TUKWILA, Wash. – Stefan Frei would like to make one thing perfectly clear before the Seattle Sounders set foot again in Toronto.
He would prefer it if someone else on the Sounders roster becomes the MVP of the MLS Cup final this time.
“I would really prefer it if one of our strikers became MVP this year,” Seattle’s starting goalkeeper said with a chuckle.
Frei will return to the scene of his greatest professional moment Saturday when the Sounders face Toronto in the championship match trying to become the fourth team in MLS history to win consecutive league titles.
A year ago, Frei made one of the most stunning saves in the history of MLS championship matches, changing directions and leaping in desperation to get his left hand on Jozy Altidore’s header in extra time that seemed destined for the top corner of the goal. It was the save Seattle needed to get to penalty kicks, where Frei made another save on Michael Bradley and Roman Torres eventually won the title for the Sounders with his made penalty in the sixth round.
But it’s the save on Altidore that everyone remembers and is certain to be shown repeatedly prior to Saturday’s rematch.
“I’m going to try and do the same thing as last year and at some point really zone out you guys and social media and just focus on the game,” Frei said.
While last year’s game will get a lot of the attention this week, it’s the defensive performance in this year’s playoff run that deserves the focus. Seattle has yet to allow a goal in four postseason games. The Sounders haven’t allowed a goal since a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 1. That’s a span of six full games since a shot got past Frei or backup Tyler Miller. Miller started the first leg of the West finals against Houston while Frei was slowed by a leg injury.
In the postseason, the Sounders have not allowed a goal since the first leg of the 2016 West finals, the longest postseason shutout streak in MLS history.
“It builds confidence throughout the squad when you have someone like Stef in goal,” Seattle forward Will Bruin said. “He’s going to make a big save when needed.”
For Frei, the final in Toronto will be the conclusion of nearly two non-stop seasons of soccer. It started in February 2016 when Seattle opened its training camp. Between the length of last year’s MLS season and being called into the U.S. national team training camp last January, Frei only had a few weeks of rest in between last year’s championship match and the start of preparations for this season.
But this has arguably been his finest season in MLS. Frei led the league with 13 shutouts in the regular season. In a sign of how much Seattle has improved defensively, he was forced to save just 84 shots in the regular season, the fewest of his four seasons with Seattle.
Frei made it a point to appreciate the atmosphere and celebration after Seattle beat Houston to clinch the Western Conference title last week. A year ago, all Seattle celebrations came away from home. When the final whistle blew last Thursday, Frei climbed on the crossbar of his goal in front of Seattle’s most rabid supporters and pumped his fists in celebration. While the championship match will again be in Toronto, at least part of this run was shared with the fans at home.
“It was awesome. I wish I could have given everybody in the stadium a hug,” Frei said. “We were so fortunate to get on that run last year and capture two trophies, but unfortunately both of them were away from home. So this last weekend when we had a chance to win one at home was amazing.”
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