The goalkeeper has found a creative outlet in graffiti art that he has maintained.

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Stefan Frei peered out of the train windows, his olive-green eyes searching for a flash of color in the images whizzing past.

In his youth in Switzerland, Frei felt like he always was in transit. He rode the rails from school to soccer practice, from his hometown of Altstätten to the academy in nearby St. Gallen. So the amateur goalkeeper kept himself occupied by turning outward, trying to catch a shape or a squiggle.

“I was always looking out the window for the graffiti, for the colorful ones,” Frei said. “For whatever reason, I was always fascinated by the stuff.”

Frei liked hip-hop, too, and skateboarding. Before long, he was trying his hand at graffiti art — “on paper,” he’s quick to stress, “not on walls or anything like that.” He liked that it was abstract and spontaneous.

The art of graffiti hardly could be more different than the art of goalkeeping, a medium of patience and discipline, of mastering rigid angles. Those fleeting glimpses of spray paint on a wall were messy, defiant splashes of colors in Frei’s world of black-and-white.

“As a goalkeeper, if you make a mistake, nothing good comes from it. Ever,” Frei said. “With art, if you make a mistake, it can turn into something beautiful.”

The Sounders goalkeeper has been applying that lesson ever since, losing himself in the latter to help free himself from the burden of the former.

Frei the goalkeeper

Frei and Sounders goalkeeping coach Tom Dutra sit in their usual Thursday meeting, studying video from the recent Vancouver match while preparing for the upcoming Kansas City one.

Freeze it. “See your feet?” Dutra asks.

The attention to detail is meticulous. Where is Frei positioned at the beginning of each attack? How open is his stance? Is he hugging the post or cheating too far from it?

“Making saves, what regular people are seeing, those are the easy things,” Frei said. “You just react.”

For all the free-flowing parts on a soccer field, Frei controls what he can. He directs the defense and sets up the protective wall. Even his goal kicks have a purpose: Dutra wants him to drop them inside the opposing half and wide of the center circle, into the pockets of space between it and the wing.

To the coach, the telling moment of Frei’s shutout vs. Vancouver — the fifth of seven in a 12-match span — came in the 78th minute. Seattle’s back line is caught pushing too high up the field, and a long ball bounces between it and Frei. An attacker is in hot pursuit.

Freeze it.

“Now you have this ball coming in, and it’s chipped in,” Frei says, pointing at the screen. “At that point you have to make a choice. You have to read the trajectory, the bounce, everything, and it’s a split-second decision.

“If you make the wrong one you look like an idiot, and if you make the right one it looks easy and nobody talks about it.”

Frei swoops in just before the attacker arrives and sweeps the ball into his arms.

He and Dutra have added another element to these video studies this season.

Frei brought his GoPro camera to a preseason training session and filmed a few drills. He liked the unique perspective it provided.

You want to talk about practice? Try filming it, editing it and combing over still frames to make sure your hand positioning is just right.

As a goalkeeper, if you make a mistake, nothing good comes from it. Ever. With art, if you make a mistake, it can turn into something beautiful.” - Stefan Frei

This level of fixation on the minutiae, getting this far into your own head, can backfire. Every former athlete knows the sensation: Concentrating so hard on following through or the position of your feet that everything else gets thrown off, too. Frei says he has psyched himself out before, overdosing on details before his only Switzerland youth national team call-up back in the day.

Now, though, the 29-year-old takes comfort in the preparation.

“All the work we put in here,” Frei said, “I know it’s going to come out on game day.”

Do you think any of the other teams are doing this? Frei asks, gesturing at a screen looping a ball-catching drill from the team’s preseason camp in Arizona.

Almost an addiction

“Every goalkeeper needs an outlet,” Dutra said.

Otherwise, a goalkeeper would explode from the pressure of the endless preparation, the memory of the “nothing good comes from mistakes,” the isolation of standing alone on your goalmouth island.

Frei’s inspiration comes to him at odd times. He’ll go two, three months without doing anything artistic, getting lost in a video game or another hobby instead.

“Then all of a sudden, I’ll be walking down the street and see something — whether it’s a geometric shape or some kind of sign — that gets the creative spark going,” he says with a snap of his fingers. “Before you know it, I’m sitting for 15 hours in front of a screen trying to put it together.

“I’m addicted to it, almost.”

Frei spent an entire afternoon messing around on his tablet during an off day following the Vancouver game. He’s working on the match-day poster for the Sounders’ upcoming San Jose game as part of a recent club promotion and pulls up his design on his cellphone.

Frei’s piece features a mole-nosed witch grinning over a boiling CenturyLink cauldron and is, you have to admit, well done. His usual stuff is more abstract, but he worries that not everybody would get it.

Frei admires the work of Kofie Augustine and the Polish artist Nawer, and you can see their influence in his pieces.

There’s an element of graffiti to the style, the vivid colors, an added flourish here and there. But the work is stark and linear, too, playing around with depth and perception. Lines crisscross them, form sharp angles; it’s apparent that the goalkeeping side of his brain is never fully at rest.

“I guess I’m kind of a perfectionist even when it comes to this,” Frei said.