Slowly but steadily, the question has grown larger and larger with every step Seattle Sounders FC took on their march to Wednesday’s historic capture of the 2022 Concacaf Champions League title.
With the most consistently successful MLS club of the past decade scaling new heights and the US men’s national team’s goalkeeping situation in an uncomfortable state of flux, why isn’t Seattle’s ace GK Stefan Frei in the USMNT mix?
As questions hang over Zack Steffen and Matt Turner, neither of whom are expected to be first-choice ‘keepers at Manchester City and Arsenal, respectively, in the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar this fall, there’s a solid case to be made on his behalf.
Few contemporary North American goalkeepers have racked up anywhere near Frei's array of team and individual honors: Two MLS Cups, a Supporters' Shield, a US Open Cup and now the Concacaf Champions League, as well as two MLS Save of the Year presented by Allstate awards, an MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi, a 2017 All-Star presented by Target nod and both the Golden Glove and Golden Ball trophies in this year’s CCL.
He commands his penalty area well, and communicates assertively with his defenders. Humble and hard-working, he epitomizes the ethos of both his club and its community, with a deep love of tattoos perhaps his only extravagance. And he’s shown himself to be a superb shot-stopper, with 41 saves in 13 games across all competitions thus far in 2022, some of them spectacular, like several of the eight he made in the second leg of Seattle’s second-leg win over New York City FC in the CCL semifinals to limit the defending league champs to one goal despite an expected-goals tally of 3.3.
That’s been particularly true in clutch situations – witness the enormous close-range save on Diogo de Oliveira’s header to prevent Pumas UNAM from leveling in the 65th minute on Wednesday, which Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer later said: “changes the whole dynamic of the game at 1-0.”
SAVE: Stefan Frei, Seattle Sounders - 65th minute
But Frei, who turned 36 last month, says he’s heard nothing from USMNT staff since 2017, when he was called into January camp by then-coach Bruce Arena but had to leave early due to a sprained ankle.
“I haven’t had contact with the national team since that January camp,” Frei told the Seattle Times in the leadup to this week’s CCL final second leg. “The lack of communication to me means everything. It just means that it’s something that I shouldn’t be focusing on because it’s something that’s out of my hands.
“I used to have goals of winning Goalkeeper of the Year or making the national team,” he added. “There’s politics involved and obviously there’s performances involved, too, those are the main things. I can control my performance. But what a coach wants, what a coach sees, what kind of goalkeeper he needs or what media sees as a good goalkeeper during the year, I cannot control that.”
Frei seems to have fallen through the cracks in the wake of the USMNT’s lowest moments in decades, the program’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to California with his family when he was 15 and rose through the NCAA ranks, then MLS, but didn’t receive full US citizenship until June 2017, a few months before that fateful night in Couva, Trinidad.
Arena’s interim successor Dave Sarachan spent 2018 calling in younger prospects, among them Zack Steffen, who started five of the Yanks’ 11 friendlies that year. That set Steffen on course to become the presumed starter when Gregg Berhalter, his coach at Columbus Crew, took the helm.
Besides his age, the primary knock on Frei’s international candidacy is his distribution with his feet. While certainly capable of being a possession-dominant side when Schmetzer deems it appropriate, the Sounders have generally not built out of the back with the same meticulousness as Berhalter’s USMNT.
The painstaking nature of that game model would also seem to work against Frei, considering that the national team have only a small handful of camps and matches in which he could conceivably get caught up between now and the start of the World Cup in mid-November. The question now is whether that factor ranks as highly as other considerations that could prove just as decisive against England, Iran and the USMNT’s other, to-be-determined Group E counterpart in Qatar.
Frei’s backers can point to his central role (and constant playing time) at MLS’s elite club, his proven capacity for big plays – his one-handed denial of Jozy Altidore in the 2016 MLS Cup Final remains one of the signature saves in league history – and a maturity and personality that would lend well to the task of quickly settling into Berhalter’s tightly-knit squad.
This week Berhalter told The Washington Post that the coming months are about “fine-tuning” and that his roster is effectively “going to be picked” by September’s Europe-based friendly matches, though he also said “there are some spots still up for grabs.”
Asked about his goalkeeping situation on Wednesday, the USMNT boss elected to underline his faith in his most recent call-ups.
“Zack is a very good goalkeeper, he's done really good games in the past, he's going to continue to do good games. Matt Turner’s going to get back into form and keep doing his thing,” said Berhalter. “Gaga [Slonina]’s a young, up-and-coming goalkeeper, we have Sean Johnson, who’s been strong in the league. Ethan Horvath’s contributed well. I'm confident that when November comes around, one of those guys will be able to do a great job and play.”