After inheriting Seattle-sports hero status nearly a year ago, goalkeeper Stefan Frei was asked again this week about the dramatic save he made for the Sounders in last year’s MLS Cup.
His outstretched rejection of Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore’s shot not only was the signature moment of Seattle’s shootout victory, it was one of the greatest saves in MLS history, given the situation and the stakes.
“Hopefully I don’t have to make another save (Saturday),” Frei said about the Sounders rematch with Toronto FC for the MLS championship. “I would really prefer it if one of our strikers became MVP this year.”
The 31-year-old Swiss native has only added to his Sounders goalkeeping legend with another banner season in 2017.
Frei lead the MLS with 13 shutouts. His 1.09 goals scored against average is second in the league behind Sporting Kansas City’s Tim Melia (0.77) for goalkeepers with at least 20 appearances.
And what Frei has continued to do in the playoffs is even better.
Dating back to last year’s final match of the MLS Western Conference finals against Colorado, Frei has not given up a goal in five consecutive postseason matches, an MLS record. And that shutout streak spans 557 minutes.
“Just another fantastic year,” Sounders goalkeeping coach Tom Dutra said. “He’s been good all year. And what sticks out for me is the timely saves he’s made.”
But as he met the local media Tuesday after training at Starfire Sports, Frei admitted this has been a “long season.”
Much of that is because Frei did not get much of a break from soccer after last season’s championship triumph. Three weeks after the MLS Cup, he was one of 32 players invited to U.S. men’s national team camp in early January.
His visit did not last long — Frei sprained his ankle, and was sent home 10 days into it.
“It was nice for him to go there and test himself against the other guys,” Dutra said. “He felt very comfortable and confident after camp. He felt he was one of the best (goalkeepers) there, which we all knew.”
Dutra also felt Frei’s ankle injury was a “blessing in disguise” as the club slowly worked him back into action during preseason.
“He was able to step back, and let the rest of his body come back,” Dutra said.
Under coach Brian Schmetzer, Seattle has been a possession-oriented attack. And one of the areas Frei feels he has excelled at this season is his distribution of the ball from the back.
“It has been a good progression,” Frei said. “Being patient to allow us to get our spacing right, and to be able to spot the numerical advantages and then use them to our advantage ... has helped us maintain possession.”
Dutra said he’s never seen Frei strike the ball better with either foot on goal kicks, both directionally and with added distance.
Including Seattle’s 3-0 win over San Jose in late July, Frei finished the regular season with eight shutouts in 14 starts in goal — including a 4-0 victory over Dallas, and a 3-0 win over Colorado in October.
Frei suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first leg in Houston, but he did not miss a beat with three saves in the shutout Thursday.
“You are so into the flow, and your hand-eye coordination has been worked on for so long, I don’t have to worry about losing it so quickly,” Frei said.
But with just a few days remaining in the 2017 season, Frei looks ragged and admits to being worn down.
“I’ve played for almost two consecutive seasons,” Frei said. “I am not complaining. I had five years in Toronto where at times halfway into the season, we knew weren’t making the playoffs. As much as I like being lazy at times, it sucks when you are watching TV and watching other people play.
“I am excited to push it back to the max (for the MLS Cup).”