It took a day for the thrill to fade.
Echoes of “Cleveland Rocks!” chants were no longer in Stefan Cleveland’s ear and congratulatory messages weren’t dominating his phone notifications. By Tuesday, the Sounders FC keeper was able to analyze his club debut in goal last week when he had three saves to help Seattle shut out Los Angeles FC at Lumen Field.
“I did not have a whole lot to do,” said Cleveland, who replaced two-time MLS champion Stefan Frei, who suffered a sprained knee in a victory against San Jose earlier this month and missed his first start since June 2018.
“I had a great time with the win and the shutout and everything,” Cleveland continued. “But I cannot stress it enough that the 10 guys in front of me did all the work. I made one save off of (midfielder Eduard) Atuesta and one save off of (midfielder Corey) Baird and then if you count a high ball as a save. But those guys, they blocked so many shots and cut off so many through balls. I rewatched the game and they were outstanding.”
Cleveland will get another opportunity to make his mark Sunday when the league-leading Sounders (5-0-1) face Atlanta United FC (2-1-2) at Lumen Field. Frei is expected to be out four to six weeks to rehabilitate his injury and Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Friday that Cleveland will get the start.
And this time Cleveland won’t be alone in experiencing something new. Due to MLS restricting travel in order to guard against the spread of COVID-19 last year, the Sounders haven’t faced the Five Stripes since July 2019.
Overall, Seattle has played only two Eastern Conference teams since its MLS Cup victory against Toronto FC in November 2019 — the Chicago Fire FC and Columbus Crew.
Atlanta has a new coach in Gabriel Heinze, a former fullback for Argentina’s national team who also played for Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Atlanta returns forward Josef Martínez to the lineup. The Venezuelan suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2020. He’s scored 78 goals in 89 career MLS matches.
“We as a coaching staff were kind of excited to get a new opponent,” Schmetzer said. “It gave us something to do. … But we’re at home. My expectation for this game is the same where we go out and we try to dictate tempo to them. We want to be on the front foot. We want to make sure that they understand this is our home and there’s a noticeable home-field advantage to MLS.”
Cleveland, who’ll turn 27 Monday, was comforted by that homey feel of Lumen Field — if you’re a Sounder — and the way a socially distanced crowd of about 7,000 can start an impromptu “Cleveland Rocks!” chant in a 60,000-seat stadium and be heard in the upper bowl.
The feeling of slotting into a starting position as an unknown and finding success isn’t uncommon for Cleveland.
The Dayton, Ohio, native never saw game action his freshman year at Dartmouth. When he won the job as a junior, Cleveland was named a co-captain and helped the Big Green win back-to-back Ivy League titles. Dartmouth also advanced to the NCAA tournament with Cleveland earning the league’s defensive player of the year award in 2015.
With one year of eligibility remaining, Cleveland signed to play goalkeeper for Louisville as a graduate student and helped an already defensively strong Cardinals team reach the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Louisville lost to eventual champion Stanford.
The mantra of “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready” is a philosophy Cleveland learned as a math and science fanatic at Miami Valley School. He joined a prominent soccer club as a sophomore and was one of four keepers on the team. Suddenly, he wasn’t starting and playing every match.
“That was frustrating,” Cleveland said. “And definitely that first year of college I learned this is a patient position. But it’s one of those positions where if you get called on, you gotta be ready.”
Tom Dutra, the Sounders’ director of goalkeeping, and Frei being highly technically-minded is a reason why Cleveland looked forward to joining the team as a trade acquisition from Chicago in November 2019. Cleveland majored in engineering and will force himself to go on walks around his Green Lake neighborhood to stop himself from overanalyzing situations.
But MLS’s starts and stops in 2020 because of the pandemic was another case of again waiting for chances to play. However, this season Cleveland knew he’d be a starter — for the USL Championship side Tacoma Defiance.
Cleveland was in goal for the Defiance opener and preparing for the May 13 match against Orange County SC at Cheney Stadium. He was watching the Sounders win against San Jose on May 12 when Frei was injured in second-half stoppage time.
The call came shortly after that and Cleveland was pulled from the Defiance lineup. Two days later, Cleveland was told he won the starting position over Spencer Richey.
“It gave me a lot of confidence that I had played a game within the last week or even year, you could say,” Cleveland said. “That feeling of playing a game. The decisions. The timing. It’s way faster in a game and you can’t recreate a lot of those situations in practice. Knowing that I had that game gave me confidence on Sunday against LAFC.”
The victory, the chants, the clean sheet helped that confidence grow.
“Stefan Cleveland did a great job last game, so I’m going to stick with him,” Schmetzer said. “But that’s a fluid situation.”
Cleveland doesn’t expect anything else.