SEATTLE – Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei seems increasingly aware his shelf life in the game has some limits.
With his team embarking on a critical three-game stretch against beatable opponents, Frei on Friday shared some thoughts about poor regular season starts, the league’s continued dictating of salary structure and the need of more senior players to capitalize on the here and now. And while some connections between those themes may be looser than others, they all center around a desire to seize on opportunity.
“I think we have plenty of more senior players that realize we can’t be throwing away seasons,” Frei, 32, said of the Sounders, who play the Chicago Fire on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field and badly need victories to position for a run at the playoffs. “I’m getting to an age where some of the players that are my age are thinking about retirement. So, wasting seasons is not an option. You’re just throwing it away is what you’re doing.
“So, you try to approach every game and every training with the utmost respect to try to get better and try to win everything you can. Because who knows when it will be done?”
The two-time defending MLS Cup finalist Sounders are clearly nearing a crossroads with their thirtysomething-age core from their 2016 championship season that includes Frei, Clint Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall. At just 3-8-2 to start the season – and with Liga MX striker Raul Ruidiaz and other reinforcements expected later this summer – not every veteran with the team now will be around next year.
Frei is one veteran the Sounders hope to build a future around and tried to reward last season with a multi-year, targeted allocation money (TAM) level contract after his MVP showing in the 2016 MLS Cup final. But a report earlier this month stated that Major League Soccer nixed the Frei deal and a similar one for since-departed left back Joevin Jones.
A source has confirmed that to be accurate, as did Frei in general terms on Friday when asked about it during a media scrum. Frei termed the league’s move as “frustrating” given he and the Sounders are on good terms and wanted a deal done.
“It’s not the first contract where the league seems to have something to say where agents and teams have already agreed upon stuff,” Frei said, adding he hoped future collective bargaining agreement negotiations will center around the league relinquishing some power over salaries.
“Obviously, the league is unwilling to do that because power is more important than money,” he said. “And as long as they have all of the special categories – whether it be TAM and DP and whatever – they’re all structured to give them the power and to tell people how to use their money.”
MLS has long acted as a single entity business where individual team owners are investors in the league itself. Contracts are between players and the league – not the individual teams – and require MLS approval.
The league has authorized increased use of TAM level funds in order to lure foreign players from overseas. But it has been less inclined to approve such money to keep players here when – as with Frei – they appear unlikely to leave MLS.
“I think we’re past that where maybe they should relinquish that little bit of power and trust in the teams,” Frei said.
For Frei, the league’s rejection came at a point when he was playing the best soccer of his career; becoming an all-star last season and a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year.
Now, with an injury-depleted team in front of him and the shutouts not as frequent, there’s no telling whether Frei will ever see such an offer again.
As for his team, this crucial stretch against Chicago, Portland and a dismal Colorado team could be the final chance to pile up points for a while. After that, the Sounders face huge road challenges at New England and Atlanta before Ruidiaz and some other potential additions could start arriving.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said the messaging to his team will be to “get after it” against a Chicago side coming off a huge U.S. Open Cup win at Atlanta midweek. The Sounders will still be missing right back Kelvin Leerdam to a hamstring injury and World Cup players Torres and Gustav Svensson but are otherwise fairly healthy.
“Hopefully, we can score a few goals at home,” Schmetzer said.
At just 11 points, the Sounders need to pick up some victories as well. While they’ve made very strong second-half runs the past two years, even replicating those this time might not be enough if they can’t gain ground in coming weeks.
Frei has been sounding that alarm for a while. He knows that, as good as the team’s finishes were the past two years, it can’t become a fallback.
“We’ve done it before, but that being said, we weren’t relying on it this year,” Frei said. “It’d be silly to go into the season saying ‘You know what? Screw the first half of the season. We’ll be fine, given what we do in the second part of the season.’
“I think it’s nice to know that we’ve been in dark holes before and have found our way out. But with that being said, we tried everything we could to not find ourselves in this position again. Yet, here we are. And it’s not pretty. It’s not fun.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.