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U.S. Open Cup

Thriving in Seattle, Stefan Frei Has Trophies in Mind

The Swiss-born goalkeeper won the MLS jackpot last December when he was traded from Toronto FC to the Seattle Sounders. Frei's hunger for silverware begins with tonight's U.S. Open Cup final.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
September 16, 2014
11:34 AM
FOR STEFAN FREI, playing again is nice. Playing in meaningful games in September is even nicer.

In his first season with the Seattle Sounders after five up-and-down campaigns with Toronto FC, Frei finds himself with a legitimate shot at winning three trophies, starting tonight when the Sounders face the Philadelphia Union in the final of the 101st version of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (7:30pm ET; Gol).

“We’re in the part of the season where in Toronto in the past you were slowly coming to the realization you were out of the playoff race and whatnot, and it was more disappointing for me in the past two years,” said Frei, who only played in one game for Toronto the past two seasons. “It’s the opposite for me with the Sounders. The Open Cup, and the playoff race, it’s new for me. I’m very excited to be part of this team.”

Despite TFC’s perennial lack of success, Frei had a solid beginning to his career there, starting 81 games and emerging as one of the top goalkeepers in MLS after three seasons of college soccer at UC-Berkeley. His play led to questions about an international future and whether or not he’d play for his native Switzerland or the United States, to which he emigrated at 15.

But those questions were put on hold in March of 2012 when Frei suffered a serious injury in training, breaking his fibula and tearing ligaments in his left ankle—an injury that cost him all of that season.

“The broken fibula was nothing,” Frei said with almost startling matter-of-factness. “But the ankle ligaments took a long time to recover from and there was a lot of instability (in the ankle). They had to put screws in to put it back together. The ankle took much longer (to recover) and the rehab takes quite a while to get that range of motion back. An ankle is a big part of any athlete, it gives you that flexibility that you need to succeed.”

After battling through rehab Frei came to preseason in 2013 fit and expecting to win a battle with Joe Bendik for the starting job. But Frei broke his nose in a preseason collision, allowing Bendik to claim the starting role. Frei’s only league appearance was in the penultimate game of the season.

Frei, 28, said not playing made recovering from his injury even harder. “When I wasn’t seeing the field in Toronto, I would still work hard and try and improve but it’s difficult when you can’t see field. Especially for me coming back from injury and not getting game time was hard.”

In December Frei was thrown a lifeline when the Sounders sent a conditional pick in the 2015 SuperDraft to Toronto and brought Frei to the Emerald City to replace Michael Gspurning, its starter the past two seasons. The Sounders declined Gspurning's option in part so it could create cap space for its high-paid field players.

Frei won the starting job in preseason and has been in net for every league game this season. It hasn’t been without hiccups—he had a few shaky moments early in the season—but he’s gotten stronger as the season progressed and is slowly returning to his pre-injury form. He’s second in MLS in shutouts (8, tied with D.C. United’s Bill Hamid), sixth in saves (82), and 9th in goals-against-average (1.37).

“It’s been good to get that experience again and have a coaching staff aware of what my situation was and giving me that trust and belief,” Frei said. “The early part of the season there were some growing pains and mistakes I made and they kept believing in me. I’m really pleased with how I’ve progressed mentally and physically.”

Frei was quick to credit both the Sounders goalkeeper coach, Tom Dutra, and his fellow goalkeepers—including 42-year-old icon Marcus Hahnemann—whom he feels he represents when he takes the field.

“Tommy, and all the goalkeepers, we’re a bit of a unique breed and do our own thing in training. We work hard and push ourselves,” Frei said. “When I was in Toronto we had a goalkeeper there, Jon Conway, who said it doesn’t matter who plays on the weekend, that when I play I was representing him on game day and how I did was how he did because he was behind me. So I take that with me when I go out there knowing I’m representing all of us.”

Starting regularly for one of the best teams in MLS will eventually lead to those national team questions again, though for now there isn’t much to answer. He hasn’t heard from the Swiss federation and while he’s had a green card as a permanent resident of the United States since his days at Berkeley, Frei still isn’t a U.S. citizen. (Living in Canada for most of his pro career made it impossible for him to meet the residency requirements needed for naturalization and he has yet to schedule his citizenship exam.)

“Because I was out of the country for five years it’s taking a little longer” to get naturalized, he explained. “I don’t know when it will happen. It could be next year, it could be the next six weeks. It’s not something I can control so I don’t focus on it. My focus is on helping my team and getting better.”

And he really wants to lift that trophy tonight.

“Definitely, especially for us, having been in the final so many times and (the Sounders having) won it before. I take great pride in (being in the final) and I want to be a part of a team that’s going to win the trophy,” Frei said. “We know we’re in everything we can be in, the Supporter's Shield is still a possibility. It’s all there. Every game we have to take it week by week. There’s just a few games left, and (tonight’s) a huge one.

"We have to make that last push and reward ourselves with the trophy. Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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