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Summer signings played massive role in Sounders’ turnaround, again

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Kelvin Leerdam may be the best midseason acquisition in Sounders history, crazy as that sounds.

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Vancouver Whitecaps at Seattle Sounders Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Just for a moment, think back to the state of the team at the midway point in the season. The Seattle Sounders were coming off a highly disappointing 1-1 tie with Orlando City at home in which they surrendered the equalizer on the game’s final play. That left them on 20 points, sporting a record of 5-7-5. To put that into perspective, the LA Galaxy had 22 points and a 6-7-4 record through the same number of games.

(This is more note than point of this story, but the Sounders were 23!!!! points better than the Galaxy over the second half of the season. That seems like an impossible thing to accomplish over a 17-game span, but after checking and re-checking my numbers, it’s right. Anyway...)

There were very open and legitimate questions being asked about the Sounders’ roster at that point. Talk of it being actually “broken” was being discussed by perfectly even-keeled people, not necessarily prone to overreaction. Up to that point, the Sounders were seemingly over-reliant on players on the wrong side of 30, didn’t have anything like a dependable right back and were probably having very hard conversations about what to do with a 34-year-old forward who had scored just four goals up to that point.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know things turned around rather dramatically soon after. On their 18th match day, the Sounders fell behind the Portland Timbers 2-1 after a pair of late first-half goals, one of which was preceded by Brad Evans picking up a red card. The Sounders played the entire second half a man down, but still managed to pull out a 2-2 tie when Clint Dempsey scored the equalizer on what was essentially the game’s final play.

Clint Dempsey is the perfect derby villain

We have a feeling this guy is going to have someting to say about tonight's result.

Posted by Sounder at Heart on Sunday, August 27, 2017

From that point forward, the Sounders were the second best team in MLS. Only history-making Toronto FC’s 34 points were more than the Sounders’ 32 over the final 16 games of the season.

Going into the Western Conference finals for a second straight season, the Sounders’ roster no longer looks anything like broken. They’ve got a dynamic, 20-year-old left back in Nouhou who should be able to ably take over for Joevin Jones. Cristian Roldan, 22, has established himself as arguably the top American midfielder. Twin Towers Chad Marshall and Roman Torres appear to have mostly put their injury concerns behind them. Dempsey finished the second half of the season with eight goals in his last 15 appearances, then added two more in his only playoff game and surely made it a lot easier for the Sounders to decide to bring him back next year. Just about every where you look, the Sounders are reasonably set for the next year or two at least.

Rather than a roster overhaul, the Sounders could be looking at a relatively quiet offseason — although there’s a chance one or both of the last remaining “originals” could be moving on.

What changed? Well, the top line reasons are that the Sounders just got healthy and started playing better. But it’s also important to note that for a third straight summer, Garth Lagerwey managed to make impact signings that dramatically affected how his team played down the stretch.

Neither Kelvin Leerdam nor Victor Rodriguez — and certainly not Lamar Neagle or Callum Mallace — demanded dramatic headlines. But taken together, they may have been even more important than the collection of talent acquired in each of the previous two summers. That’s no small feat, especially when you consider this was the first time Lagerwey didn’t sign a Designated Player in the summer.

Leerdam made his debut in the second half of the Sounders’ 4-3 win over D.C. United in which they overcame a 3-0 deficit. They’re a remarkable +20 in goal-difference in the 1,470 minutes he’s played (including playoffs). They’ve also gone 8-2-5, while allowing just eight goals and posting 10 shutouts.

Rodriguez has played more sporadically, but the Sounders have gone 3-1-4 in games he’s appeared (including playoffs).

Their influences are even more acutely felt in American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Goals (credit to Ethan Swenson for actually compiling these numbers). In the five regular-season games Leerdam and Rodriguez both started, the Sounders had a xG of 1.82 per game and an xGA of .74. That’s an xGD of 1.08 for you math majors. In all of Leerdam’s starts, the Sounders had a xG of 2.04 and a xGA of .89 for a xGD of 1.14.

It should be said that Leerdam’s arrival basically coincided with Torres and Marshall returning to full health. Torres had missed nine games prior to Leerdam’s signing and only missed two after, while Marshall missed four games before and two games after as well. When Leerdam, Torres and Marshall all started (10 games), the Sounders posted an xG of 2.29 and an xGA of .87 for a xGD of 1.42. When one of them doesn’t start, the xGD drops all the way to .09. That’s a difference of 1.33. That’s per game!

There are a lot of variables at work here and there’s no real point in trying to sort through them all. But these numbers are pretty hard to ignore. Regardless of what happens over two legs against the Houston Dynamo, this has been another remarkable turnaround and the Sounders look well positioned going into next year.