Spencer Richey’s heart is filled with Seattle memories. Those rain-soaked nights after watching the Sonics play at KeyArena, the Mariners games with cotton candy and Mountain Dew in hand, or summer boat rides to Ivar’s for dates with his wife. All are a part of who he is.
But Richey, a Seattleite to his core, had to extract his heart from his next career decision. Ironically, none of those loves could factor into whether the veteran MLS goalkeeper should sign with his dream club, his hometown Sounders FC.
“The hard part of the decision was trying to take that out of the decision,” Richey said after signing a deal to play for Seattle last week. “I still have a lot of aspirations for my career and I very much wanted this to be a professional decision and make it based on the opportunity, the club and my relationship with the staff.”
Opportunity was the complicated part. If the past seven seasons are any indicator, Richey, 28, will undoubtedly be a backup for keeper Stefan Frei. The two-time MLS Cup champion does turn 35 in April, but in 2019 was one of seven players in the then 24-team league to play every minute of the season.
Frei’s career-high 116 saves in 2019 ranked fourth among keepers and he had 10 shutouts.
In addition to Frei, there’s the return of Stefan Cleveland. The 26-year-old keeper hasn’t played in an MLS match since 2018 with the Chicago Fire FC, but in his first season with the Sounders last year, he received nods from Frei about his work in training.
“Stef has been an Iron Man for the club,” Richey said. “Of course Cleveland comes into play as well. They said it’ll be between me and him of who’s going to be the guy behind Frei if something were to happen.
“With this upcoming season, it’s going to be condensed by (at least) a month and a bit hectic with international and Open Cup and some of these tournaments that come back into play. I think it would be tough, potentially, for Stef to play 34 games. Who knows? Maybe he’s standing on his head and that’s that. Part of it will be me proving myself in training.”
Richey has already gotten a jump start on training with Tom Dutra, the Sounders director of goalkeeping. The two first linked up when Richey was a youth soccer camper at Pacific Lutheran University, where Dutra was an assistant coach from 2002 to 2006.
As the coach grew to become regarded as the best in MLS, Richey would use the benefit of being a local to work with Dutra. From a budding camper, to standout at Crossfire Academy in Redmond, to starring in goal at the University of Washington, leading the Huskies to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2014.
“The one thing I’ll always remember is that if there was an opportunity for him to come train, he’d come train,” Dutra said. “It was always ‘Yep, yep, what time should I come?’ His overall attitude of wanting to get better, going all the way back to when I first met him when he was a young kid to now, that’s a thing that has always stuck with him.”
Dutra’s intrigue was solidified in the way Richey handled a severe right leg injury suffered four games into his senior season at UW. Richey spent 5½ months rehabbing the leg and returned to lead the Huskies to another NCAA berth.
The Vancouver Whitecaps FC selected Richey in the third round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft; he first played for the second-division team. Richey moved on to start 18 matches during FC Cincinnati’s final USL season in 2018 and start 28 the past two seasons with the club as an MLS Eastern Conference doormat.
“I’ve probably followed him closer after that point (injury) just because I have so much respect for him to come back,” said Dutra, who suffered his own leg injury. “I was definitely slower after it. Spencer and his injury, I see no signs of it. That’s why I have so much respect for what he’s gone through. I would have no idea he ever hurt himself.”
Dutra made the final pitch to Richey, asking him to sign with the Sounders. During the phone call they discussed old times, Frei’s durability and the possibilities.
The 2021 soccer calendar is packed. MLS is patching its schedule around the Tokyo Olympics, World Cup qualifiers, U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF Gold Cup among other international tournaments.
The league has yet to release the schedule, but more three-match weeks are expected. Strategy to build for the future and remain in contention for a MLS-record 13th playoff berth may be to give Richey and Cleveland minutes in goal to protect Frei’s longevity.
“It’s their job to make sure they keep pushing Stefan Frei,” Dutra said. “And keep pushing to make sure they have their spot on the team. But to say we have the future replacement for Stef, I don’t think that would be fair to any of them. My only thing for all of them is come in and let’s compete every day and then let’s see what happens.”
At the heart of it all, that’s what Richey wanted for the next step in his professional career.
“It’s always beneficial getting into a new group and being able to take bits and pieces from different guys and plug them into your game,” Richey said. “And maybe they can learn a thing or two from me as well and we can all get better for it.”