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Numbers agree, Clint Dempsey and Nico Lodeiro work magic together

Their slow start to 2017 is nothing to get worked up about.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t take a tactical genius or a statistical whiz to suss out that the Seattle Sounders play really well when Nicolas Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey are on the field together. One need only look at the four times they suited up together last year to see what the fully operational battle station looks like. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, the Sounders went 3-0-1, scored nine goals, and generally left opponents feeling like inhabitants of Alderaan.

With Lodeiro playing in through balls and Dempsey finishing with aplomb, the duo combined for six goals and five assists. It was gruesome.

Naturally, there was hope that they’d simply pick up where they left off in 2017. That’s not quite been the case. Although Dempsey’s scored a couple goals and Lodeiro has a goal and an assist, the Sounders’ attack is still under construction.

There’s even been some suggestion that the two stars are possibly getting in each other’s way, as they both theoretically operate best in the same parts of the field. This got me thinking and crunching some numbers. I even reached out to Harrison Crow of American Soccer Analysis to help me dig up some specific expected-goals numbers.

What I found was nothing short of eye-popping — even with the expectation that the statistics would bear out what we’ve seen with our eyes — and suggests they are much better together than they are apart.

(Before I get too deep into this, I should state that all the stats I used are per game — unless otherwise noted — and measure the team’s regular-season performance from the start of the 2016 season through last Friday’s game. That’s a complete universe of 38 matches, eight of which Dempsey and Lodeiro both played. As previously stated, I leaned heavily on statistics that were provided by American Soccer Analysis and used some of their shorthand. To wit, xG=Expected Goals; xA=Expected Assists; and xGA=Expected Goals Allowed. But back to my point...)

The short-version is this: No matter how you measure it -- real goals and assists, xG and xA, or each player’s respective performances — magic happens when they both play. The Sounders increase their scoring by .71 goals, allow .18 fewer goals and claim .91 more points per game in those eight contests as opposed to the other 30 they played in that time. If they were able to maintain that over the course of a 34-game season, they’d score 64 goals, allow 38 and likely claim the Supporters’ Shield with 64 points.

But it’s not just that they happened to run into some good finishing, as the xG metrics were even more impressive. The team’s xG was .97 better and the xGA was .30. That kind of performance over the course of a full season would have been .54 xG per game better than last year’s leader (Columbus Crew) and .10 xGA per game better than last year’s best defense (FC Dallas).

Put another way, Lodeiro is every bit the “force-amplifier” that GM Garth Lagerwey promised he’d be when the signing was announced last July.

Individually, Dempsey has enjoyed some particularly good form when Lodeiro is on the field with him. Dempsey went from scoring .23 goals per game (.37 xG) to .88 goals (.71 xG) after Lodeiro joined and has looked a far cry from the sometimes seemingly disinterested player who struggled to find his form early last year. To put that in perspective, Dempsey’s scoring rate and xG rate would have both been tops in the league last year if he were to maintain it for the whole season.

The numbers aren’t quite as clear with Lodeiro, but they too suggest that he’s better off with Dempsey playing a sort of trequartista and allowing him to float around and find space while cutting in from the wing. Lodeiro’s assists go from .63 per game with Dempsey on the pitch to .44 when he’s not. The numbers are even more stark if you look at xA, where he goes from .52 per game with Dempsey to .26 without. Similarly, Lodeiro’s actual scoring goes down (.25 with Dempsey as compared to .333 without), but his xG actually goes up (.28 with from .13 without). No one in MLS maintained a better assist-per-game average better than what Lodeiro has done during those eight games with Dempsey and his xA figure in those games is .21 better per game than anyone posted last year.

But expectations were set last year, and there’s no denying that the four games this year have not been as good as the four games last year (or even with the nine games Lodeiro played without Dempsey). This is where xG and xA tell a dramatically different story than their “actual” counterparts. Without even digging into the numbers, just consider that Lodeiro and Dempsey came an inch or so away from hooking up on a goal in the Atlanta game and a disputable handball call kept Dempsey away from a goal in the Montreal game. Similarly, Lodeiro’s twice hit the woodwork with shots. If even one of those goals ended up counting, their per-game rates would look a lot different this year.

Back to the numbers, though ... it’s true Lodeiro isn’t quite playing at the level he was when he and Dempsey were crushing worlds. But he is performing better — by xG+xA — than he was during the nine games after Dempsey went down last year, in fact by a not-insignificant margin of .30 per game.

Which is all a long of way of saying that we’re seeing something special when Dempsey and Lodeiro get on the pitch together. That they’ve only ever played eight games alongside one another suggests they are only scratching the surface of what’s possible. If that looks anything like what they did in their limited time together last year, they’ll rule the MLS universe.

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