Plenty of MLSers have pursued an Ivy League education en route to a professional soccer career. Standout players past and present like Jesse Marsch, Cory Gibbs, Jeff Larentowicz, Emeka Eneli and Kevin O’Toole matriculated at one of those world-class universities before making it to the pros; it would be unfair to suggest that doing so is incompatible with making the most of one’s on-field talents.

Still, for a youth national teamer, a rising prospect in one of the most respected academies in the United States, who’d already drawn the interest of Manchester United and other clubs in Europe, enrolling at Harvard would generally be seen as a detour from the pathway unfolding before you.

Yet that’s exactly what Matt Freese did as he finished high school and exited the Philadelphia Union’s acclaimed youth system in 2017.

“Yeah, definitely. I mean, that one was a little bit of a weird one,” Freese, whose breakout performances in goal for New York City FC have made him a surprise MLS All-Star contender, acknowledged to MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation from his club’s training facility in Orangeburg, New York this week.


Family ties

Freese, you see, had a promise to keep, one that he believed could – must – coexist with his soccer ambitions.

“I actually did know that I was on the pathway to become a pro at that point, when I did decide to go to college,” the 25-year-old explained. “It was very important to my parents that I did that for a semester or two and experience it, grow and live on my own.

“If I had never done that, then I sign a professional contract having never lived outside my parents’ house, which can be sometimes a tough thing. So really, that year really forced me to mature, and I obviously got some games and also maintained a good relationship with my dad, who was very academic focused.”

That last part is an understatement. His father Andrew attained not only an undergraduate diploma from Harvard but also a medical degree, then moved on to earn his doctorate in neurobiology from nearby MIT. Dr. Freese would go on to become an award-winning neurosurgeon who pioneered new innovations in gene therapy.

In 2001 he performed the first successful gene-therapy trial for neurological disease in a human being, surgically infusing healthy genes into a 3-year-old boy with Canavan disease, a rare, fatal neurodegenerative childhood disorder, a scientific advance that’s helped add years, even decades, to the lifespan of that patient and others afflicted with that and similar maladies.

Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Matt’s father saved and/or transformed thousands of lives, by his own hand as well as the wider medical advances that ensued. Relentlessly driven, his loved ones were accustomed to him working long hours, even on his supposed days off, right up until his own battle with cancer required hospitalization, before he passed away on June 30, 2021, at 61 years of age.

“You have to live a life of impact, and that means life is going to be hard and you have to make sacrifices,” Matt’s older brother Jack told the Philadelphia Inquirer of their father’s outlook. “He worked like 20 hours a day. He wanted to help people and do research on top of that.”

It is also an understatement to say Andrew was continuing a family tradition in science and academia.

His sister, Matt's aunt Katherine, is a physics professor at the University of Texas and a member of the National Academy of Sciences with a specialty in theoretical astrophysics who, among many other works, wrote a book on dark matter and provided expertise on "Through the Wormhole," a Morgan Freeman-narrated television documentary series that aired on the Science Channel from 2010-17.

Their parents Ernst and Elisabeth were also scientists, who researched molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health after emigrating from Germany in the 1950s. Meanwhile, Matt’s mother Marcia holds an MBA in health care management and still works in the field, having maintained her career even while ferrying Matt to soccer practices and games in his adolescence.

Matt Freese - NYCFC

Different path

All this helps explain why young Matt’s excellence in soccer was perhaps celebrated a bit less enthusiastically in the Freese household than it might have been in others.

“It's certainly no secret, he's not a big sporty guy,” Freese said of his father. “He was a doctor and surgeon and I would even say wasn't the biggest fan of how seriously I took sports. I was always drawn to sports, and so it was just very natural for me. But the one thing that I would definitely without a doubt say is that he taught me the work ethic that I have.

“In different ways, he probably used academics and things like that to teach me about work ethic. Those same lessons are what I carry with me in this facility every day, and I've carried with me for the last five, six years as a professional.”

That trait has powered Matt’s dogged rise through the game, a journey that was anything but linear despite his evident potential.

Persistence and diligence made him a soccer junkie, the beautiful game working its way into his heart amid multiple family moves in his childhood from Philly to Minnesota to South Carolina, then back to Minnesota and finally back to Philly again, even as he also tried his hand at hockey, lacrosse, track and American football, in keeping with the local cultures of all those places.

It kept Freese from losing faith when the Union cut him from their academy program when he was in middle school. He moved to local youth clubs Penn Fusion and FC Europa and also played high-school ball, including plenty of time as a field player before eventually specializing in goalkeeping, asking his mom to drop him at school early so he and a couple of teammates could fit in extra training sessions at 5 am.

The Union would bring him back on board for the second half of his senior year.

“I really had a very unique and wide range of athletic upbringing,” said Freese. “Ultimately, soccer was my love throughout all that, but I learned a lot of other things from the other sports, and I think moving around allowed me to do that and have constant cross-training and always be working on my hand-eye coordination, simple things like that, that then translate into goalkeeping, which I think is kind of similar to Matt Turner, actually.”

Matt Freese - NYCFC Santi

Lessons learned

Persistence and diligence kept him dialed in when he arrived at Harvard to find a senior ‘keeper, Kyle Parks, firmly ensconced as the Crimson’s starter, limiting Freese to just three matches his freshman season, all of them losses. (Years later, when he was traded from Philly to NYCFC, he would have a good laugh about that with his new teammate Keaton Parks, Kyle’s younger brother.)

Persistence and diligence earned him the call from the Union 18 months or so later, his hometown club offering a homegrown contract and a chance to learn as the understudy to three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake. It also enabled him to finish his Harvard economics degree in the ensuing years, fitting in coursework around his soccer duties.

“I took some time off when I first signed my contract, and then a lot of coursework online,” he explained, “and I flew up during the offseason to take exams, things like that, as well as during the summers.”

And persistence and diligence kept him on course when he had to bide his time as Blake’s backup across four years in which he logged just 13 regular-season appearances with the first team. As any ‘keeper can attest, being a reserve tends to grate that much more, because there’s only one spot on the pitch.

“It's a tough spot. It's a tough position,” said Freese. “My mentality the whole time was really just to learn as much as I possibly could from Andre and the rest of the goalkeepers there.

“For four years there, I was just there to learn and to work, to be a good teammate and be a leader in the locker room. So there's a lot to be learned from one of the best to do it in this league, whether it's stuff on the field or stuff off the field, or learning how to maintain a mentality and maintain confidence during lows and maintain humility during highs.”

Matt Freese - NYCFC pumped up

Getting to shine

Freese’s abilities were such that a breakthrough seemed a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ – but that’s cold comfort after all time on the sidelines. The clouds finally broke after the 2022 season, when NYCFC reached out to the Union, looking for GK options as their longtime incumbent Sean Johnson made a free-agent move to Toronto FC. While Philly weren’t thrilled about trading him to an Eastern Conference rival, by then he’d demonstrated himself to be much more than just a capable netminder.

“With Matt, because he's such a great human being, great person, there was a, I don’t want to say moral thing where we decided to let him get a chance to be a starter,” Union coach Jim Curtin said earlier this year. “If you remember, Andre obviously was and still is the top goalkeeper in the league, so Matt didn't get his opportunities. We saw a window where he had a chance to become a starter.

"Matt did great work for us. I loved working with the kid."

Over the course of 2023, Freese went about proving himself again, this time to Pigeons head coach Nick Cushing and goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian, who worked at the Union before joining NYCFC. Initially, Luis Barraza had the starting role.

“I think that everyone within that organization knew I was ready for the jump, and I knew I was ready for the jump, and my family and my agents as well,” Freese said. “I’m very fortunate to have landed in an amazing spot like New York with a great staff, and to work with Nick and with Rob and learn so much from Rob.

“Patience has definitely been the story, from 2018 to 2023,” he added. “It was kind of my first exposure to it and it was definitely hard. But it's an important attribute for someone who wants to rise through the ranks as a goalkeeper, because it's not like any other position.”

By autumn, he’d won the starting job and a contract extension through 2026, racking up some eye-catching analytics data.

As Hudson River Blue noted in February, Freese ranked in the 98th, 95th and 92nd percentile among MLS regulars in save percentage, clean sheet percentage and goals allowed per 90 minutes. Beyond his shot-stopping nous, he’s also rapidly adapted to the additional responsibilities City’s game model asks from their goalies in terms of distribution and building out of the back.

That all laid the groundwork for what’s thus far been a breakthrough 2024, at or near the top of the charts in multiple statistical categories – though he is quick to caution that it’s only been half a year.

“This is the first time I've ever really had this opportunity,” Freese noted. “I would always say to myself, for the last five, six years in training, ‘I know I can do this, I know I can do this. I can make these saves and I can command a defense and come out of the goal,’ stuff like that.

“But then when you have one or two games in Philly when Andre was gone for the Gold Cup or something like that, it's very hard to feel comfortable and feel like yourself, and just get to the same comfortability that you have in training out there. And by no means should I be playing over Andre Blake, he’s an incredible goalkeeper and I'm very aware of that. But that's just the reality, is that it's hard to find rhythm and hard to get in a routine and learn what works for you, learn what doesn't work for you.”

Matt Freese - NYCFC yell

Bigger picture

In retrospect, it seems safe to say Freese's stint at Harvard didn’t derail his development. That decision, like several others on his road to this point, helped craft the person and ‘keeper he is today.

Freese holds a German passport thanks to heritage on his father’s side of the family, and has more than once given real consideration to trying his hand across the Atlantic, first when he was still a youth player and later when he was preparing to leave Harvard. That was right around the time of Zack Steffen’s transfer from the Columbus Crew to Manchester City, however, a move that helped convince Freese to start his senior career on home turf.

“I’m very self-analytical, very hard on myself, to a fault sometimes, but also I think you need a drive like that to continuously get better and be ready for opportunities,” he said.

“Ultimately decided I want to be in MLS and make a name for myself in MLS … I remember I was actually in England, I won't get into specifics about teams, but looking at these rumors and these tweets about Zack going to Man City, it's a really, really cool story and a prime example of the growth of MLS and the development that is within the MLS. And that was something I wanted to take part in.”

Wherever this dream takes him from here, Freese will keep his dad’s memory close.

“I write his initials on my wrist tape every single day. So it's definitely carrying with me,” he said. “He didn't really get to see what ended up happening, but I'm sure that he'd be proud.”

Matt Freese - NYCFC yellow