At training on Wednesday, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei was asked about not winning the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. In typical Frei fashion, he was quick to shift the conversation to a topic that really matters: beating the Portland Timbers at home on Thursday (7:30 p.m. PT; FS1, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM | TICKETS) and advancing to the Western Conference Championship.
But when Head Coach Brian Schmetzer was asked the same question, he opted to praise Frei’s unparalleled work between the posts, a trend that dates back several seasons now.
“Since I’ve been here, so, back in 2016 [Frei made] ‘The Save,’” said Schmetzer. “We call it ‘The Save’ because it was an impressive piece of footwork, athleticism, desire. Kept us in it and helped us win MLS Cup. You go to 2017, he was very good last year statistically. So, there’s some consistency as far as the stats are concerned. I think he had 13 shutouts last year. Then you come to 2018. I’ll ask you guys: Who was our most consistent guy when, in the first half of the season, we weren’t firing on all cylinders? You could argue that Stef was. He kept us in this season because this was the deepest hole we’ve ever dug ourselves.”
Whether it’s the eye test or advanced analytics — he was fifth in the league in saves made, second in Goals Against Average and first in save percentage — Frei had arguably one of the greatest MLS regular season campaigns for a goalkeeper in league history. His GA-xGA of -12.96, which means he saved nearly 13 more goals in 2018 than expected based on the quality of shots he faced, is the second-best figure in league history since American Soccer Analysis started tracking the stat back in 2011, a sign of a remarkably consistent goalkeeper.
According to Club Director of Goalkeeping Tom Dutra, Frei’s stellar campaign is a culmination of the hard work he has put in every day on the training pitch since arriving in 2014, as well as the supportive culture he’s helped foster among the club’s goalkeeping unit.
Frei (24) at training with fellow Sounders goalkeepers Bryan Meredith (35) and Calle Brown (25) | Mike Fiechtner
“He’s just continuously working on his game,” said Dutra. “He’s a lot more consistent than he was when he first came here. Technically, he’s more sound. Obviously, he’s better with his feet.
“I think it’s a culture we’ve always had. Every goalkeeper we’ve ever had here, we’ve had a culture of honest, hard work. But we also help each other. One thing I’ve always professed is that, if you’re the No. 4 goalkeeper or if you’re the No. 1, we’re here to help each other. So, we always support the guy that’s playing.”
That hyper-competitive yet empathetic ethos among the club’s goalkeeping corps dates back to the Sounders’ inaugural MLS campaign, when Kasey Keller brought a wealth of experience from playing overseas to the Pacific Northwest. But with Frei at the helm, he’s helped usher it into a new era, taking the brightest goalkeeping prospects in the youth system under his wing and demanding a level of excellence required to crack it at the professional level.
For Indiana University goalkeeper Trey Muse, who led the NCAA in every single goalkeeping statistic in 2017 as a true freshman after two seasons in Sounders Academy, the days spent working alongside Frei and Dutra helped shape him into the shot-stopper he is today.
“The culture, I think, is outstanding,” Muse said of his time in Seattle. “[Frei] works day-in and day-out. It’s a great thing to be able to see that and to be able to mimic my game off of that. I’m very fortunate to be able to watch him on TV now, and when I was in Seattle, to be a part of that training session every day and see the things he does well. Tom and Stef have really shaped the way that they want their goalkeepers to play, which was really cool and inspiring to be a part of, and to understand that it takes a lot of hard work to get there.”
While it’s a bit of a mystery why Frei didn’t collect the GKOTY award, Schmetzer isn’t worried that his goalkeeper will be distracted from the task at hand.
“I know he’s a tough character,” he said. “I know individual awards don’t matter as much to him as the team. He’d much prefer that the team wins tomorrow night than he get the accolades. But, I’m certainly sure of this: He has helped this franchise do a lot of great things.”