Goalkeepers almost seem separate from the team.
With preparation for matches naturally being different than the field players, there’s about an hour of training where the sides don’t mix. Little is known about what happens on their patch of the field off in the distance at the Sounders FC’s facility at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
“One thing that I always want to make sure within our group is that we’re strong together,” Tom Dutra, who was named the club’s goalkeepers coach in 2008, said recently. “There is a goalkeeper’s union as we like to call it. (And) the goal for me is to always make sure we have the best goalkeepers possible. Not just the best No. 1.”
The shroud of mystery will be removed Sunday at Lumen Field. For the first time since 2018 — and fifth time overall in seven seasons — the Sounders won’t have Stefan Frei in goal for a MLS match. The two-time league champion suffered a sprained left knee against San Jose on Wednesday and will be out of rotation at least a month.
Dutra’s philosophy will materialize against Los Angeles FC with either Stefan Cleveland or Spencer Richey replacing Frei. Neither Richey, who starred at the University of Washington, nor Cleveland, who played 90 minutes for the Tacoma Defiance last week, is overly experienced.
But both expected to get some opportunity this season because of the condensed MLS schedule and the Sounders (4-0-1) not wanting to overuse Frei, who turned 35 last month. The early injury just forced the club’s hand.
“They’ll have the benefit of the home crowd, that’ll help,” said Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders president of soccer and general manager, of Cleveland and Richey. “Nobody wants to replace somebody due to an injury, but you do know now that (Frei) is going to be back this year, hopefully back in much less than just this year, and likewise, you know that it’s more than just one game.
“One of the hardest things to do as a backup goalkeeper is to come in and you’ve got one shot. Whatever the opponent, whatever the game, stuff happens and you’ve got that one game and your whole reputation rests on it. That’s not the case here. Whoever coach (Brian) Schmetzer picks to play, they’re going to get a run of games. That allows you to kind of play yourself into your absolute peak form. … It takes some of the pressure off.”
Any ease likely ceases when the state of LAFC (1-1-2) is considered. The league darling is in the bottom of the Western Conference and has lost its past four matches in Seattle, including last season’s 3-1 loss to get booted out of the 2020 postseason.
All motivators to pepper a new keeper with shots on goal. And who better to do that than Carlos Vela, who’s expected to make an appearance as a super sub after missing the club’s past three matches with a quadriceps injury. Vela set a MLS season record in goal scoring and was named MVP in 2019.
Sprinkle on top a bad taste from LAFC’s rivalry loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy last week and Sunday could be pressure-filled for Richey or Cleveland.
“When you have that kind of finish to an important game, there’s a real need to get at things in a real way during the week,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said of his team’s training in preparation to play Seattle. “There were some important discussions inside the group, individuals. That’s how you become a better team.”
It could be said that Frei is the reason LAFC hasn’t been able to breakthrough the way MLS marketing would like. He had three saves in each of the past two playoff meetings between the sides, the 2019 performance clinching the Western Conference championship at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium.
The Black and Gold are again picked to win the league championship and the Sounders, who currently sit atop the Supporters’ Shield, weren’t considered nationally despite playing in four of the past five MLS Cup finals.
Seattle’s 2016 win was largely because of Frei, his save against a surefire shot from Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore vaulting the keeper to legend status.
Frei is quick to tell anyone the work for those moments happens even before training sessions begin. Tips and tricks certainly shared with Cleveland and Richey on that distant part of the practice field in preparation for their Sounders debut.
“Game in and game out (Frei) will save one that he probably shouldn’t and that’s what makes him so special,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “This is one of the best goalkeeper unions that we’ve had here in Seattle. … It’s great to see us have this competition. Obviously Stefan Frei is going to be hard to replace, but having two backups that compete at the level they do is something that’s extremely important for our team.
“That position is one of the most important positions you can have on the field. I look forward to them competing and think they’ll do extremely well.”