Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam battled through a nagging ankle injury his entire 2018 season, likely hurting his hamstring because of it as well. Now, after his first full offseason in 2 1/2 years, he feels recovered enough to elevate his play and perhaps improve upon the team's already rock solid defense.

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Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam figures he paid a hefty physical price for playing 2 1/2 seasons worth of professional soccer without a real break before his team’s playoff elimination last November.

And that’s why Leerdam, hardly a physical specimen to begin with at 5-foot-10, 154 pounds, may have benefitted from a longer-than-usual three-month offseason for his team more than any other Rave Green player. A nagging right ankle injury from a practice collision in 2018 training camp caused Leerdam to miss last season’s opener, lingered for months and likely led to an additional hamstring problem that sidelined him five straight games in June and July.

Now, having spent his entire offseason in The Netherlands recovering physically and rehabilitating his leg, the Suriname-born, Dutch-developed Leerdam hopes he can again be the player so dominant along the right flank the latter part of 2017 as a July transfer window signing.

“Last season was tough,’’ Leerdam, 28, said Wednesday as the Sounders prepared for Saturday’s season opener at home against the expansion FC Cincinnati side. “At this (training camp) phase I was still injured, so I was always chasing the team. It was also the first time in 12 years that I’d been injured in preseason, so it was new for me. It was hard, really hard.

“I tried to work with the medical staff but when you’ve never had an ankle injury it’s tough because it throws your whole body off.’’

During the rehabilitation overseas, he was told the hamstring issue was likely from overcompensating in trying to favor his ankle too much. An additional early red card suspension didn’t help Leerdam’s efforts to get caught up, nor did the fact his body already felt physically taxed from the shortened prior offseason.

Leerdam returning to full health is one of the more underrated aspects of what could actually be an improved Sounders defense over last year — when it allowed the second-fewest goals in the entire league. Instability along both flanks hampered the team throughout the season’s first half, but that should be solidified with Leerdam returning to form and Brad Smith starting the year at left back along with Nouhou.

The Sounders, knowing Leerdam took some hits last season, this week looked to stabilize their right back depth by waiving Jordan McCrary and replacing him with trialist Saad Abdul-Salaam, 27, acquired for $50,000 in targeted allocation money from New York City FC.

Abdul-Salaam is an unusually tall 6-foot-4, 185-pound fullback that can also play central defense. He’s made 68 Major League Soccer appearances since 2015 and is viewed as an upgrade over the smaller, less versatile McCrary.

“There are definitely things I can improve on,’’ said Abdul-Salaam, a 12thoverall draft pick by Sporting Kansas City in 2015 now with his third MLS team. “On the field is very important, but (the) mental (approach) is one of the things I need to work on and continue to work on. I think that’s what’s going to help me get to the next level.’’

Abdul-Salaam will battle Henry Wingo for backup time at the position but there’s no real danger for now of Leerdam losing his starting role. Leerdam was a transformative player when healthy — a big reason the Sounders returned to the MLS Cup final in 2017 — and the team is eager to see him bounce back.

His exact injury involved a bone in his ankle being slightly displaced and causing discomfort when he changed directions quickly or sprinted at full speed. He worked “every day for two months straight’’ during the offseason in Amsterdam with a trainer well-known to players in the Dutch Eredivisie and got his body feeling comfortable again.

“I know my body well,’’ Leerdam said. “I managed to play a lot of games last year and had some assists, but there were times when I needed to run full out and I hesitated. I wasn’t sure whether my ankle would hold up.’’

At times, trainers would “hammer” his ankle bone back into place to solidify it enough for him to run. Leerdam said he still undergoes treatment to keep the ankle stable but has strengthened it overall with the added time off.

Leerdam appeared in 48 regular season and playoff games for the Sounders between late July 2017 and last November’s postseason ouster. Prior, he’d played 28 games in 2016-17 for his Vitesse team in The Netherlands — meaning 76 first team pro appearances in just more than two calendar years without the benefit of a true offseason. Only the 86 games by Nicolas Lodeiro and 82 by Chad Marshall on similar abbreviated offseasons since the August 2016 start of Leerdam’s final Dutch campaign are more than the fullback has logged among Sounders position players.

The Sounders making the 2017 final meant they had only six weeks off before reporting to training camp again. This time, with more than three months to rest, Leerdam opted to skip a visit back to Suriname to visit his grandparents — who raised him there until he rejoined his parents in The Netherlands at age 9 — so he could focus on recovering.

“I needed the time off but I didn’t have that much time,’’ Leerdam said. “I needed to feel better and then I needed to get stronger. I feel like I did both so hopefully things will go differently this season.’’

And if they do, the Sounders will have locked down about their only lingering defensive question mark.