What is it about the MLS Cup that brings out some of the most remarkable performances of Stefan Frei’s career?
The veteran goalkeeper, now in his sixth season with Seattle Sounders FC, and days away from playing in his third championship game against Toronto FC on Sunday afternoon in Seattle, offered a shoulder shrug to the question.
It is difficult to explain how he notched seven saves in regulation and the decisive save in the penalty shootout of the Sounders’ 2016 MLS Cup win over Toronto.
Or how he stretched out for that fingertip save on Jozy Altidore’s header in extra time of that game to preserve a scoreless tie — a save that is heralded by many as one of the best in the history of the championship game and the iconic moment in Sounders history.
Or how he kept Toronto at bay for nearly 70 minutes in the following season’s MLS Cup, allowing an overmatched Sounders team to remain in striking distance of Toronto until the closing moments.
But he supposes tackling the butterflies that come with the territory and knowing how to prepare himself for big moments contributed to his successes in his first two MLS Cup appearances.
“I think with experience you learn how to really handle butterflies,” Frei said. “Obviously, the bigger the occasion, the more butterflies. … How do you deal with the emotions that are coming up? The possible outcomes, how do you feel about those, what does that mean? All of those questions have to be answered before the game starts. If you haven’t answered those questions in your head, and dealt with those emotions, you’re going to be in trouble.
“I think I’ve been able to really take care of those emotions well. Does that turn into a given great performance? No. Mistakes happen all the time. … But I try to give it the utmost respect I can and prepare as much as I can, and just do the best I can.”
Frei has been a model of reliability for the Sounders since his arrival ahead of the 2014 season — when he was traded to Seattle by Toronto for a conditional pick in the 2015 draft — appearing in nearly every regular season and playoff match the club has played in.
He’s started all but six of the Sounders’ 204 regular season matches the past six seasons, with 57 shutouts in that span, and all but one of the club’s postseason matches — Tyler Miller, now LAFC’s starting goalkeeper, started in his place in the first leg of the 2017 Western Conference Championship against Houston — logging 78 saves while allowing less than a goal per game on average.
“It’s been extremely important,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of Frei’s level of play the past several seasons. “His durability, the way he trains, all of that is a testament to being a good pro.
“But, what I love about Stef is just the level he can play at is tremendous. He’s kept us in many, many, many, many games throughout his career, and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
This season, Frei is one of just seven Major League Soccer players — four goalkeepers — who played the full 3,060 minutes of the regular season, and he will have played more total minutes than any other player in the league by the time the playoffs wrap up Sunday.
Since 2014, when he joined the Sounders, Frei is one of five MLS goalkeepers who have played every minute of the regular season more than once — he also reached this mark in 2014 — joining Luis Robles (four times), David Bingham (twice), Steve Clark (twice) and David Ousted (twice).
The performances Frei has turned in this season, despite being one of the club’s oldest players at 33, have continued to be significant. Though, he said after the MLS Cup loss in 2017, he wasn’t sure he would have a shot at another.
“When we won in L.A., I was just so excited once it sank in,” Frei said. “That we were going to play for another star is a huge, huge opportunity. There’s players who have terrific careers, amazing careers, and never have a chance to win a championship.
“There’s so much that needs to happen around you for this moment to occur, for you to be in a situation to have this opportunity.”
And that this final will be the first the Sounders have played in Seattle, in front of their staunch supporters, is an even bigger moment, Frei said.
“When things get tough, to have that crowd behind you is a boost,” Frei said. “Looking back at the Dallas game (in the first round), where we were up 2-0 and they clawed back, it’s a very frustrating game. It’s one where you can easily let your head drop and sulk, but I think we really felt the energy of our crowd there, and it helped us really pull through.
“Obviously, we would prefer it not to go into a situation like that where we need them to dig us out, but I’m hoping that energy feeds us right from the get-go, and we can have a hot start and really impose our style and dictate the play. ... For us to be the first ones to do it, this squad, to have a chance to win the trophy at home is an amazing opportunity.”