For the first two and a half matches of Stefan Cleveland’s time in goal for the Seattle Sounders, he didn’t have much to worry about. Outside of a well-taken penalty kick by Atlanta United’s Josef Martínez near the end of their 1-1 draw on May 23, Cleveland had relatively light work from the run of play.
Then in the 71st minute of Sunday’s scoreless draw with Austin FC, Cleveland had his first real test. Jared Stroud was played through on Cleveland’s left in the 18-yard box and had a clear path to goal. The 27-year-old made himself big and blocked Stroud’s shot wide to keep the Sounders’ fifth clean sheet in eight matches and help his team remain unbeaten and atop the Supporters’ Shield standings heading into the FIFA international break.
“Awesome performance by the kid,” said Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “Really good. He’s been good and he’s been steady and he’s a good goalkeeper. The reason we’ve always liked Stefan Frei so much over the years is because he could always come up with one big save when your team really needed it. I think Cleveland showed that [on Sunday]. He was able to come up with that one big save to keep us in the game. That was a real step forward…that save tonight was big time.”
Cleveland denies Stroud’s shot to keep the clean sheet | Mike Fiechtner
Cleveland signed with Seattle ahead of the 2020 MLS season. The Dayton, Ohio, native joined as the nominal backup to Frei and was thrust into the starting role after Frei injured his knee against the San Jose Earthquakes on May 12. The initial recovery time was slated to be 4-6 weeks, but recent complications including a blood clot have forced Frei to be sidelined indefinitely.
Prior to his club debut on May 16 against LAFC, Cleveland hadn’t played a single MLS minute since he started five matches for the Chicago Fire in 2018. All he’s done in Frei’s absence is allow one goal in three matches and rack up two clean sheets.
“Sometimes it’s difficult playing for a good team with such a good defense,” said Cleveland. “The defense is so good, I didn’t really have to do anything the last two games.”
Seattle owns the league’s best defense, having allowed only three goals in eight matches, none of which have come from the run of play. Cleveland has fit in immediately, due in no small part to how much he has absorbed from working with and watching the veteran Frei on a daily basis.
“Having Stef [Frei] absolutely helps me,” said Cleveland. “Over the past year and a half or so working with him, every day bouncing things off him because he has so much experience, he has really helped me improve from the player that I was a year and a half ago to the player that I am now. But also [Club Director of Goalkeeping] Tommy [Dutra]. We have a fantastic goalkeeping group here. If any one of us needs to step in, we can all do the job.”
Cleveland was also quick to deflect his accomplishments and laud his outfield players.
“I’ve done my job the last couple games, but I can’t credit the guys in front of me enough,” he said. “They’ve made my job pretty easy.”
The Sounders will return to action on Saturday, June 19, when they visit the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. (6 p.m. PT; JOEtv, Prime Video, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM).