TUKWILA, Wash. – When the Seattle Sounders meet Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN, TVAS), it will feature two of the very best at their position in MLS between the goalposts.
On one side, there’s Seattle’s Stefan Frei – perennially one of the league’s steadiest netminders and author of arguably the most iconic play in Sounders franchise history for his leaping swat of Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore in the 2016 MLS Cup, which preceded the Sounders’ penalty-kick shootout victory and first league championship.
On the other, there’s the legendary Nick Rimando – who will almost certainly go down as the greatest backstop in the history of the league when he retires following the end of the season, if he doesn’t already own the distinction.
On Wednesday, they’ll be enemies on the field. But asked after Sounders training on Tuesday about Rimando’s legacy and what he’s meant to MLS, Frei told MLSsoccer.com the personal dynamic between the two stalwart ‘keepers is nothing but respect.
“I would argue that he’s the goalkeeper of MLS in terms of what he’s done and how long he’s done it,” Frei said. “For the most part, borderline underappreciated, you know? He was part of the [US] national team here and there, but wasn’t really called into the All-Star Game or in the Best XI in years that I thought he deserved it.
“When we talk about how the Defender of the Year award should be named the Chad Marshall Defender of the Year award,” he added. “Nick Rimando, in my opinion, has a good shout at saying the Goalkeeper of the Year award should be the Nick Rimando Goalkeeper of the Year award.”
Rimando’s highlight-reel saves for RSL are nothing new to anyone follows MLS. But when assessing his overall legacy, Frei said he looks at Rimando as something of a trailblazer for how the position is thought of in the league, in terms of the more refined tactical role that goalkeepers are expected to play.
“He’s been able to adapt his game as the game evolves, how his body evolves or deconstructs as he’s getting older,” Frei said. “That’s very difficult to do. I started playing professionally long after he did and even for me it was boot the ball, save the ball. Those were your goals. Now, it’s play out of the back, tactically you’re the maestro almost in the back, pulling strings. It’s not very easy to do when all your childhood you’ve been taught the complete opposite: No risks, don’t take any risks. So, for him to be able to adapt and do it such a high level for so long is a testament to his abilities, but also his professionalism.
“This new generation of younger guys maybe are at the point where they don’t realize anymore that transition he had to go through, speaking of using your feet and him actually being the one guy that was pushing that, almost,” he added. “It was always Nick Rimando pinging balls, it was so impressive when everybody else was kind of limping behind. The younger generation, that’s what’s expected of them, so they might not realize what he had to go through there, how he led that change, at least in this league.”
While the two haven’t spent a ton of time together over the years, Frei said that they’ve exchanged the occasional message and make a point of touching base after games when they play against each other.
Between the lines on Wednesday, it’s all out the window in the name of competition, but when it comes to the tight-knit world of goalkeepers, Frei said his upcoming counterpart commands as much respect from his peers as anybody within that circle.
“Goalkeepers like to stick together,” he said. “I think when it’s reciprocated, there’s already a bond even though you’re supposed to be against each other. He’s always been excellent to me when it comes to that, and the glimpses I’ve gotten on Twitter and sending him messages when he should have been Goalkeeper of the Year or Best XI or something and he would send me one, like last year when I didn’t get mine. Just very supportive and something that wasn’t needed. You get a sense of mutual respect.”