Stefan Frei stops Jozy Altidore: The greatest MLS save of all time

TUKWILA, Wash.—It’s been close to five months now since Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei permanently etched his place in Sounders lore with a dramatic, sprawling save of Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore’s header in extra time of the 2016 MLS Cup.

The Sounders, of course, would go on triumph on penalty kicks, delivering the franchise a first MLS championship and instantly vaulting the moment to iconic status. Sounders fans widely refer to it simply as "The Save" and Frei even immortalized it with a star tattoo, on the left hand he used to swat away Altidore’s shot.

As the Sounders get set to take on TFC for the first time since that MLS Cup in an afternoon rematch at CenturyLink Field on Saturday (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, CTV, TSN2), Seattle’s 31-year-old backstop reflected on what will undoubtedly go down as one of the defining moments of his career.

“It looked like an innocent play, really,” Frei said after Seattle’s practice at Starfire Sports Complex on Wednesday. “Coming down the left side, [Tosaint Ricketts] kind of dinks it in almost, just to not let it run out of play and Jozy did really, really well to get up. It looked like it was going to get over him and even if it got to him he wouldn’t be able to get it back down.

“Then, I just tried to get set and stay in the middle as much as I could because you don’t know if it’s going to go left or right and then move my feet as much as I can. It’s a desperation save, obviously, with the way you arch back as well and just try to claw it out.”

Frei said he didn’t engage in any sort of discussion about the save when he was called into January camp with the US national team just a month later – where he became teammates with Altidore and Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley.

But he did relay one anecdote from that camp courtesy of Sounders teammate Chad Marshall, whom Frei said took the opportunity to brag for him when he was introducing himself to some of his US teammates. 

“The only goofiness was that, even though we know each other, you go introduce yourself to people,” Frei said. “And I had Chad Marshall behind me always saying, ‘He’s the MLS Cup MVP,’ even when I shook Jozy’s hand and Michael’s hand. That’s Chad for you right there.”

For Frei, the MLS Cup heroics marked the culmination of a long journey into the conversation as one of the league’s elite goalkeepers. He was a member of Toronto FC for five seasons, making 82 appearances for the Reds after they selected him No. 13 overall out of the University of California in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.

Frei played well when he was on the field during his time in Toronto, but the team didn’t, struggling through a period of constant turnover during which the roster and coaching staff was perpetually in flux.

“You can’t expect teams to jell if you have seven coaches in five years and over 200 teammates. You simply can’t,” Frei said. “You have a new back four constantly, new midfielders, there’s just so many things that each player brings that’s unique about every player. You need to give those people time. You need to give coaches time to implement their style, to build a bond with their players.

“I think [stability] is a reason why Seattle’s been able to have success even when I wasn’t here. And you can go a step further and say I think that’s a reason why Toronto is having success now.”

Frei was traded to Seattle prior to the start of the 2014 season after struggling to with injuries during his last two seasons in Toronto. In retrospect, he says the change of scenery was necessary in affording him a fresh start.

“I think my start with the Sounders was a bit of a reset,” he said. “It helped me and my confidence to come back and get really comfortable.”

The clean slate has resulted in the most consistent stretch of play of his career, which has seen him start 106 games for Seattle since his 2014 arrival.

As for his mindset from this point forward with an MLS Cup now on his resumé, Frei says his focus is on riding this wave as far as it takes him, while continuing to refine his game in the process.

“Over the last few years [Sounders goalkeeper coach Tommy Dutra] and I have been able to work on certain aspects of my game,” Frei said. “As the team has also changed, for example, playing out of the back and being comfortable under pressure with the ball at our feet. I think I’ve grown in that aspect.

“There’s still a ways to go but I’m happy with my progression. There’s always something. But first and foremost, the confidence the team gave me back was tremendous and I hope I can play more and more games here for many years.”