Stefan Frei: Seattle Sounders Blue-Collar Hero

One of the unsung sub-narratives of the Seattle Sounders’ recent run to the top of the M.L.S. table is the emergence of goalkeeper Stefan Frei. With all the attention on the high-octane attack, we may have failed to notice him.

Stefan Frei had been pretty inconspicuous during the winter. With a flurry of marquee additions, Frei’s name didn’t attract too much attention. Frei, coming off many injuries and having barely played in two years, seemed only one of those long shot “good, if healthy” signings. Many teams seek to build on the cheap, and circumvent the scarcity problem of professional sports, with these low risk/high reward signings.

But Seattle was taking a major gamble signing Frei. His addition coincided with the retention of Sounders legend Marcus Hahnemann. Hahnemann, though on the precipice of retirement, had recently been involved in a goalkeeper controversy with Michael Gspurning and, seemingly, had little reason to return to the club if not as the starter. And if Frei hadn’t proved 100% fit, Seattle would’ve had to run with Hahnemann for the balance of the season. Can you imagine Seattle, with millions invested in Oba and Dempsey, coming off their most disappointing season, moving forward with a declining 41 year-old keeper? Seattle was taking a gamble that Frei would be both healthy and effective.

Not only a risk, but Frei’s addition alluded to a considerable shift in Seattle’s team building philosophy. Seattle had always built around quality keepers, first Kasey Keller then Michael Gspurning, much the same way the Green Bay Packers build around quarterbacks and the Los Angeles Lakers around centers. Kasey Keller, though in his twilight, was clearly the greatest American goalkeeper at the time of his signing. The Sounders followed his retirement by anointing Gspruning, pedigreed, physically imposing and expensive, the successor. Fans bought this transition, and that is why Frei’s signing was so atypical. It was a huge admission by Seattle’s brass that goal keeper was no longer a bedrock position.

Flash forward past all that signing sturm und drang, and Frei has been superlative. I like having a blue-collar goalie, an unsung plugger. Frei does his job well and doesn’t attract too much drama. The man keeps making the timely and crucial late game save. Yes he’s allowed goals but the offense we run, and the early season miscues, are more to blame. Frei has singlehandedly protected results, here and here. His confidence at the back is a major contribution to the 2014 Sounders’ professionalism and poise.

I loved Gspurning, his easy manner and lederhosen, but he didn’t engender confidence. He was streaky. You were either breathless or cringing when he was between the pipes. The man didn’t endow the team with cool and calm. And goalkeeper is first and foremost a mental position, a position of confidence. Coach Sigi Schmid has spoken of this, and the quality he most values in goalkeepers, “The one big thing that I look for is presence. What kind of presence does a goalkeeper have? Does he look like a goalkeeper? Does he smell like a goalkeeper? Does he act like a goalkeeper? That for me is very important. The German word for it is ausstrahlung, and it’s a thing I talked to Stefan about. I said that’s what I’m looking for. It’s really presence. How you command. How you control the situation. What do you look like? Do you look like you’re in charge? Do you look like you’re in control? I think that’s really, really important.”

Frei has a presence. He commands and calms, and is the very backbone of a prolific and potentially record-breaking Seattle team.

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