Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei lost his chance at a team goalkeeping milestone during Saturday's match with the Columbus Crew, but in the wake of a seven-save performance that salvaged a 1-1 draw, there wasn't any disappointment about this lost entry in the record book.
"Stef comes up with big saves for us and he's got a great head on his shoulders," said Toronto FC interim head coach Chris Cummins. "We talk about individuals stepping up the mark and being a difference, and he was the difference again today."
The record in question was Greg Sutton's 273 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal, set between May 1-24, 2008. Frei entered Saturday's game on a streak of 186 shutout minutes, which included back-to-back clean sheets in 1-0 wins against Chivas and Kansas City that played a big part in earning Frei the team's player of the month award for April.
Frei would've needed to deliver 88 minutes of scoreless soccer to set a new record -- a tall order against the defending MLS Cup champions. But Frei held his ground against a barrage of shots (11-2 in favor of the Crew after the first half) before finally breaking down on an Emmanuel Ekpo strike in the 54th minute.
Even the Ekpo goal was not entirely Frei's fault, as the Crew midfielder showed some fine touch in controlling the ball during a run down the center of the field, and Ekpo was sprung for the shot due to some confusion between defenders Jim Brennan and Marco Velez.
Frei, however, didn't blame his teammates, saying it was an honest mistake.
"I told Marco afterwards that next time just take charge and if you have to take Jimmy out, take him out," Frei said. "If they communicate and one guy takes charge that's not going to happen, so it's unfortunate."
The 239-minute streak ranks Frei third in TFC's short history, behind Sutton's scoreless streaks of 273 and 250 minutes, respectively. This attempt at history came as a surprise to the rookie goalkeeper.
"I didn't even know about the streak I had going on," Frei said. "Hopefully I can achieve it some other time."
Of the seven stops that Frei had to make on Saturday, none were more perilous than a 78th-minute challenge from Columbus forward Pat Noonan. TFC defender Adrian Serioux misplayed a back pass, leaving the ball free for a wide-open Noonan to charge the net on a breakaway. Frei, however, held his ground and was able to deflect Noonan's close-range shot.
"It's a one-on-one and as a 'keeper you try to stand up and make the striker make a decision," Frei said. "I think he did a little stutter hoping I was going to go down but I didn't. By the time he had to make a decision he was really close to me so I had a good chance to shoot my leg out and make the save."
Toronto was outshot 17-5 as the Reds set a team season-low for shots in a game. It took 35 minutes for TFC to get their first shot in the match, a slow start that Cummins said was in part due to the weather. Just before the game began, a hard rain began to fall, and strong winds began to blow southward while the Reds were playing towards the north side of the field.
"It was beautiful sunshine when we went out and then the heavens opened up," Cummins said. "We were still trying to play tippy-tappy football in the wrong areas. We tried to slide balls though and they were running off the pitch. We didn't play the conditions very well."
The rain and winds soon died down on what turned into quite a pleasant evening weather-wise, and the TFC attack began to perk up in the second half. The highlight was the 64th-minute goal from Chad Barrett, who converted an outstanding cross from midfielder Sam Cronin.
Barrett gave Cronin the credit for the goal, and said he was pleased to deliver after missing a similar chance last Sunday against Kansas City.
"It wasn't much me, it was pretty much all Sam," Barrett said. "He did a great job finding space off the throw-in, lost his marker and sent in a similar ball to me as in the last game. I told him midweek, 'if you play me a ball like that I'll finish it.' The thing just fell onto my head, the 'keeper stayed on his line and didn't come out, which made it real easy for me to finish.
"In the second half it was a pretty even game. We kind of woke up after they scored and we strung some passes together and took some control in the match. We showed a lot of character to get back in the game."
It was the second 1-1 draw of the season between TFC and the Crew, as the two sides played to another tie on March 28 in Columbus. In that game, the Reds trailed after 84 minutes before Crew defender Gino Padula scored an own goal to even the score.
Given the lopsided nature of the total shots and Toronto's lethargic performance in the first half, it could be said that the Reds were as equally fortunate to come away with this draw on Saturday as they were last month.
But that would discount the efforts of Frei, the man who has been the true equalizer for TFC all season long. More games such as Saturday's will create some MLS Rookie of the Year buzz for the first-year goalkeeper, and it might not be long before he makes another run at Sutton's record.
"Stef's a fantastic young 'keeper. He's got a fantastic future ahead of him," Cummins said. "He was [close to] keeping the longest clean sheet for so many minutes, and he'll get another chance for that."