There’s an old saw about the mentality it takes to succeed as a goalkeeper that’s endured down the years. Keepers need not possess a touch of madness to excel at the position, but a small measure of it helps.
One can understand the genesis of the comparison. The amount of pressure on a keeper’s shoulders is monumental precisely because they see so little of the ball. A midfielder can wipe away a mistaken giveaway in seconds. A similar error from a keeper leads to a goal. It takes a special kind of psyche not only to choose that path, but to excel at it in equal measure.
Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s approach is to mitigate those worries by keeping every match as even keel as possible. Frei is neither an overtly vocal keeper or a quiet one. He rarely explodes on his back line after a mistake, and he keeps his praise measured in anticipation of the next attack wave breaking over the midfield.
In fact, if Frei stays out of the spotlight entirely, that’s a good day between the pipes.
“I’ve always thought a goalkeeper is kind of like a referee,” Frei said. “If you don’t notice him on the field, then that means he’s done a good job. That’s kind of what I try to do, not be noticed too much.”
Frei must be doing something right, because for large swaths of the season he’s practically blended into the crowd.
Seattle’s 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on September 19 was big for all the requisite reasons. It solidified the team’s playoff positioning, clinched the Cascadia Cup and provided a harrowing salvo to the rest of the Western Conference that the team’s cool engines were finally spinning up to full capacity.
Caught in the spokes of the wider storylines was the defensive effort, which produced a shutout on the road against the league’s most dangerous, unpredictable attacking unit. And it did so just a week after losing recently installed centerback Román Torres, causing yet another shuffle in the heart of the defense. In the thick of the fray was Frei, who braved the intense atmosphere to pull out his 10th shutout of the season in 27 matches with yet another centerback pairing in front of him.
“It’s good when you have an experienced keeper back there so he can sort of help organize that stuff and keep it going,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “But the changes we’ve made; (Chad) Marshall is a quality player, (Brad) Evans is a quality player, Torres is a quality player, Zach Scott’s been a quality player for this club. It’s not like you’re putting a rookie out there in front of him.”
Frei’s been around the block in MLS. He’s been in the league now for seven seasons, and he’s logged at least 2,220 minutes in five of those. Never had he chalked up more than the nine shutouts he posted last year in his first season in Seattle after joining from Toronto FC.
Until the game against Vancouver, that is. And Frei reached the milestone in 600 fewer minutes than he played last season, providing further proof the Swiss keeper has never been in better form in his professional career.
“I think for me, last year was more about wanting to improve and keep getting better and better,” Frei said. “And obviously you want to come to training every day to get better, but I think I’ve been fairly pleased with my play early on. I think the main thing now was to maintain it. I think being a goalkeeper is all about consistency. That was one of my big goals this year was to stay consistent, and at the same time improve.”
That level of consistency’s been important to Frei’s success this season. Some of that comes down to the team’s history of cultivating top goalkeeping talent, which reached its MLS zenith during the tail end of U.S. legend Kasey Keller’s career from 2009-2011. Frei said Keller’s had some level of involvement in his maturation over the last two seasons, but he directed most of the praise toward Sounders FC goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra.
Dutra, too, has been part of that consistency. He’s held his current position since the club joined MLS, and he was instrumental in Keller’s offseason training regimen between European club seasons for years. That experience has rubbed off not only on Frei, but on the team’s entire rich stable of talent at the keeper position as well.
“(The goalkeepers we have on the roster) are very, very talented, and he knows what to do with that talent,” Frei said of Dutra. “He’s helped me tremendously last year and this year. The way he’s leading this group is fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Frei’s been an imposing monolith this season for opposition attacks. He’s chalked up a sky-high five MLS Save of the Week honors, and the numbers bear out his consistency. Before this season, Frei had never let in fewer than 37 goals, which he did in 2010 with Toronto FC. In the same amount of games this season, just 30 have gotten past Seattle’s last line of defense. He’s also just two saves shy of his career-best mark of 108, which he could well surpass in Seattle’s next match against the LA Galaxy on Sunday.
Frei missed three matches with an injury in the heart of Seattle’s summer of discontent, and despite a few weeks on the shelf, he hardly missed a beat upon his return. Now, he’s pointed toward the postseason in the thick of the best run of form in his entire career.
“Last year it just took him a little while to get his confidence, to get back in the rhythm of playing on a week-in, week-out basis,” Schmid said. “I think this year he’s been solid from the opening. I think last year it took him maybe 13 to 14 games to really get into that rhythm. But this year he’s been in that rhythm right from the beginning.”