Built For This: Goalkeeper Stefan Frei ready to star in his third MLS Cup Final in four years

There is no one more built for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs than Stefan Frei.

In MLS Cup 2016 against Toronto FC, it was The Save, one of the best individual plays in championship history. The Sounders lost an MLS Cup rematch a year later, despite a heroic nine saves from Frei. And in this season’s playoffs, Frei has already bailed out Seattle, including three season-saving stops against FC Dallas in extra time in the first round.

The Seattle Sounders goalkeeper is in his 11th professional season in MLS and is playing some of the best soccer of his career. Frei is quietly climbing the MLS all-time record books – he’s fifth in wins, seventh in games played and ninth in saves – and is showing no signs of slowing down.

So when the Sounders take on Toronto FC in MLS Cup on Sunday (12 p.m. PT; ABC, Univision, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM) for the third time in four years, having Frei’s steady presence in goal will be a massive advantage.

“He’s consistent,” Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey succinctly said of Frei. “Stef is really smart, and I think he’s very perceptive. He’s one of the biggest leaders in our locker room.”

Frei is the most tenured player on the Sounders’ roster and one of only six holdovers from the 2016 title-winning squad. Not coincidentally, the other five -- Nicolás Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Román Torres and Joevin Jones – are some of the club’s most influential contributors. But Frei noted how important it is to have new players on the team who are eager to forge the next chapter.

“It’s good to have people who weren’t there in ’16 or ’17 because it gives them an opportunity to write themselves into the history of this franchise,” he said.

Frei celebrates with the Western Conference trophy | Jane Gershovich

Still, having a consistently imposing presence in goal is not something to take for granted. Consider Toronto’s situation: The Reds will start their third different goalkeeper in three MLS Cups on Sunday. Clint Irwin started in 2016, Alex Bono in ’17 and 2019 acquisition Quentin Westberg will get the nod this year.

Earlier this week, Westberg waxed poetic about his counterpart.

“He’s a great goalie,” Westberg said of Frei. “I really like the goalkeeper and what I see of the man also…He’s played a major role, and he’s one of the top, if not the top, in the league.

“Sometimes it’s about you being the consistent guy and the reliable guy, and this is what I like about [Frei].”

The Sounders will rely on Frei’s calming presence more than ever, especially in the lead-up to the match as the anticipation and anxiousness continue to grow. An advantage of playing at home, Frei said, is that players have more familiar and comfortable surroundings to help ease the natural butterflies that occur ahead of such a massive match.

But with experience comes the knowledge that these chances don’t come around that often and having the fortitude to seize the moment.

“After losing in 2017, I was really bummed out because I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get a second chance to get another star [on our crest],” Frei said. “For us to have another opportunity so soon after, I can’t believe it. When we won in L.A., I was just so excited when it sank in. There are plenty of players who have terrific careers, amazing careers, and never have a chance to win a championship.

“This is an opportunity to talk about ’19 for years to come.”