In 2014, the Seattle Sounders FC had its best ever season. A league-record 20 wins. A fourth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title. A first-ever Supporters’ Shield. An MVP candidate. A high-powered offense. Last year had it all.
Ever present in that success was goalkeeper Stefan Frei. The Swiss shot-stopper played every minute of every MLS match and the majority of the USOC fixtures in 2014 and was a major cog in a very efficient and powerful machine.
Joining the Sounders in a trade from Toronto FC in December of 2013, the 28-year-old Frei did not come in as the guaranteed starter. His professional career had hit a major roadblock in Canada after two lost seasons due to serious injury and coaching decisions. It wasn’t known for sure exactly what the Sounders were getting when they sent a conditional draft choice to the Reds.
Would Frei be able to regain the form that saw him become one of the top goalkeeping prospects in the league after he was drafted 13th overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft? Would he be able to replace departing Sounders goalie Michael Gspurning, a player who had moments of brilliance in Seattle and certainly won the allegiance of the Rave Green masses?
Most importantly though, could Frei return to the unwavering and staunch frame of mind required to be a professional goalkeeper after such a long stint on the sidelines?
As his first year in Seattle went on, Frei answered all those questions with a resounding yes, but not without an immense amount of hard work, from both a physical and mental perspective.
“For me, my first year as a Sounder – coming back from some injuries and not seeing the pitch for a while – was really good to get back on the pitch obviously,” said Frei of joining the club. “But with that being said, I knew that a lot of work was ahead of me. And again, like I said, with the pressure of the Sounders having high standards, that transition needed to be made quickly.”
Those lofty expectations were added pressure for Frei, but he was able to play to that level and raised his game in the process. A career-high nine shutouts. Three separate five-game unbeaten runs. His first-ever appearance in the MLS postseason.
It was truly a special season for club and player alike.
“I think 2014 was special just for the fact that it was the first successful year for me, professionally,” said Frei of year one with the Sounders. “Winning the Open Cup, winning the Supporters’ Shield, and coming close to making it to the [MLS Cup Final] – For most people, that would be considered a very, very successful year. So for me to really have that big of a year so quickly after those two years that I struggled in Toronto made it even more special.”
Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid was pleased to bring Frei into the Sounders fold as he was a player he had long admired, back to the goalkeeper’s time at Cal, and with his acquisition, likened him to a former player.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in Stefan,” said Schmid of Frei. “I think he fell into a difficult situation and hard times in Toronto, and it’s similar to when I got Will Hesmer to play for me in Columbus. I thought Will had talent and had ability, but for some reason he was in a backup situation in Kansas City and wasn’t able to grow. He grew in Columbus and we ended up winning an MLS Cup with him, and I think Stefan is really similar.”
In Toronto, Frei was brought in through the SuperDraft and thrust straight into the starting lineup. Playing the majority of the club’s matches over his first three seasons, drawing individual plaudits along the way, Frei never saw team success with the Reds as the club missed the postseason each of those years.
Then serious injury hit.
In training shortly following the start of the 2012 season, Frei suffered a broken fibula and suffered serious ligament damage that sidelined him for the remainder of the year, effectively halting the momentum he had gained as the club’s No. 1.
It took Frei the entire season to recover from the near career-threatening injury, but he entered 2013 slotted in as TFC’s starter only to lose a year to a minor injury and a coach’s decision. Prior to the start of that year, a broken nose shuffled Frei behind Joe Bednik in the depth chart, a position he wasn’t able to recover.
He made only one league appearance that season.
“I can’t emphasize it [the struggle] enough, unless you’ve been in the situation of having had a serious injury and trying to come back,” said Frei who was a finalist for the 2014 MLS Comeback Player of the Year. “You hear players from other sports say the same thing: It’s not so much the injury – the physical aspect of it – but the mental aspect. We all know that as a goalkeeper, that plays a big part anyway.”
Hoping that an arduous road to recovery from the ankle injury would be the main obstacle that separated him from his starting position, Frei’s return to the pitch was thwarted by a minor injury.
So he sat and he waited. And waited. And waited some more, until the end of the season and nothing had changed.
Once his contract expired following the 2013 season, he knew it was time for a new challenge. Frei spent five seasons with TFC, had eight different head coaches and, by his estimation, saw over 200 teammates. It was time for something new, a fresh start. That led him to Seattle to play with the Sounders.
“When the option of joining the Seattle Sounders came along, that was just an option that I couldn’t pass up,” said Frei of coming to the Emerald City. “It’s a team that has really high standards and lofty goals, but is consistently able to get there and achieve some of those goals.
“Last year – our really good year – is something that we expected and definitely something that we want to repeat and even surpass. So I was excited to become part of a team that is winning trophies like that. And then the obvious thing is being able to play in front of 40,000-plus people on weekends. That’s a really great experience for any player. That’s what your dream is.”
Helping him through the entire season was the unwavering support of the Sounders coaching staff and his teammates. Goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra spent a great deal of time helping Frei get his game back to top form but also rebuild the mental aspect of his play, which is very important for any player of Frei’s position.
“It was a great experience,” said Dutra of watching Frei’s progress over the course of the year. “I knew that he was a good goalkeeper from watching him before. I knew we had a good goalkeeper when we signed him. I really wanted to work on some of his technical things, but also try to get him back to where he was confident and believing in himself again. The quality was there — he just had to believe in himself again.”
Now completely healthy and the incumbent No. 1 for Seattle, Frei is ready to take his career and his team to the next level after the successes of 2014.
“I think for me personally, for 2015, I came into preseason with a bit more confidence, trying to build upon how I finished 2014 instead of having to go through all those growing pains,” said Frei of moving on from his impressive debut year with Seattle. “There’s high expectations on this team. If you’re a Sounder, you’re expected to compete for trophies and be fighting to be the best team in the league. It’s going to be tough.
“There are good teams out there, but those are going to be our goals. I think we’re going to have to have a really good season to replicate that success we had last year.”
In Stefan Frei, the Sounders have their starting goalkeeper - but so much more. They have a resilient and confident leader who pushed himself back from the outskirts of an already difficult situation with Toronto and fought to get himself back where he belongs: starting for a leading MLS club. He has achieved that with the Sounders.
“We expect from him to be more confident, more leadership from him as well,” said Schmid of what he wants from Frei in 2015. “He knows the back four. He’s familiar with those guys now, so that understanding and communication is important there. Even though there are a couple of new guys in there, you’ve got to continue to communicate with the guys.
“The players on our team have the confidence in him. At this stage last year, he was a little bit of an unproven commodity at the beginning. And now they know, ‘Hey, he can do the business.’ So it’s a win-win for everybody.”
With the 2015 campaign fast approaching, there is but one goal that the Swiss goalkeeper has left to reach and he wants nothing more than for the city of Seattle to experience it: winning MLS Cup.
“It’d be huge to win MLS Cup because that’s the one thing we didn’t get last year,” said Frei of what’s next on his checklist. “I would have thought winning a Supporters’ Shield was going to be one of the last things I would ever have a chance to win, because for a whole season, you have to be the best team. So for us to get that last year, it was really nice. But the one thing we’re missing now is a Cup, and the city deserves it.”
Frei and the Sounders begin their quest for a first MLS Cup at CenturyLink Field on March 8, when the club will face defending Eastern Conference champion New England Revolution. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. PST on FOX Sports 1.