SEAvMIN Stefan Frei Sider

The Seattle Sounders’ 1-0 victory over Minnesota United at Lumen Field on Saturday wasn’t necessarily the prettiest result the Rave Green have managed all season.

In the end, though, it didn’t need to be, as a 22nd-minute strike from João Paulo proved to be the difference. Seattle snapped a four-game winless streak at home with the win and moved to 13W-4L-6D and 45 points to extend its lead atop the Western Conference table to two points ahead of the second-place Sporting Kansas City.

It was the type of grind-it-out result an MLS team needs to collect over the course of the notoriously long and rigorous grind of the league’s 34-game schedule. And perhaps as importantly, Seattle’s recent gradual ascent back to full-strength saw the return of two more vital contributors.

“Today wasn’t pretty, but we won and kept a clean sheet,” said Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “It’s a good start.”

Frei officially made his return to the starting XI on Saturday for the first time since May 12, when he suffered a knee sprain and subsequent blood clots following a collision in a match against the San Jose Earthquakes. Stefan Cleveland and Spencer Richey held down the fort very capably in Frei’s absence, but there’s a sense of calm, veteran pedigree Frei’s presence between the posts brings that few around MLS can match.

“I got about two hours of sleep last night,” said Frei. “But I always say, butterflies are important because it shows that you care. If you wouldn’t have butterflies, then there’s something wrong. It felt really good just to hear the boom-boom-clap, to see the fans and watch the national anthem before. It felt food for me to back out there, personally.”

The return of Nouhou in central defense is also a very consequential one. The dynamic Cameroonian was having the best season of his career before an adductor injury kept him sidelined for a lengthy stretch as well, thriving In his new role in Seattle’s three center back set-up.

Saturday’s clean sheet, which was Seattle’s ninth of the season, was the type of defensive performance the team had become accustomed to during its lights-out start to the year which saw the club go 10 games before conceding a goal from open play.

“It’s just such a pleasure to be back on the pitch and an honor to be back on the pitch with the squad,” added Frei. “I don’t take this for granted at all. I think it’s really special. I love the group that we have – I think we have a very skilled group. I’m excited for what we can achieve with this group.”

It wasn’t all about Frei and Nouhou. Shane O’Neill put in a massive shift on Saturday, as did João Paulo, who has very much established himself as one of the best two-way players in MLS. The Brazilian now has two goals on the season, both of which have come against Minnesota, to go along with eight assists.

In the end, the result was a big three points that came with the team playing without the likes of Raúl Ruidíaz and Xavier Arreaga, who had just arrived back from international duty earlier in the day and were unavailable for selection.

Ahead of Seattle’s Leagues Cup Semifinal match against Santos Laguna (7:00 p.m. PT; ESPN2, TUDN | TICKETS) on Tuesday, with Ruidíaz and Arreaga returning, the Rave Green are suddenly looking as close to whole as they have all season.

With the stretch run of the 2021 campaign looming and the No. 1 seed in the West very much within reach, that’s news that couldn’t be coming at a better time.

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