The Sounders’ four-city road trip ends this week with a trip to San Jose, where memories of the last match against the Earthquakes still makes Seattle soccer fans tremble.
Four months ago Seattle got a 1-0 win, but lost two starters in what became roster-altering injuries. Midfielder Jordy Delem suffered a torn ACL in the May match, while goalkeeper Stefan Frei went down with a sprained knee in the 89th minute. Right wingback Alex Roldan replaced Frei, making two saves to preserve the shutout.
Now back from injury, Frei leads the Western Conference-leading Sounders back to PayPal Park to face the Earthquakes on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
While Delem recently returned to field work, Frei has played the past five matches, including two during the Leagues Cup tournament, collecting two clean sheets.
“When I watch him play, I don’t see Stef as having been out for four months,” Sounders goalkeeping coach Tom Dutra said. “I see a normal Stef. If anything, I see him a little bit quicker and physically stronger when he came back to us.”
Frei, who was out longer than expected because the sprain developed blood clots, was about to fine-tune his skillset in the three months he spent rehabbing. The 13-year veteran worked on drills with Dutra, but couldn’t join regular team training without restrictions until late August. His return to play was a 1-0 shutout against Minnesota at Lumen Field on Sept. 11.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions because, early on, we feared the worst with my injuries,” Frei said of the process. “Even the doctors in San Jose weren’t too optimistic about it. So, I felt like I dodged a bullet there at first when it was better than expected.
“Then the complication with blood clots and more things. It made it frustrating because I take pride in working hard and trying to come back as quickly as possible, almost to prove the doctors wrong and come back and shave off a week or two. With blood clots and blood thinners, that’s protocol and there’s no shaving off time there. So it was very frustrating to sit there and feel like I was ready, wanting to help out, but not being able to.”
The club was jolted, too. Not only did the Sounders have unproven reserves replace Delem’s contributions, keepers Stefan Cleveland and Spencer Richey were relative unknowns.
Cleveland signed with Seattle in 2020 but hadn’t started an MLS match since 2018. Richey is a league veteran, but he spent the past two seasons floundering with the Eastern Conference’s last-place FC Cincinnati.
Richey, a former University of Washington standout, started twice in place of Frei and recorded two shutouts. Cleveland, who was preparing to start for the USL side Tacoma Defiance when he witnessed Frei’s injury on TV, replaced the co-captain for 16 matches, including a shutout in the Leagues Cup opener against Tigres UANL.
“Who would’ve guessed that they’d get the opportunity the way they did,” Dutra said of Cleveland and Richey. “Something that surprised me was the decisions, when they get the decisions right, the decision-making. You don’t get (rewarded) because you made a save or a good decision made on the field. You only tend to get graded when, ‘Oh, he’s given up a goal because he made a bad decision.’
“So, that’s what surprised me a little bit, the few opportunities that (Cleveland and Richey) have gotten, there was just good decision-making for some of them. Sometimes there weren’t and I totally knew that was going to happen as well. Once Cleveland got into a rhythm of games, he did quite well. Richey had limited opportunities and he did very well.”
Frei, who signed a contact extension last winter, agreed with Dutra about the way Cleveland and Richey played. The pair traveled with the team for the road trip in Kansas City, Frei coming up with two saves in the 2-1 win at Children’s Mercy Park.
It was the first time since 2013 that Seattle (14-5-6) has won in the facility.
“We always say that we grow together,” Frei said of what’s called the keepers union. “There’s no better season to show that than this year and how we’ve done that. I couldn’t be more proud of everybody and happy, again, to be part of the squad and part of these keepers.”