For the first time since June 30, 2018, and only the seventh time in the last eight seasons, someone other than Stefan Frei started in goal for the Seattle Sounders in an MLS regular season match.
Frei, who was injured on Wednesday at the San Jose Earthquakes and will miss 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee, was replaced by another Stefan in backup Stefan Cleveland, who joined the Sounders from the Chicago Fire ahead of the 2020 season. The 26-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native entered Sunday with just five MLS matches to his name since joining the league in 2017. His last start came on Oct. 7, 2018, in a 2-1 Fire loss at D.C. United.
Cleveland held his own in a 2-0 win over LAFC on Sunday and helped lead the Sounders to their fourth clean sheet in six matches to start the season, making three saves on the night.
“[Cleveland] did great,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “He exceeded our expectations. We knew there were going to be some nerves. He’s had a previous win against LAFC with a different team. He succeeded tonight keeping a clean sheet. I think he did a lot of really good things. Very pleased with his play.”
Cleveland Frei— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) May 17, 2021
Schmetzer said he took the advice of Club Director of Goalkeeping Tommy Dutra, a decision that worked out quite nicely.
“Tommy Dutra is the best goalkeeping coach in MLS,” said Schmetzer. “I’m biased, but he is. I lean heavily on him and his expertise.”
While Cleveland was a strong presence in net, his defenders in front of him did their jobs as well, keeping the young goalkeeper from being peppered all night. Center back Xavier Arreaga, who scored his first Sounders goal on Sunday, praised his goalkeeper after the win.
“I’m very happy for the opportunity that Cleveland had today,” said Arreaga. “He’s a very good player and he works very hard, so I’m really happy for him. During the week, we were communicating a lot, giving him confidence so he could come into the game feeling good and being positive about his participation in the team.”
“I thought he was excellent today,” Smith said of Cleveland. “To come in and fill Stef [Frei’s] role — [Frei] is one of the best goalkeepers in the league, probably the best in my opinion — he looked quality out there. The guys helped him out. He looked really confident, and he had a couple big saves where he held onto the ball. I’m definitely very happy for him to come in and step into such a big role.”
One of the nuances of playing goalkeeper in the style that the Sounders want to play is being skilled on the ball. Seattle wants to play out of the back consistently, and part of that relies on whomever is in goal to be able to make not only good passes, but good reads.
“Stefan Cleveland has a very good left foot,” said Schmetzer. “His decision-making, and that’s where you get a feel for the game, to kick the ball long to Will [Bruin] because Will is a good outlet for us when we’re under a little bit of pressure, I thought he made the right choices and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
The Sounders will look to set a club record for their best start to an MLS season next weekend when they host their first Eastern Conference opponent of the year in Atlanta United (1:30 p.m. PT; FOX, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM | TICKETS).