Sounders FC’s season came to an end in heartbreaking fashion on Sunday, as FC Dallas advanced to the Western Conference Championship by virtue of a penalty kick shootout.
FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez came up huge in the shootout, stopping two of Seattle’s first three penalties to put his team in the driver’s seat. Gonzalez guessed correctly on three out of four attempts, while Seattle's Stefan Frei guessed incorrectly on the first three before opting to react to the fourth shot. When Frei couldn’t get a hand on Walker Zimmerman’s well-struck penalty, the celebrations commenced at Toyota Stadium.
“PKs is one 'keeper guesses right and the other one guesses wrong, one player makes it and the other player doesn't,” Frei said. “It's brutal.”
Gonzalez ends up the hero, a 20-year-old youngster that outshined his veteran counterpart on the biggest stage. But if not for Frei, perhaps the Sounders don’t even make it to penalties.
Said Head Coach Sigi Schmid: “Stefan kept us in the game.”
Down 2-1 on aggregate heading into Sunday’s second leg, FC Dallas was in attack mode all night, constantly putting pressure on a Sounders side that would have advanced if the game finished scoreless. The Hoops took 25 shots in the match – 10 of those landed on frame – and finished the contest with eight corner kicks and 31 total crosses.
Seattle conceded three corner kicks in a row at one point in the first half, and Dallas also had a pair of breakaways that put Frei in one-on-one situations.
Frei posted eight saves on Sunday, tied for the second-most he’s made in any match since joining the Sounders ahead of the 2014 season. His best stop of the night came shortly after halftime, when FCD star Fabian Castillo was wide open inside the box and fired a shot at the far corner. Frei made a kick save to keep the Sounders in front on aggregate.
Castillo had another golden chance just before the final whistle of regulation. Frei was already on the ground having reacted to a deflection, leaving Castillo with a free header on the rebound that Frei reached up with both hands to snag. Later, with four minutes to go in extra time, Tesho Akindele beat Cristian Roldan into the box but had his laser shot tipped away by Frei.
So while the ending result of the PK shootout will leave Frei and the Sounders disappointed, his teammates say the Swiss 'keeper has nothing to be ashamed of.
“It’s a bit of luck. You can never blame a goalkeeper or anything like that,” Andy Rose said. “He made some amazing saves, kept us in the game numerous times. He’s probably been our player of the season, to be honest. He’s been fantastic, and tonight was no different.”
Frei ranked first in MLS in save percentage (77%), third in total saves (111) and tied for second in goals-against average (1.06) during the regular season. His 10 shutouts, 111 saves and 33 goals conceded set new career bests. He won the MLS Save of the Week award five times, the most of any 'keeper in the league.
This came after a 2014 campaign in which Frei recorded a league-record 20 wins en route to the club’s first Supporters’ Shield. And perhaps the most impressive part about this year: Frei excelled while commanding a backline that constantly rotated players throughout the season.
“It's disappointing, because we had a really good group and we worked really hard for each other,” Frei said. “We stuck together when people doubted us. We thought if we worked hard, we would deserve something. It's very unfortunate to not get rewarded for sticking together and fighting.”
Frei said it would take time to take stock of his individual accomplishments this season, even if it was arguably the finest of his seven-year career.
“It’s hard to look at it right now. This is very disappointing,” Frei said. “In the end, maybe when I have a clear head, I’ll look at it and say it was a decent season for me, personally. But right now that’s not really possible.”