When the Seattle Sounders defeated Colorado Rapids 2-1 on Wednesday, July 4, the team was able to secure three valuable points on the road thanks in large part to the heroics of goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Protecting a one-goal lead entering the final ten minutes, Frei produced arguably the save of the season as he scurried across the goal mouth to deny a point-blank shot from Shkelzan Gashi.
Frei had no business pulling off that ridiculous save. And yet, it was the difference between a pivotal road win and a deflating draw. So, how exactly did Seattle’s goalkeeper manage to defy all logic and prevent a seemingly easy tap-in for Gashi?
The answer, as has become the norm under the tutelage of Club Director of Goalkeeping Tom Dutra, is a combination of intelligent positioning and disciplined, pragmatic footwork.
Let’s start with Frei’s positioning. As Colorado burst down the left flank, the Sounders goalkeeper stations himself at the six-yard line, just inside the near post. This provides a favorable angle for a potential shot on frame, but it also reduces the space between Frei and the wave of players crashing into the box. Low, driven service into this gap is a nightmare for goalkeepers. If they come off their line, they’ll likely get demolished by the onrushing attacking players. However, if they remain pinned to their line, it cedes acres of space for the wave of players baring down on goal, likely leading to a first-time finish or a disastrous own goal.
As the ball ventures into the path of Joe Mason, Frei maintains his high line and takes one step to his left, establishing the optimal angle to pull off a save on the Rapids’ No. 10. Notice how he gets his feet set in the milliseconds as the ball rolls ahead of Mason. This keeps Seattle’s goalkeeper perfectly balanced – with his weight forward – so that he can quickly change direction and make a save to either side.
The picture above perfectly illustrates just how absurd it is that Frei makes this save. He’s positioned perfectly to make a save on Mason, but as we know, the chance eventually fell Gashi, who is pictured on the right side of the box. In the span of about two seconds, Frei determines Mason won’t get to the cross, reacts to Waylon Francis’ stumble, dashes across the entire face of goal, reads Gashi’s hips AND generates enough power to completely alter the flight of the ball. Also, massive credit to Frei for being disciplined enough not to bite on Mason’s dummy run, as a lesser shot-stopper would have dived in anticipation of a first-time shot at the left post. Had he done so, he would’ve taken himself out of the play, leaving the entire goal to the mercy of Gashi’s back-post run.
What truly makes this such a remarkable save is the precision and efficiency of Frei’s footwork. As depicted in the above image, the goal is seemingly vacant at the exact moment that Gashi meets the cross for his first-time shot. This means that Frei’s footwork was so quick, so perfectly detailed, that he traveled roughly 15 feet as the ball was mid-air, arrowing toward goal at top speed.
There are two predominant subsets of footwork that goalkeepers routinely utilize: shuffle steps and crossover steps. Shuffle steps allow goalkeepers to move laterally while staying balanced, with the added benefit of being able to get set at a moment’s notice. Conversely, crossover steps cover ground a lot quicker, but they leave you vulnerable to shots back across goal, as you can’t get your feet set and shoulders squared in time to completely change direction to make the save. Recognizing Gashi’s nonchalant approach and open hips, which telegraphed his shot to the right-hand side, Frei opts for a series of crossover steps, enabling him to recover quickly enough to have a chance at pulling off a remarkable save.
A goalkeeper with world-class footwork will get two, maybe three, steps in the buildup to a dive. But in the adjustment between getting set for Mason’s potential shot and scurrying across goal to deny Gashi, Frei somehow accumulates seven crossover steps. Notice how he untangles his feet toward the end, with his final step coming off his leading leg. This allows Frei to maintain his balance while manufacturing enough momentum to drive through the ball with the requisite power to push the shot around the post.
From the initial cross to Frei’s initial save, the play lasted just three seconds. But those three seconds were the product of thousands of hours on the training pitch, which is the mark of a truly outstanding goalkeeper.