Stefan Frei estimated he slept two hours on the eve of his return to the Sounders on Saturday.
It was a welcomed restlessness as he counted down the hours before his first start since May due to a knee injury that developed blood clots.
“Butterflies are important because it shows that you care,” Frei said. “I think if you don’t have any butterflies, something is wrong. So, it was good. It felt really good to hear the boom-boom clap, to see the fans. I thought the national anthem before was really good. It felt good for me to be back out there, personally.”
The two-time MLS Cup champion slotted in goal was the final piece to a traditional feel at Lumen Field.
Cool air swirled around the stadium after the Puget Sound experienced months of record-breaking summer heat. An energetic 33,130 people lined the lower bowl to witness the afternoon match against Minnesota United FC. Albeit in Loons blue, Ozzie Alonso arguing enough, again, to be shown a yellow card.
And a Sounders win.
Frei was tested early and often but had four saves to collect another career clean sheet in Seattle’s 1-0 victory. The result helped the Sounders avoid going winless in five consecutive home matches (not including a Leagues Cup win over Tigres UANL) for the first time in its MLS history.
“In the game, I felt comfortable, but it was definitely mentally draining,” said Frei, who suffered his injury in the 89th minute of a 1-0 win at San Jose on May 12. The rehabilitation process was the longest the keeper has experienced since he broke his nose and only played one game during the 2013 season with Toronto FC.
“That’s something you can’t really practice — for 90 minutes to have to be so sharp and so focused,” Frei continued. “Hopefully (I’ll) get better with that. But it’s such a pleasure to be back on the pitch. … I don’t take this for granted at all. It’s really special.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said he noticed Frei’s presence gave the team a boost. The captain of the defense also helped energize his teammates with a pregame talk about the importance of winning at home.
During the Sounders’ inaugural season in 2009, they went 0-1-3 during MLS matches from July through September.
“The only reason why we do this is to get good seeding in the playoffs, so that we can play more games at home,” Frei said. “So, for that to really count and matter, we have to make this a fortress, again. We have a few opportunities left to do so (this season). Today wasn’t pretty, but we won. We kept a clean sheet. It’s a good start.”
Sounders midfielder Joao Paulo continued his MVP-caliber season by scoring the club’s lone goal in the 22nd minute. The Brazilian’s powerful, right-footed shot from outside the box sailed low to the left corner.
Equally impressive was the buildup from midfielder Nico Lodeiro to thread the ball to Nico Benezet at the edge of the box. The latter had a reverse pass to set up the score, sharing the assist with Lodeiro.
Joao Paulo, who’s tied with multiple players for second in the league in assists (eight), has two goals — both against Minnesota.
Some of Minnesota’s best chances to equalize were after forward Fanendo Adi substituted on in the 66th minute. Loons midfielder Jacori Hayesc challenged Frei with a left-footed shot from deep that the keeper saved in the 86th minute.
“It wasn’t an easy game the last 10 minutes,” Schmetzer said. “Fanendo came on, one of our nemesis from years ago in Portland and actually caused us some problems. So, it was hard to close out that game.”
Saturday’s match was the return of defender Nouhou. The All-Star hasn’t played a Sounders match since May because of an adductor injury suffered while with his Cameroon national team. Nouhou’s appearance was the 100th of his MLS career.
The Sounders were without striker Raul Ruidiaz, who leads the league in scoring, and defender Xavier Arreaga. The first-choice starters were with their Peru and Ecuador national teams, respectively, for World Cup qualifying matches.
Brothers Cristian (U.S.) and Alex Roldan (El Salvador) and wingback Brad Smith (Australia) were also called up by their national teams but returned in time to play Saturday. The trio subbed into the match in the second half.
Minnesota (8-7-7) also missed key players, including midfielder Robin Lod, who in July scored the late goal to end the Sounders’ record-setting unbeaten streak to open the season. The biggest absence was Emanuel Reynoso, the Loons anchor in the midfield.
MUFC coach Adrian Heath’s lineup shuffling created a Sounders touch with Alonso, a former Sounders captain, replacing Reynoso and former Seattle backup keeper Tyler Miller in goal for the Loons.
A heated Alonso received the yellow card in the 47th minute for a bad foul. It was mounting frustration at being unable to prevent the losing result. The Sounders’ last outright home MLS win was July 7.
“We discussed it,” Schmetzer said of the club’s recent home form. “If you don’t address issues that come up, you can’t solve them.”
The Sounders (13-4-6) continue to lead MLS Western Conference standings. The club will host Liga MX side Santos Laguna in a Leagues Cup semifinal match at Lumen Field on Tuesday.