If Toronto was where Frei spent the most formative years of his 20s, Seattle has been where the Sounders goalkeeper has settled into full-fledged adulthood.
Stefan Frei’s first visit to Toronto’s BMO Field as a member of the Sounders was disorienting.
It’d been two-and-a-half years since the goalkeeper was traded to Seattle from Toronto FC, and the stadium had undergone a dramatic facelift in the meantime. An upper deck was added to BMO’s east grandstand and a soaring roof lifted over the seated areas. Even the stadium’s catacombs had been upgraded from the time when Frei so often walked its halls.
A key part of Frei’s pre-match preparation is visualization. It comforts him to turn over various scenarios in his mind before he has to confront them in reality, at game-speed.
So the ‘keeper was thrown when he walked out of the tunnel before the Sounders’ 1-1 regular-season tie at BMO in early July, those shiny upgrades grafted onto a structure he’d come to know so well.
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“I’m really glad that I had a chance to play there before the MLS Cup final, because it was something I had to deal with mentally,” Frei said.
On Saturday night in Toronto, the clubs that have shaped Stefan Frei will take Major League Soccer’s grandest stage. Either the team that gave him his start or the one that came to his rescue will lift its first respective MLS Cup title in front of a sell-out crowd at BMO Field.
The stadium wasn’t the only thing that the 30-year-old Swiss native found unfamiliar about his return to Ontario. Despite not having been gone for all that long, even in soccer terms, he recognized few ex-teammates on TFC’s roster.
His five years in Toronto prior to his departure in late 2013 were marked by very little success and regular upheaval.
Toronto churned through six coaches and what Frei estimates was something like 200 players during his half-decade with the team.
Even after his standout rookie year in 2009, after which he was named the team’s Defender of the Year, Frei says he was told he could potentially be traded because he was one of the few TFC players with any value on the market.
“It was like you could do well but you’re in the hot seat,” Frei said. “That doesn’t really make you feel good.”
Frei was considered damaged goods when he was traded to Seattle for a conditional draft pick in December of 2013, coming off consecutive years marred by injury.
He’s been so steady over the past two Sounders campaigns that it’s easy to forget that there were early hiccups in Seattle, too. Goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra stayed in Sigi Schmid’s ear, urging him to stick with Frei, and their patience was eventually rewarded.
“It’s been a good few years for me here,” Frei said. “That first year was difficult, coming back from almost two years (sidelined), your confidence is pretty much in the gutter. You need people around you that believe in you, that can assure you that you’re the man. That’s what I had here and it’s allowed me to grow.
“I think I grew (in Toronto) as much as I could. I think it was best for me to move someplace else and get a fresh start. For me to go to a place like Seattle, that is so consistent … I think that has helped me calm down a little bit and mature.”
If Toronto was where Frei spent the most formative years of his 20s, Seattle has been where he’s eased into full-fledged adulthood.
This city fits him. Frei, whose creative outlet is graffiti art, partnered with the club to design a match poster and Delta Air Lines on an in-stadium display. He tweets about video gaming, bourbon and his pair of pet Shar Peis – all of which, as you might suspect, quickly endeared him to Sounders fans.
Frei and his wife, Jennifer – who were on their honeymoon when his agent first started working on the trade that sent him to Seattle – plan on settling here even after his playing career is over.
On the field, too, whether due to his close relationship with kindred-spirit Dutra or the consistency he so often found lacking in Toronto, Frei has long since found his footing.
“I’ve just found myself in a different part of my career,” Frei said. “As a goalkeeper, when you get older and get more experienced, maybe the game slows down a little bit. At 30, it’s a lot slower than at 22.”
All of which will culminate in the biggest match of his career on Saturday night in Toronto.
This time, when he closes his eyes, he’ll be able to visualize the scene with clarity: The noise of the crowd, the weight of a long-sought trophy clutched between his goalie gloves, the validation he didn’t realize he craved until that first BMO visit back in July.
“It was familiar territory, and I wanted to do well, obviously,” Frei said. “I wanted to show that I was a good goalkeeper in Toronto and they shouldn’t have gotten rid of me – not saying that I wish they didn’t, because it has worked out really well for me, but you do have that little chip on your shoulder. You want to prove that you’re a good goalkeeper and that they wish they still had you.”