TUKWILA — Sunday marks Stefan Frei’s third MLS Cup final, but it might be his most cherished.
Not because the Sounders goalkeeper is playing at his club’s home CenturyLink Field. Not even because 70,000 fans are expected to fill the stadium.
This championship matchup against Toronto FC is special because Frei honestly didn’t think it would happen. Seattle lost to Toronto on the road at BMO Field in 2017 for the MLS Cup after winning against the Reds for the 2016 Cup in the same venue.
“After losing in 2017, I was really bummed out because I wasn’t sure whether I was ever going to get a chance to get another star,” Frei said of the emblem placed near or within a club’s badge to signify championships. “For us to have another opportunity so soon after. … I can’t believe it. … There are players who have terrific careers, amazing careers who never have a chance to win a championship.”
Seattle upset top-seeded Los Angeles FC, 3-1, at their Banc of California Stadium for the Western Conference championship to advance. But you could rewind to the Sounders’ playoff opener against FC Dallas for reasons why Seattle is vying for a title.
Frei was pelted with shot attempts, giving up three goals during regulation. His four saves — all in extra time — helped second-seeded Seattle get a 4-3 win at CenturyLink.
The Swiss keeper finished the season with 116 saves and 10 shutouts, not missing a start.
“For a goalkeeper to do that is pretty remarkable,” said Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer. “It’s a testament to how well he takes care of his body. How well prepared he is both mentally and physically. … Make no mistake, if Stef doesn’t make two or three massive saves in overtime against Dallas, we’re not even getting out of the first round. He’s stepped up consistently, big game after big game. We’re really lucky to have him.”
Toronto originally drafted Frei at No. 13 overall in 2009 out of California. He set the MLS rookie record with five shutouts that season, but his final two years before Seattle traded for Frei in 2013 were the worst in his career.
Frei suffered a season-ending injury in 2012 and was relegated to a reserve role in 2013. Frei said therapy was instrumental in helping him return to the high-caliber player he’s known as around the league.
“For me, he’s the best goalkeeper in the league,” Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said after Frei racked up 10 saves in collecting a September shutout in San Jose.
In what felt like a first, the Sounders returned to training at their Starfire Sports facility on Wednesday with a full roster. Even forward Will Bruin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in June, was able to do some drills with the team.
“Everybody’s healthy, except for Bruin,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.
A complete selection of players for Sunday’s championship will create some tough decisions for the coaching staff. One to watch is the back line, where Schmetzer has called on MLS newcomer Xavier Arreaga in place of veteran center back Roman Torres either due to the latter’s recent hamstring injury or 10-game league suspension for substance abuse that began in August.
Arreaga, who was signed in May, received the start for the Western Conference championship win last week.
“We felt that Roman wasn’t quite 100%, so better not to risk him,” said Schmetzer of the starting lineup in L.A.
The Sounders held league MVP Carlos Vela scoreless in his first match since August when Seattle took the conference title against LAFC.
There’s still talk about the Rave Green’s defending, including whether it would work against Toronto for Sunday’s championship match.
During the regular season, none compared to Vela and his record-breaking 34 goals. However, Reds midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo can be utilized in a similar way offensively. Pozuelo leads Toronto with 12 goals and 12 assists. Jozy Altidore has 11 goals but is dealing with a quad injury.
“We had a good tactical game in L.A.,” Sounders defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson said. “We need to match that, at least. We have to make sure we are compact. We have to make sure that we don’t give Toronto too much space. … They’re a loyal team, they fight for each other, much like us. That’s always more difficult, especially in an important game like this where it might be just one mistake that will determine how this game will end up. The more you can fight for each other, the easier it is.”