TUKWILA, Wash. – In the waning moments of the Seattle Sounders’ opener Sunday of the Western Conference semifinal series of the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T, against FC Dallas, perhaps no one on the field was feeling more pressure on than goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
After falling behind 1-0 on a first-half penalty kick, the Sounders managed to get level on a 54th-minute header from midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. If that result held, Seattle would go home for the second leg with a decided advantage, sporting an all-important road goal and only needing a 0-0 draw or an outright victory to advance.
All they needed to do was to not give up a goal.
In the end, Seattle’s ‘keeper came through, making a huge leaping save on a rocket off the foot of Dallas forward Fabian Castillo in the 90th minute. The save preserved the draw, allowing Seattle to return home squarely in the driver’s seat as they gear up for Monday’s decisive showdown at CenturyLink Field (10:30 pm ET; NBCSN, get tickets here).
The play was the landmark moment in what has been a season-long evolution for Frei, who was brought in by Seattle as the starter after missing much of the last two seasons with Toronto FC due to injury. Of all the adjustments he’s had to make, Frei said getting back into the rhythm of playing on a daily basis has been the biggest.
“I hadn’t really played for the last two years,” Frei told MLSsoccer.com “It was really important just to get games under my belt again and get some experience and confidence from that. … It’s a bit different for me. It was more of a transition because I had such a big break in between being a starter.”
The season hasn’t been an easy one for the 28-year-old, who faced mounting questions surrounding his job security following a particularly egregious mental error that led to a wide-open, 40-yard goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps on May 26. But in the end, his progression culminated in one of the top statistical seasons for a goalkeeper in MLS, finishing sixth in saves and third in clean sheets.
“There was definitely some rust,” Frei said of his 2014 campaign. “It’s a bit frustrating too because you’ve been there and done that, so you know how it’s supposed to go but sometimes things are just not really going the way you want them to. But having the players around you that have the belief and trust in you helped me immensely and allowed me to keep getting better and better.”
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Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid has noted Frei’s progression throughout the season, saying that the goalkeeper position in particular requires a great deal of time and repetition to refine the craft.
“That’s why you see goalkeepers get better and better as they get older,” Schmid said. “You look at the US national team right now, Timmy Howard and Nick Rimando are two of the top three goalkeepers, and those guys played for me in ’99 on the U-20 team.”
Frei’s trajectory throughout the season is a perfect example of Schmid’s assertion. Now, with his first season in two years as a full-time starter under his belt, Seattle’s ‘keeper might be playing his best soccer at precisely the right time.