CARSON, Calif. — Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei made such an impression on Bruce Arena that the United States national team head coach called him into January camp along with teammates Jordan Morris, Brad Evans and Chad Marshall.
Frei, 30, has had no prior international experience either for the U.S. or his native Switzerland, from which he emigrated in 2001. In Arena’s first U.S. training on Wednesday outside StubHub Center, he made it perfectly clear why he wanted Frei.
“From what I saw in the MLS Playoffs,” Arena said, “I’d say [Frei’s play] has been pretty damn good.”
Frei is coming off one of the best seasons of his career that culminated in what Arena called “arguably the play of the MLS Cup,” referencing Frei’s lunging fingertip save that denied Toronto FC forward and fellow U.S. teammate Jozy Altidore of a sure game-winner late in second-half stoppage time.
Arena praised more than just that singular moment. He liked how steady Frei had been in goal and how it translated into Sounders success.
“The second half of the season [Frei] was very good.” Arena said. “What you want as a goalkeeper is consistency, and he showed that.”
Arena’s decision to call in Frei is all the more telling given that Frei is not yet a United States citizen. He still holds a Swiss passport, but since he has already begun the citizenship process, he was eligible for camp selection, although he still will not be able to compete for the U.S. until it is approved.
Frei said the process is in its final steps from completion and he’s eager to represent the country with which he feels so connected.
“I moved when I was 15 and went to high school and college in northern California,” Frei said. “My time spent in the U.S. has shaped me into who I am.
“I like what this country stands for,” he continued. “It’s a huge honor to get called in and compete with the cream of the crop and hopefully get better as an individual.”
Frei has enjoyed his experience so far working with goalkeeping coach Matt Reis, who was previously part of Arena’s staff with the LA Galaxy and against whom Frei has played in MLS. He said that training with Reis gets him out of his comfort zone and forces him to improve his focus and sharpness, both of which go a long way in representing himself and U.S. Soccer to the best of his abilities.
“Maybe I’m sentimental,” Frei said. “For me it was important that if I got called in, I’d be 100 percent behind the badge and behind the country and would be something I’d be fully proud of. That passion is what national team duty should be all about it.”
It’s easier to hone in on that pride and devotion when there’s a strong rapport between coach and player, and that’s something U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was hoping would happen quickly when he rehired Arena for his second stint as USMNT coach last November.
The U.S. will face Serbia in the first of two friendlies on Jan. 29 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., before traveling to Chattanooga, Tenn., for the first time ever to host Jamaica on Feb. 3. Those will be the final tuneup matches before the U.S., who sit in last place after two rounds, resume Hexagonal play in CONCACAF 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying in March.
Frei admitted he’s only had limited conversations with Arena because their time together has thus far been brief, but Frei already senses the team is buying into what Arena is preaching.
“[Arena] is someone you can connect with,” Frei said. “That connection is important because when you have a connection with coaches, you want to go to war for them and battle for them. So far, it seems like he has that.”