TORONTO — Years from now, when the Seattle Sounders reflect on their first MLS Cup title, the first thing they’ll remember is The Save.
At bars across Seattle: The Save. At youth soccer pitches: The Save. Anytime one mentions the Sounders’ indescribable run to end a rollercoaster 2016 season: The Save.
Some sports moments are so frozen in time, they transcend the very game in which they took part. They become, in essence, the game itself.
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s acrobatic, one-handed fingertip stop in the second period of extra time will go down in Seattle Sounders lore as perhaps the single greatest individual moment in franchise history.
With the match scoreless in the second period of extra time, Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore headed a cross to the far post that head every business going in. Given how high the cross was, Altidore, who entered Saturday in the form of his life having scored in five straight matches and 15 in his last 19, played it perfectly. He headed it in the direction whence it came and picked out an opening in the far corner.
Frei took a step laterally, lunged backward and in one motion caught the ball on his fingertips and pushed it out of the net to keep the Sounders alive.
“It’s probably exactly how you want to hit that one,” Frei said of Altidore’s effort. “Sometimes as a goalkeeper, you feel like you’re not going to get to a ball, but you never know until you try. You keep your feet moving and give it your best shot. Luckily I was able to get there.”
Frei was named the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player, befitting of a performance that included seven saves in regulation and extra time and an additional penalty-kick stop on TFC captain Michael Bradley.
The Sounders did not record a shot on goal all evening, but they had their man, their grizzled veteran and former TFC player behind them, securing the club’s first MLS trophy in its eight-year history.
“They’ve been working their butts off all year,” said Frei. “That save is an accumulation of all that hard work we put in as a ‘keeping unit.”
In a poetic way, Frei’s effort is a microcosm of the second half of 2016 for these Seattle Sounders. The Save within The Save.
Brian Schmetzer takes over as head coach with the team in dire straits and rights the ship: The Save. Nicolas Lodeiro arrives from Boca Juniors and becomes the league’s most influential player: The Save. Roman Torres returns from a year-long injury and shores up Seattle’s back line: The Save. Clint Dempsey is lost for the year and Jordan Morris steps up in his stead to win Rookie of the Year: The Save.
And then, this moment.
On a freezing Saturday night in Toronto, on the pitch of the team that three years to the day traded him to Seattle, Frei etched his contribution into what has been a turnaround unlike any Major League Soccer has ever seen.
“I was just doing my job,” Frei said humbly before walking back to the locker room to continue celebrating with his teammates.