This is what Stefan Frei wanted — a true final.
It did take late-game heroics in Mexico City last week for the Sounders FC to get here. Club captain Nico Lodeiro bagged a brace from the spot to turn a two-legged CONCACAF Champions League final series against Pumas UNAM into a one-off affair because of a 2-2 draw and away goals not counting as a tiebreaker in aggregate scoring.
Now, before an expected tournament-record 67,000 people Wednesday at Lumen Field, the sides will duel for their first CCL title. One game from being the region’s 2022 beacon club — a territory representing 41 member associations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and Caribbean.
The level scoring between the Sounders and Pumas, a storied Liga MX club, could mean the penultimate competition is decided in goal. It’s a spotlight Frei has basked in since signing with the club in 2014. Barely an interview goes by without the 36-year-old keeper mentioning how this is a chance to make history, much in the way he was the keeper for Seattle’s first MLS Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
“It makes me exceptionally proud to not wilt under pressure but to excel and come through,” Frei said. “(The CCL semifinals) was another high-pressure situation and a big opportunity and a big moment and I was able to help out the team. It puts us now in a position where we can hopefully take advantage of the fact that we were able to go through. Because otherwise we’re going to stand here and say it really didn’t matter in the end. It’s a historic opportunity.”
The winner Wednesday will receive $500,000 and an automatic berth to the FIFA Club World Cup where the prize money starts at $500,000 for seventh place up to $5 million for the winner.
Chelsea FC is the reigning Club World Cup champion. The title was the final missing piece to the English Premier League side’s trophy case, now owning one of every possible championship for a club in their region.
Seattle has an opportunity to replicate that bounty. The Sounders have already won two MLS Cups, four U.S. Open Cups, five Cascadia Cups and one Supporters’ Shield. The new Leagues Cup, CCL and Club World Cup are the three missing trophies.
No MLS team has won this iteration of the CONCACAF regional tournament, but the Sounders do have a “winning” record against Mexican clubs at home for CCL competitions at 4-3-1. Pumas hasn’t won a CONCACAF trophy since three in the 1980s.
Another difference for the MLS representatives in the past CCL finals is Real Salt Lake (2011), Montreal (2015), Toronto FC (2018) and Los Angeles FC (2020) all had key injuries. All the Sounders’ first-choice players participated in training Tuesday at Lumen.
“There’s no doubt we’re catching up,” Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer said of surpassing Liga MX teams, which have won the past 13 CCL titles. “Compared to 10,12 years ago, when I came into the league and we were getting our (expletive) kicked by Santos Laguna and Club America, to me, the quality of our group, win or lose (Wednesday) is as good as just about any team in the Americas.”
Frei, who hasn’t been lauded among the league’s top goalkeepers in the past, could enter a new echelon of soccer stardom on Wednesday. He’s never won the MLS award for the position and has only received one U.S. men’s national team training camp invite — which was before the Swiss-born keeper became a U.S. citizen in 2017.
“I haven’t had contact with the national team since that January camp,” Frei said. “The lack of communication to me means everything. It just means that it’s something that I shouldn’t be focusing on because it’s something that’s out of my hands.”
Slip-ups and injuries with current USMNT keepers just six months out from the FIFA World Cup in Qatar are adding to the debate about Frei and putting a focus on the CCL final, according to pundits. Last month Manchester City keeper Zack Steffen, a 27-year-old favorite for the USMNT roster, had an embarrassing error on his line that led to a goal and ultimate loss to Liverpool in the FA Cup semifinals. USMNT veteran Brad Guzan, 37, recently ruptured his Achilles tendon while in goal for Atlanta United.
New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner, who had never played for the USMNT at any level before earning 13 caps in 2021, just returned to play last week after suffering a foot injury in February’s World Cup qualifying matches. Turner, 27, will transfer to play for Arsenal this summer, but isn’t guaranteed minutes.
Another candidate is New York City FC keeper Sean Johnson. The 32-year-old was key in NYCFC winning its first MLS Cup last season but was outplayed by Frei in the CCL semifinals and hasn’t featured in a USMNT match since 2020.
“For the first time in a long time that I can remember, this is a position of concern,” Tony Meola, who was the USMNT’s keeper for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, told MLSsoccer.com recently. “That doesn’t mean we can’t compete, but we’re not at the point where we’re going to feel that confident in goal.”
Confidence in goal is a given for Sounders fans. Well, maybe not always with penalty kicks, but few are more dependable than Frei in executing his role on the field.
Frei leads the CCL tournament with 24 saves and three clean sheets. Yet, Pumas has an equally talented keeper in Alfredo Talavera, a 39-year-old Mexican international who’s using the CCL final to revive his consideration for his country’s World Cup roster.
Talavera is second in total saves with 19 during the tournament.
“I used to have goals of winning Goalkeeper of the Year or making the national team,” Frei said. “There’s politics involved and obviously there’s performances involved, too, those are the main things.
“I can control my performance. But what a coach wants, what a coach sees, what kind of goalkeeper he needs or what media sees as a good goalkeeper during the year, I cannot control that. I’ve tried to eliminate that out of my brain and really try to focus on the things that I actually control. I can show up every day to training. I can discuss with (keeper coach) Tommy (Dutra) clearly and honestly what we need to work on and what we set our goals to. That’s helped me get better and enjoy my game as well.”
Wednesday night, Frei aims to make that enjoyment be crowning the Sounders as the best club in the region.