TORONTO — Up, up, up went the ball. In the 108th minute of MLS Cup 2016, it arced toward the top right corner of the goalmouth, as a sold-out BMO Field crowd held its collective breath in anticipation of an extra-time explosion.
And then, Stefan Frei changed direction.
He took a hard plant against his momentum, a shuffle step and a full-force attempt to launch himself off his back foot, arm fully extended as he tracked the ball's descent. Meanwhile Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore looked on, hoping his post-season goal-scoring streak was about to accrue another tally.
But Frei's fingertips found their mark. For a split second, the ball softly sat in his hand, and as he began to fall toward the grass, Frei managed to push the shot clear, saving Seattle's clean sheet in a scoreless game they managed to win after penalty kicks.
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"It was absolutely immaculate," said Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer, "something from the heavens."
Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders' general manager and president of soccer, put it more dramatically -- and personally. As a a former goalkeeper for the Kansas City Wizards, Dallas Burn, and Miami Fusion FC, he said his heart stopped, the moment giving him flashbacks. He pointed out the challenge in that situation of having to generate enough power to not only reach the ball, but get enough oomph to keep it in front of the line.
"I'm telling you, his technique was absolutely flawless," Lagerwey said. "It sounds like a small, pedantic goalkeeping thing, but I'm telling you – that save was darn near impossible and he pulled it off."
The save was one of seven Frei made on the night, along with another in the penalty-kick shootout. All helped Seattle stay alive during a game the offense proved unable to generate a single shot on target.
The performance came in front of a familiar audience, too. Frei played the first five seasons of his career in Toronto before coming over in a December 2013 trade for a conditional first-round pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
"It hurts a little bit, because I wish them nothing but the best," Frei said. "I [played] here for more than five years and there were more negatives than positives in terms of results on the pitch – regardless, they stuck with the team and that's very commendable.
"Obviously, there needs to be a winner. It sucks for the fans, I'm sorry that they couldn't win."
The game trudged toward penalties, and Frei stumped the Reds in round two, when Michael Bradley sent a low shot without much pace directly into the diving 'keeper. The crossbar bailed him out against Justin Morrow in the first sudden-death round, and Roman Torres sealed it on the next shot.
But the save that gets remembered is the one that stoned Altidore, who had scored in every game of Toronto's high-octane run through the Eastern Conference.
"It was a hell of a save," Altidore said. "At the end of the day, you have to pull off something special and we just weren’t able to."