Stefan Frei isn’t a total believer in hot-goalkeeper-in-the-playoffs magic.
“A hot team,” he corrected.
But certainly the 6-foot-3 Frei isn’t stone cold, either. In fact, he is coming off one of his best efforts of the season in the Sounders’ 1-0 triumph over Sporting Kansas City in the MLS knockout round Thursday at CenturyLink Field.
With SKC locking up the Seattle attack for most of the match, it was up to Frei to keep his team in it.
The visitors took a match-high 12 shots. Seven of them were on target. Frei saved all of them.
Some of the saves came in dramatic fashion. SKC midfielder Paulo Nagamura had point-blank shots on the fringe of the penalty box within two minutes of each other early in the match. Frei knocked them both away with his outstretched arms.
And in the 80th minute, speedy SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber dribbled through a crease along the left-center edge of the penalty box and unleashed a bullet headed for the right side of the goal. Frei deflected it with his left foot, out of harm’s way.
“From start to finish, what stood out was how clean (Frei) was coming on crosses, and the angles he took up ... and how he made himself big at the right time,” Sounders goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra said. “His reactions were fantastic.
“I noticed in warm-up how focused and how ready he was for this moment.”
Known as an emotional yet inner-directed goalkeeper, Frei said at points during the victory, he went back and thought about the last time SKC had visited this field. It was a home-opening 1-0 loss in which the Swiss native carelessly allowed the decisive goal late.
After that loss, he admitted it was going to take some time to get over that poor performance — but it did serve as motivation for Thursday night.
“I am not going to lie, it definitely crossed my mind because it was the same opponent, and under similar slippery conditions,” Frei said. “But I know how to handle those thoughts now when they creep into the back of your head. You just have to trust your own abilities.”
Already the Sounders’ career saves leader with 308, Frei isn’t always considered among the best goalkeepers in MLS.
Dutra thinks it might have something to do with the conclusion of his tenure with Toronto FC. He broke his leg against the Los Angeles Galaxy in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, and missed the remainder of the season.
A year later, he mainly rode the bench, appearing in one match late in the season.
The Sounders traded a conditional first-round draft pick (2015) for Frei before the 2014 season. He certainly brought along a bit of rust.
“We saw it in training,” Dutra said. “He had some tough performances. But credit to Sigi (Schmid) for keeping him in there.”
Dutra said it was during a run in the U.S. Open Cup in 2014 that the team started seeing the real Frei, who ended up winning a MLS record 20 matches that year.
Statistically, last season was his best showing in goal — a 1.08 goals-against-average with 10 shutout victories and a team-record 111 saves.
The 30-year-old has had a few rough spots during this season, but has given up only 41 goals in 34 matches, including Thursday.
Interim Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer called Frei’s performance against SKC as good as he’s seen in a big match.
“I believe he is in the top tier (in MLS),” Schmetzer said.
NO. 4 SEATTLE SOUNDERS (14-14-6) VS. NO. 1 FC DALLAS (17-8-9)
6:30 p.m., Sunday, CenturyLink Field
TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 97.3-FM, 1360-AM
Head to head: FC Dallas won two (by 2-0 and 2-1 scores) of the three games this season. Seattle’s victory was a 5-0 whitewashing at home in a game that FC Dallas rested a chunk of its starting lineup. The Sounders lead the all-time series, 10-5-5. The teams have met twice in the playoffs previously, with Seattle winning in 2014 and FC Dallas in 2015 on penalty kicks.
Notes: For the third straight season, the Sounders face FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. This year, the Sounders had to survive a knockout game against Sporting Kansas City on Thursday while Dallas enters as the Supporters’ Shield winner (for best regular-season record) and U.S. Open Cup champion. In its last eight matches — including two Champions League games — FC Dallas has gone undefeated, posting a 4-0-4 record. However, Dallas will be without the dynamic Mauro Diaz (five goals, 13 assists), who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles against the Sounders on Oct. 16. The task of filling his void on offense will fall to Tesho Akindele (six goals), Michael Barrios (nine goals) and former Sounders midfielder Mauro Rosales. The 35-year-old Rosales scored two goals and had three assists in 23 games. The other offensive threat is forward Maxi Urruti (nine goals). … The Sounders have a quick turnaround while Dallas has not played in a week. Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said center back Ramon Torres (hamstring) did not practice on Saturday and is a game-time decision. More health updates: Schmetzer, who has led the team to a 9-2-4 record since becoming the head coach in July, added that Brad Evans is not 100 percent and Alvaro Fernandez is dealing with a hamstring injury. Midfielder Andres Ivanschitz (knee) has been ruled out for this game.
Next: Game 2 is Nov. 6 at Frisco, Texas.
Darrin Beene, staff writer