TUKWILA – The next era of goalkeeping is about to begin for Sounders FC.
Kasey Keller’s reign was the standard-bearer, of course, with stellar performance and leadership upon the franchise’s leap to MLS (2009-2011). Michael Gspurning’s tenure lived up to that level at first (2012), but then injuries and a spell of poor form, coinciding with a teamwide nosedive, soured it at the end (2013).
Well, with less than three weeks until the start of the MLS season, Seattle has a competition for the starting role between Stefan Frei, a talented 27-year-old newcomer who was mostly inactive the past two seasons, and Marcus Hahnemann, a steady veteran but also the oldest player in the league at 41.
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Neither is a surefire Goalkeeper of the Year candidate, leaving some to wonder if the position is as weak as it has been for the Sounders. But those doubts are not shared by goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra, who often pitched his Keller- and Gspurning-led groups as among the best in MLS
“I still feel that way — absolutely,” Dutra said after practice Monday. “I feel like our goalkeeping corps is very strong again this year.”
Much of the attention and responsibility will fall on the 6-foot-3 Frei, who, even if in competition with Hahnemann, is considered the team’s goalkeeper of the future. The native of Switzerland was Toronto FC’s first-round pick in 2009 after playing at California, and started his first three seasons in MLS, his own performance often overshadowing that of an underperforming team.
Injuries hit hard in 2012, however, when Frei essentially missed the whole season after suffering a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments. Another injury at the start of 2013 allowed backup Joe Bendik to move ahead in the depth chart — something Frei was unable to reverse once healthy.
The Sounders still consider Frei a proven commodity, even if just having played one MLS game in two years.
“He’s been unfortunate just to take some bad injuries at the wrong time the last couple years, but I’ve always liked him,” Dutra said. “I remember when he played at Cal, I liked him. I liked him in 2009 when he was coming out to the combine.”
Coach Sigi Schmid added: “I’ve seen Stefan play for a long time, going all the way back to his college days, and I just think he has a really good presence about him.”
The praise doesn’t end there. Dutra credited Frei with having “unbelievably good hands” and Schmid said Frei’s kicking will be an asset out of the back (Frei had two assists in his first three seasons in Toronto).
The key for Frei will be using preseason to build confidence after two quiet years, but he also has plans to learn as much as he can from one of the best resources available — someone who just happens to be his main competition, Hahnemann.
“He’s been with top teams in the world and has tons of experience,” said Frei, “so I will be watching him closely.”
• Forward Omar Browne, an unsigned invitee, is no longer with the team and will return to his native Panama, Schmid said.
• The Sounders have added a game to their trip to South Carolina. Seattle will play Sunday at the College of Charleston. Games in the Carolina Challenge Cup are Saturday (Charleston Battery), Feb. 26 (Houston) and March 1 (D.C. United).
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or email@example.com. On Twitter @joshuamayers.