Though the Seattle Sounders lost 1-0 at home to the Montreal Impact on Saturday night, they came close to equalizing throughout the second half. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, they were within striking distance of the Impact in due in large part to heroics of goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
In the 17th minute, the Seattle shot-stopper denied Impact forward Jeisson Vargas with an absolutely stunning free-kick save. What initially catches the eye is Frei’s athletic, acrobatic effort, flying across his line and tipping the shot over the crossbar. But what makes this such a world-class save are the more technical, intricate elements of the play.
Let’s start with his positioning. When a goalkeeper sets up his wall of defenders, he wants to cover as much of the goal’s surface area on the same side of the field as the shooter. Factoring in the distance of the free kick, which is optimal for the shooter as the ball has enough time to travel over the wall and dip back on target, Frei opts for a five-man wall. Cristian Roldan is stationed on the right-hand side, about one yard beyond the near post in case a left-footed shooter tries to curl it around the wall.
Frei’s positioning in goal is absolutely perfect on this play. Goalkeepers have a tendency to cheat on free kicks, creeping closer to the wall so that they can get a head start on any potential save, but that surrenders a shot to the unprotected side. If they guess correctly, they might pull off a world-class, fingertip save, the kind that make for viral videos. But the more likely outcome is that they guess wrong, or the shoot takes a deflection, leaving them no chance of making a stop.
In fact, Frei exercises so much patience in goal that he doesn’t commit to diving to the right until the shot clears the wall. As shown in the two photos above, one with the shooter about to strike the ball and the other with the initial flight of the shot, Frei maintains his original set position, ensuring he won’t be wrong-footed by any deflections.
So with his wall in place, Frei stations himself at a spot on the goal line where he can get across the goal if need be, but he’s also capable of getting to the top right-hand corner with just one step.
As the picture above shows, Frei finds a gap between the last player on the wall, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, and Nicolás Lodeiro, who is marking Ignacio Piatti. This gives him a clear sightline to the shooter, enabling him to track the entire flight of the ball, which is incredibly important considering the ensuing shot had so much top-spin. If he loses sight of the ball for even a second, the ball ends up in the back of the net. When shots are hit with so much velocity and movement from such a short distance, it’s critical that goalkeepers’ sightlines are never obstructed.
Now let’s take a look at his footwork. Since joining Sounders FC, Frei has developed arguably the best footwork of any goalkeeper in Major League Soccer under the tutelage of Director of Goalkeeping Tom Dutra. This is a more nuanced element of goalkeeping that most fans never notice. Shot-stopping is determined in the margins; the difference between a world-class save and a world-class goal is often determined by whether a goalkeeper can get one, even two, shuffle steps in the buildup to his dive.
Frei uses two different types of footwork — a crossover step and a shuffle step — to travel the entire length of the goal. His decision to lead with a crossover is brilliant, as it closes more ground at a quicker rate. Critically, he immediately switches to a shuffle step, which closes less ground but allows the goalkeeper to get set, plant his leading foot and prepare to dive.
Notice how he maintains a crouched, athletic stance as he moves along the line. This allows him to generate as much power as possible as he dives, flying through the air with enough momentum to completely alter the flight of the ball when he makes contact with it.
The last, most important aspect of Frei’s footwork is the angle of his plant foot as he prepares to dive. Young goalkeepers are taught that when diving for a shot, your plant foot should go forward at 45-degree angle, allowing you to attack shots with a forward trajectory. This is vital because if his plant step had been parallel or even slightly backwards, the shot would have ricocheted off his hand and into the back of the net.
Simply put, Frei’s footwork is the difference between a highlight-reel save and a Goal of the Week nominee.
Now, let’s take a look at Frei’s decision to parry with his bottom hand, as opposed to going for a top-hand save. These decisions are made in the span of milliseconds, often determining whether or not a shot is saved. Free correctly chooses to go with his bottom hand, as he wouldn’t have been able to extend quite as far had he gone with both hands.
And by going with his bottom hand, he’s able to arch his back mid-flight, contorting his body so that he can extend his hand just a few extra centimeters. In doing so, he actually makes contact with the bottom of his palm and the top of the rest, which, coupled with his forward dive, provides enough power on the stop to completely alter the downward trajectory of the ball, re-directing it over the crossbar.
Throughout his time in the Pacific Northwest, Frei has endeared himself to Sounders supporters with his timely, gravity-defying shot-stopping. But as is often the case in goalkeeping, these game-changing saves, which often take only a couple of seconds in a match, are determined by thousands of hours on the training pitch.