Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei “looked sharp” in first and final preseason match

CHARLESTON — Stefan Frei is back.

The Seattle Sounders goalkeeper returned to the starting lineup for the first time this preseason on Saturday in a 1-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC in the final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup.

Frei had missed the previous four matches while recovering from an ankle injury suffered while in January camp with the United States national team. Saturday’s match, despite the result, was a great opportunity for Frei to play 90 minutes before the 2017 MLS regular season kicks off on March 4 against the Houston Dynamo (5:30 p.m. PT | Matchcenter).

Frei said he felt good in net and that he was just happy to be back on the pitch. The 30-year-old veteran is entering his fourth full season with the club and is fresh off a brilliant MLS Cup Final performance, which helped Seattle capture its first league title. The key to replicating that success is taking one step at a time.

“I had a chance to take everything really slowly in the buildup to this game,” Frei said. “I have good people around me, I just follow their advice. It allowed me to have a good solid week of training with the team before I would step on the pitch. Things are good, it’s really nice to go through the process of getting ready for games mentally.”

Frei also impressed head coach Brian Schmetzer, who was happy to have his starter back in net.

“He looked sharp,” Schmetzer said. “He told me inside that he would have liked to be not that busy back there, but he made some good saves, which helps his confidence. He came out for a couple crosses where he had to jump up and land on his feet. He did well.”

Frei said he wanted to put his ankle in awkward and uncontrolled positions to see how it would react and how he’d be able to push off the ground. All went more or less according to plan in a successful 90 minutes on Saturday.

Backups Tyler Miller and Bryan Meredith each featured in net while Frei was recovering, and Schmetzer acknowledged how spoiled he is to have such a high-quality goalkeeping crop at his disposal. It’s because of this that Frei was able to take extra time to ensure he was fully fit before returning.

“[Goalkeeping coach] Tommy [Dutra] does a great job,” Schmetzer said. “Stef is the No. 1 and Tyler’s got to beat him out. I think it’s getting a little closer, but Stef’s still No. 1.”

The most important thing that Frei was able to experience against Crew SC was the process of mentally preparing for a match, something that can’t be practiced or replicated outside of a game environment. Dealing with butterflies the day before a match, making sure he has a solid warmup and getting a regimen down are things Frei prioritizes even before the whistle blows. Saturday offered him that chance for the first time in 2017.

“It’s routine but you still gotta work at it,” Frei said. “Just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean that it happens on its own. This game allowed me to really go through that preparation and make sure I would prepare well and then be calm in the game and have some time with Gustav [Svensson], who’s new to the team and see how it looks from the back.”

A defensive midfielder by trade, Svensson somewhat experimentally started at right back and fared well. Schmetzer called his performance in front of Frei “steady” and said if Brad Evans and Oniel Fisher are not healthy, then Svensson could start at the position on March 4.

Having a bit of a shuffle on the back line makes Frei’s preseason reps all the more important. He’s looking forward to reviewing the film of the match and seeing where he can improve heading into Houston.

“Sometimes [the game] looks different when you’re seeing things on video, you have a different view as a goalkeeper,” Frei said. “[It helps] me get ready for the season.”