The champs are here: Sounders making summer surge out West

FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2016, file photo, Mexico's Carlos Vela, left, keeps the ball away from United States' Fabian Johnson during the first half of

SEATTLE (AP) — If the story of this Seattle Sounders season sounds familiar, that's because it's playing out in a very similar fashion to a year ago.

Except Seattle's turnaround this time started early enough that the surging Sounders could very soon find themselves on top of the MLS Western Conference.

"You want to keep building, keep working hard to sharpen up to be better," Seattle forward Clint Dempsey said. "But things are looking good. We are where we want to be in terms of putting ourselves in a position to make playoffs, at the same time, though, we aren't just happy being in third. We want to keep fighting, pushing to finish strong for playoffs, to be in the best situation."

The Sounders are unbeaten in their past seven matches, and coming off last week's 4-0 rout of Minnesota, Seattle can move into a tie on top of the Western Conference with a win at home Saturday against first place Sporting Kansas City.

While there are two months left in the regular season and no team in the Western Conference has adequately separated itself — the top seven teams are separated by six points — Seattle getting to the top would cap another dramatic summer turnaround.

It's not as dramatic as a year ago when Seattle made a midseason coaching change and needed a late surge just to make the playoffs. But it has been an impressive switch after the defending champions slogged through the first few months of the season.

"I know that the enthusiasm and the desire is there. Sometimes the soccer this season has been a little up and down, but they put it in every game and that's what I'm most proud of," Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said.

In a way, the season has played out the way Schmetzer and general manager Garth Lagerwey expected. Seattle knew the early season would be a struggle coming off the hangover of winning the title with a limited offseason and while trying to add Dempsey back to the lineup. The Sounders sacrificed some matches early in the season to make sure the roster had adequate rest for later in the season.

Those decisions seem to be paying off. And now there are reinforcements. Seattle answered its biggest question by signing Dutch right back Kelvin Leerdam and added midfield depth by signing Spanish midfielder Victor Rodriguez and trading to acquire veteran Lamar Neagle.

The schedule is in Seattle's favor. The Sounders play four of the next five at home — the only road trip is to Vancouver — and seven of the final 11 regular-season matches.

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MAKING MOVES: The secondary transfer window closed this week and there was a flurry of moves as teams set their rosters for the final stretch of the regular season. While a number of teams made relatively minor moves at the deadline, most notable was the major overhaul by last place D.C. United as it looks toward next year and the opening of its new stadium. D.C. United sent away Neagle and former MLS defender of the year Bobby Boswell to Atlanta, but pulled in young Bolivian Bruno Miranda, Hungarian playmaker Zoltan Stieber and emerging U.S. standout Paul Arriola.

The biggest roster announcement of the transfer period doesn't even impact this year's title race. LAFC announced Mexican star Carlos Vela as its first designated player, signing the striker from La Liga club Real Sociedad. Vela will join LAFC after the first of the year as it prepares for its expansion season in 2018.

OPEN CUP (DATE): Sporting Kansas City will have a chance at its third U.S. Open Cup title this decade after outlasting San Jose 5-4 on penalty kicks in the semifinals after the sides played to a 1-1 draw. Sporting Kansas City will host the final after winning the title in 2012 and 2015.

Their opponent for next month's final will be decided next week when FC Cincinnati hosts the New York Red Bulls. Cincinnati has already knocked off MLS sides Columbus and Chicago earlier in the tournament and advanced to the semifinals with a 1-0 win over fellow USL club Miami FC.

BEST OF THE WEEK: New York City FC star David Villa moved into the lead for the Golden Boot with a hat trick in a 3-2 win over the rival New York Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby. Villa was named the league's player of the week and now has a league-high 17 goals.