Truthfully, the cheers were too loud for such a basic goalkeeper play.
But that’s how little is known about Stefan Cleveland.
Los Angeles FC lofted a ball toward goal on a free kick in the sixth minute and Cleveland jumped to pluck the soft attempt from the air. A collective uncertainty engulfed Sounders FC fans at Lumen Field on Sunday.
Could he do it?
“There’s always a little bit of butterflies when you lose your starting goalkeeper,” said Garth Lagerwey, the club’s president of soccer and general manager.
Cleveland secured the ball, thwarting any challenge, and the crowd of 7,173 burst into cheers. By the end of the eventual 2-0 Sounders win, they were chanting “Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks!”
Coincidentally also an Ohio native, Cleveland finished with three saves in helping the Sounders seal their fourth clean sheet of the season.
“He exceeded our expectations,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We knew there would be some nerves. (But) He did a lot of really, really good things. Really pleased with his play.”
Sunday was the first time since 2018 and fifth time in the past seven years the Sounders didn’t have Stefan Frei in goal. The two-time MLS Cup champion suffered a sprained knee in second-half stoppage time against San Jose on Wednesday and is out for at least a month.
With the absence of international competitions or open preseason matches to view the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there haven’t been any opportunities to see Cleveland — or any backup to Frei — play.
Cleveland made his introduction early. LAFC (1-2-2) created multiple tense moments in the opening half where Schmetzer’s tactic switched to defender Xavier Arreaga starting a lot of the play from the back instead of what Frei would have led.
LAFC midfielder Corey Baird had a solid chance in the ninth minute when he sent a left-footed shot at goal. Cleveland confidently made the save, seemingly settling into the match. On other challenges near the box, center backs Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade were there to block or clear the attempt.
“The vertical play by LAFC, going against Nouhou is a dead end,” Schmetzer said. “Teams should stop doing that because that’s not going to happen.”
But the Sounders’ attack was muddled. Left back Brad Smith had a shot stretch wide of goal in the 43rd minute. Forward Will Bruin had a right-footed shot sail too high in the 44th minute. He appeared to injure his back on the play and left the field for evaluation but remained in the match.
Arreaga broke the deadlock in the second half. Midfielder Joao Paulo had a pinpoint pass that Arreaga headed into goal past Pablo Sisniega in the 57th minute. It’s Joao Paulo’s third assist of the season and Arreaga’s first goal.
“It’s always extremely important for somebody, especially who plays from the back to be able to score,” Arreaga said, as translated from Spanish. “It doesn’t happen in every game, but having the opportunity to do it time to time is very good and encouraging.”
Smith added a cushion off a header in the 73rd minute. Forward Raul Ruidiaz picked off a misdirected pass in the midfield and sent it ahead to Alex Roldan, who sent a beautiful cross to Smith for the score.
It’s Smith’s third goal of the season, second off his new bald head.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley began his substitutions in the 70th minute by bringing on striker Carlos Vela. The league’s leading scorer in 2019 missed the past three matches with a quad injury. He had 20 touches but no shot attempts against Seattle’s defense.
“It’s maybe a little trend where in the first half of games, we’re kind of not playing as good,” said Smith, who also scored in the 1-1 draw against LAFC in April. “It opens up for us in the second half. Credit to our fitness and stuff like that. I feel that we’re a lot fitter than other teams. You can kind of see it.”
Also becoming clear as the MLS season unfolds is the Sounders proving invincible no matter who’s in the lineup. The club is still missing midfielder Nico Lodeiro (knee). He’s only made one appearance off the bench.
But Seattle (5-0-1) remains atop the league with a six-game unbeaten streak and have yet to concede a goal within the run of play. Sunday’s match closed a three-game week where the team collected nine points.
The Sounders host Atlanta United FC (2-1-2) at Lumen Field next Sunday.
“If you would’ve told me before the season we were going to be in first place and Lodeiro has only played for 30 minutes, I would’ve told you you’re nuts,” Lagerwey said. “Things are going our way a little bit right now and hopefully we’re building up the group’s belief and resilience. We’ve got a really good system for the talent we have.”