For Frei, it's risk vs. reward as he adjusts to TFC's 4-3-3

Stefan Frei

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TORONTO – Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the longest-tenured member of Toronto FC, watched early in preseason as some new players coped with the 4-3-3 system that head coach Aron Winter installed this time last year.

The veteran backstop empathized with what they were going through.

“We see now with guys who are coming in from the draft, or guys who haven’t been exposed to the system or how we want to play, that it’s a bit more hectic and difficult for them,” Frei said before the team left to Orlando to continue training. “[Center back Ty Harden] and I were sitting there and we were saying we probably looked similar to them a year ago.”

The formation, with three strikers and a passing, possession style of play, was introduced by Winter, who drew on his upbringing in the Dutch game.

The difference this season is that there is a core group of players returning from the end of 2011, and they bring with them a better understanding of the system.

“It’s definitely a step better than last year,” Frei said. “We know what’s expected of us. We’re just more comfortable with it. We’re more calm. It’s the decision-making. When can I take that risk? When is too hot to take that risk? When do I just go long and stop worrying about building up?

“All those things that just come with experience, and I think we’ve had that year under our belt now with how we want to play.”

Under the system, the goalkeeper passes more and must be comfortable with the ball at his feet. As it turns out, the passing is the simple part.

“The difficult part,” he said, “is the decision-making. Can you play that pass? Once you realize and are comfortable with playing that pass, then the actual doing is the easy part.”

It’s a balance, and one that he’s still working on.

“The biggest thing was the risk vs. reward thing kind of changes for me,” he said. “That’s one of the things I was taught through my career, always weigh the risk versus the rewards. And usually as a goalkeeper when it gets a bit dicey, you’re just going to kick through the ball and get it out.

“But now sometimes I think that kind of shifted a little bit to realize when is it okay for me to take a bit more of a risk in order for us to clear it out and maintain possession.”