TUKWILA — Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei is a pretty talented artist, at least that’s the word according to Chad Barrett, Frei’s teammate in Toronto and now Seattle.
Frei downplays his talents, saying he just likes to draw a little bit on the side to relax. And if art is Frei’s outlet to relax, it’s no surprise that, to take Barrett’s word for it, he left some impressive pieces of art behind in Toronto. After all, Frei’s five-year career in Toronto certainly came with its share of ups and down.
As a promising rookie, the Swiss goalkeeper won Toronto’s starting job in 2009 and seemed destined for a bright career. He even spent part of one offseason training with English Premier League giant Liverpool. Then after being a starter in his first three seasons, Frei found himself in a battle for the job in 2012. That battle didn’t last long, because Frei broke his leg in an early-season training session, ending his season before it ever got going.
It looked like Frei might win his starting job back last season, but he broke his nose during preseason, and once his backup Joe Bendik took over, Frei never got a chance to regain his job.
Now, after so much promise followed by two years of disappointment, Frei finds himself starting for the Sounders, one of the league’s most successful teams, after five years with a team that never made the playoffs. And wouldn’t you know it, in just his second start with Seattle, Frei will face his former team.
Frei says there is no animosity towards Toronto for how things worked out there. It is, he notes, where he got his professional start, as well as where he met his wife. However, he admits the past two years weren’t the easiest.
“I put in so much hard work to get back from my (leg) injury, then when I broke my nose the following year. I felt robbed of all my hard work,” Frei said after earning a shutout in his first game as a Sounder. “I thought it would pay off and I’d reap the benefits of all that hard work, but I couldn’t. I had to put in one more year of hard work on top of that, and now everything is coming together.
“I’m really excited about the situation I’m in, the team I’m part of here, the fans, the city, it’s just an awesome opportunity for me.”
Despite two tough years with his former team, Frei never doubted he’d get another chance to shine in this league. Rather than worry about his situation in Toronto, Frei kept working, and yes, drawing, knowing another opportunity would come. In his mind, the reward was a step up to one of the league’s top organizations.
“I believe if you keep your head down and keep working hard, then at some point it will go your way,” he said. “I thought it was going to happen earlier … Instead of moping, that was in the past, I couldn’t do anything about it. The only thing I could control was keeping my head down and working hard, and sure enough, an even better opportunity came my way.”
The opportunity to start in Seattle was hardly a given after the Sounders acquired Frei in a trade, however. Seattle had moved on from Michael Gspurning, so the job was open, but veteran Marcus Hahnemann was also in the running after finishing last season by pushing Gspurning for the job.
Frei’s youth and early-career success seemed to make him the front-runner over the 41-year-old Hahnemann, but Sounders coach Sigi Schmid refused to name a starter prior to last week’s opener. The Sounders had seen enough of Frei in his first few seasons to know he was talented. What they couldn’t know until he trained with them and played in preseason games was how his game might have been affected by a serious injury and two years with little game action.
Getting back up to game speed after a long layoff is “very difficult,” goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra said.
“Some goalkeepers can do it better than others,” Dutra explained. “That’s what we didn’t know about Stef, could he go a long stretch and not play, and he was able to come in and really play well and be comfortable. And some goalkeepers can’t do that, it’s very difficult for most.
The Sounders’ concern faded quickly when Frei hit the field with is new team.
“It was more a concern with his timing of reading balls, reading crosses, and just the pace of the game,” Dutra said. “Once I saw in the preseason how comfortable he was coming for crosses, reading through balls, I felt very good about it after I saw him do some things in games early on.”
So after a tough two years, Frei is with a new team but in the old role he felt he should have always had, that of starting goalkeeper. But just because things are going well for Frei, don’t expect him to give up his favorite stress-relieving hobby.
“As a goalkeeper you’re constantly under pressure — one little slipup and the team pays for it,” he said. “As an artist, sometimes a slip-up can lead to something creative you weren’t even thinking of. So it’s a really nice change to get my mind off of things sometimes.”
If Frei can stay healthy and keep the slip-ups to the canvas, his future in Seattle could be as bright as it looked when he was a promising rookie in Toronto.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.