Stefan Frei has made countless match-defining plays during his illustrious career with the Seattle Sounders, so it’s no surprise that the veteran goalkeeper was central to two of the most pivotal moments of Wednesday’s historic Concacaf Champions League-clinching result against Pumas UNAM.
The first came with the match still scoreless in the 43rd minute, when a Pumas free kick sequence ended with striker Juan Ignacio Dinenno pouncing for a close-range shot, only to see it denied by a sprawling reaction save from Frei that deflected it over goal. Unaware that Pumas had been whistled for a foul that would have disallowed the goal anyway, the Lumen Field crowd burst into a frenzy at the denial, the most boisterous the gathering of 68,741 onlookers had been to that point in an otherwise tense first half.
It may not have gone into the books as a save, but make no mistake, the play ratcheted up the energy levels in the building to critical mass. It’s no coincidence that Seattle scored the opener less than five minutes later when Raúl Ruidíaz cashed home a deflected finish in first-half stoppage time.
“This stadium, we’ve always had exceptional crowds, but on a Wednesday night, 68 [thousand] and change is a huge deal,” Frei said after the match. “I’ve never had the stadium have the lights out, people with their cell phones and I got a little choked up: I had to tell myself, there’s still some game left, like relax, you’ve got to take it easy. But it’s special, very special.
“As a little kid this is what you dream of. You do the airplane and close your eyes and you envision a stadium full of people that are chanting you on. This is it. So, to have an opportunity to live out that dream is precious. I cherish it.”
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Frei’s first and only actual save of the night came in the 65th minute, with the Sounders still protecting that precarious 1-0 advantage. In search of an equalizer that would have gotten them right back in the game and series, Pumas forward Diogo had a free header on target, which Frei managed to parry away with virtually no time to react.
It was a true turning point in the match, as the Sounders wound up striking for two more goals from Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro on their way to the 5-2 aggregate victory.
For Frei, it only adds to his growing lore in the history of the club and Seattle sports. The 36-year-old was between the posts for Seattle’s first-ever MLS Cup title in 2016, when he won the game’s MVP honors for his denial of Jozy Altidore that is widely considered the greatest save in MLS Cup history.
Named both Player and Goalkeeper of the Tournament by Concacaf for this year’s CCL run, Frei and the club have now done the unprecedented in capturing the elusive continental title.
“It's everything,” he said. “For me one of the biggest ones was 2016, that championship, because it’s the very first one in team history. I said to the guys before game started: The very first one, there’s only one. That’s why it’s history.
“Today was the opportunity to achieve that as well. For the next 200 years there’ll be 200 other Concacaf Champions, but there’ll never be another first one [from MLS]. So, you truly write yourself in the history books.”
It’s the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable journey since Frei’s arrival to Seattle in 2014 via trade from Toronto FC, when he came to the club at a crossroads in his career.
Since then, Frei has put together a list of credentials that make his case as the best goalkeeper in MLS difficult to dispute, with his trophy count at four coming into this year’s CCL run (two MLS Cup victories in 2016 and 2019 and Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup titles from 2014).
Given the historical implications of Wednesday’s result, however, Frei said that the latest addition to that trophy case might have been the most emotional of them all, especially given the opportunity to deliver it at Lumen Field.
“I’m just happy to help the team do what I’m supposed to do, which is make it as difficult as possible for opponents to score,” Frei said. “It takes work and I couldn’t do my job without exceptional teammates and the most important thing is the team trophy and that’s what we achieved today.
“…It’s history. This is something I will carry for the rest of my life.”