minutes out of those players, for an average of 23.14 minutes per substitute. That's an increase of 22.5 percent over the average number of minutes he gave to each sub last year. It's worth noting that Real Salt Lake, the Sounders' opponent in the Western Conference semifinals, also made good use of substitutes. Coach Jason Kreis used all three subs 26 times and logged 2,025 minutes from reserves.
It stands to reason that playing subs longer gives them more of an opportunity to impact the game, something we saw in stark numbers this year. Sigi gave subs at least 15 minutes 68 times this year, an average of 2.0 per game after giving them a similar number of minutes 1.73 times per game in 2010.
Those earlier entering subs contributed to 6 of 7 goals and 5 of 6 assists the team got off the bench this year. A year ago, the Sounders got 3 of 4 substitution goals and 2 of 3 substitution assists from early-entering players. Consequentially, Sounders subs posted a points per 90 of .81 this year, a roughly 30 percent increase over their 2010 PP90.
There's simply no denying that the Sounders have a much deeper roster than they have ever had before. Still, a good deal of credit deserves to go to Sigi for not only realizing that, but making good use of his bench. It remains to be seen if the Sounders can buck the trend of teams advancing deep into outside tournaments bowing out early in the MLS Cup playoffs. Strategies like this can't hurt that effort, though.