TUKWILA, Wash. – Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei doesn’t get talked about much.
As a member of a defensive unit featuring the only three-time MLS Defender of the Year in Chad Marshall and the commanding Panamanian international Roman Torres, Frei’s contributions are often understated, his name seldom mentioned in discussions regarding the league’s top-tier goalkeepers.
But in a 2016 campaign for the Sounders defined by ups and downs, Frei’s steady hands between the goalposts have proven invaluable. The Swiss-born 'keeper has backstopped a torrid second half of the season has powered Seattle's first trip to the MLS Cup final, where they will take on Toronto FC at BMO Field on Saturday (8 pm ET; FOX, UniMás, TSN1/3/4, RDS).
“He gets the credit around here,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said on Sunday. “In the locker room, he gets a lot of credit, in our coaching circles he gets a lot of credit. It might not be as noticeable to the rest of the world. But we’re all very appreciative of what he’s done for us and what a good goalkeeper he is.”
For Frei, the MLS Cup matchup against Toronto will take him back to the place where it all started.
Frei was a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick by TFC out of the University of California in 2009, and was immediately handed the reins as the team’s starting goalkeeper. Frei says he was grateful to be playing right away at that point in his career, but also one that turned into one of his most daunting and taxing mental challenges as a competitor.
The first issue was a lack of continuity, a seemingly endless period of turnover with both the roster and the coaching staff. Frei held his own on the field, but the club struggled to get results.
“It was a difficult time for me up there,” Frei told reporters this week. “You play soccer to win and we didn’t have too many triumphs while I was there. The turnover, seven coaches in five years, 200 teammates for me, it made for a difficult time.”
Then came the injuries.
In 2012, he broke his fibula during a training session and also underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle. After a rigorous recovery period, he was primed to be TFC’s starter once again in 2013, only to be supplanted by Joe Bendik.
By the time Frei was traded to Seattle just days after the 2013 season ended, he had lost upwards of two seasons. He had rebounded physically, but his confidence was shaken and didn’t come back immediately.
“That first year here was difficult after coming back from almost two years,” Frei said. “I think your confidence is a little bit in the gutter. You need people around you that believe in you and keep on assuring you that you’re the man, you’re the guy we need and that we trust in you.”
Frei would ultimately win the Sounders No. 1 ‘keeper job out of 2014 training camp, replacing Michael Gspurning. Since then, he’s made 98 starts and was considered a notable bright spot even when the Sounders stumbled through the first half of their 2016 season.
He pointed to the culture and consistency within the Sounders organization as factors that have helped foster his success since his arrival. Now 30, he looks likely to man the goalposts in Seattle for at least a few more seasons to come.
But first, he’ll look to help the Sounders deliver their first-ever MLS Cup against his former employer.
“I think I grew [in Toronto] as much as I could but it was probably for the best for me to move somewhere else and get a fresh start,” he said. “For me to move to a place like Seattle that is pretty consistent, not just in terms of turnover or lack thereof, but also in terms of consistently being one of the better teams.
“There’s been numerous success stories that have helped me to calm down a little bit and mature. Obviously the coaching staff here has helped me to grow tremendously. It’s been a good few years for me because I’m happy where I’m at.”