TUKWILA, Wash. – He may never win the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Award. He may not frequently find himself at the forefront of the national conversation when it comes to the top netminders in MLS.
In a way, it makes sense that Frei is often overlooked when you consider the star power on Seattle’s roster that includes Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris. However, as Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey pointed out on Friday, the Sounders probably aren’t hosting the 2019 MLS Cup final at CenturyLink Field against Toronto FC on Nov. 10 if not for the exploits of their veteran netminder.
“He’s played literally every game,” Lagerwey said. “For a goalkeeper to do that is pretty remarkable. It’s a testament to how well he takes care of his body, how well prepared he is, both mentally and physically.
“Stef is really smart and I think he’s very perceptive and he’s able to constantly assess situations and manage things. Look, he’s one of the big leaders in our locker room as well. … Make no mistake, if he doesn’t make two or three massive saves in extra time against Dallas, we’re not even out of the first round. That’s what he’s like. He’s stepped up consistently in big game after big game, and we’re really lucky to have him.”
For Frei, this year’s MLS Cup represents an opportunity to add to what is already an impressive postseason legacy.
He made the iconic save in the 2016 final in Toronto, with his sprawling denial of Jozy Altidore in extra time that preceded Seattle’s penalty-kick triumph instantly becoming the stuff of legends.
In the rematch at BMO in the 2017 final, the Sounders fell 2-0, but the scoreline could have been even more lopsided if not for a clinical display of goalkeeping from Frei in the first half of the match.
Asked at Starfire Sports Complex on Saturday if there’s anything in particular that has led to his propensity for elevating his game under the bright lights, Frei said it simply comes down to experience, and learning how to manage the emotions that come with pressure moments.
“I don’t know, I wish I had a list to check off to make sure I have a good game, but that’s not how it goes,” Frei said. “I think with experience, you learn how to really handle butterflies and obviously the bigger the occasion, the more the butterflies really are an integral part – how do you deal with those?
“They’re starting already now – how do you deal with the emotions that are coming up, the possible outcomes, how you feel about it, what does that mean? Those questions have to be answered before the game starts. If you haven’t answered those questions in your head and dealt with those emotions, you’re going to be in trouble. I think I’ve been able to take care of those emotions well,” he continued.
Now 33 years old, Frei knows there are only so many more opportunities like this he’s likely to get. It’s part of why he said he was so gutted after the 2017 final defeat to TFC, with the knowledge that there was no guarantee he would ever find himself back on that stage.
He’s back now, just two seasons later – a development that Frei said left him feeling jubilation following Seattle’s Western Conference Final upset over LAFC, but also cognizant of the reality that these are precious moments that aren’t to be taken lightly.
“The fact that we’re getting to play for another star is a huge, huge opportunity,” Frei said. “There’s players who have terrific careers, amazing careers and never have a chance to win a championship. So, it says a lot about all the things that are not really in the hands of an individual player. There’s so much that needs to happen for this moment to occur to be in this situation and have this opportunity. On top of it now, for us to be able to possibly do it at home, it’s an opportunity. I really want us to realize that without being afraid of that moment at the same time.”