Despite an impressive run to the 2016 MLS Cup final, it seemed unlikely that Seattle Sounders would claim their first title, given that they were up against a Toronto FC side that had scored 17 goals in just five games throughout the play-offs.
However, the man between the sticks, Stefan Frei, would prove to be the Sounders’ knight in shining armour, as his spectacular save denied Toronto striker Jozy Altidore a headed goal that appeared destined for the back of the net, before he put in a match winning performance in the deciding penalty shootout to secure the trophy for his side.
Few would have tipped Frei to walk away with the 2016 MLS Cup MVP award prior to the game. He hadn’t had a bad season – he was one of five keepers to record eight shutouts throughout the campaign, leaving him in joint fourth – but his performances weren’t exactly title winning, either.
Overall, Seattle Sounders conceded 43 goals throughout the regular season. Only Real Salt Lake conceded more out
of the top six sid
es in the Western Conference. However, Frei stepped up his performances going into the play-offs and conceded just three goals in five games to earn Seattle their place in the final.
The Sounders weren’t favours for the title, but they certainly earned it with a brilliant defensive display. The honour was the first MLS Cup victory of Frei’s career and, better yet, it came against a club that had deemed him surplus to requirements just three years earlier.
The Swiss born shot-stopper moved to the United States during his teens and began his soccer career at the University of California, where he was eventually nominated for many youth awards and included in the NSCAA Far West All-Region team while playing for the California Golden Bears.
During his time at college, he was also an active player in the USL Premier Development League, the US’ top amateur league and was recognised as one of the best up-and-coming youth prospects in the States.
After leaving college, Frei was picked in the first round by Toronto FC in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and would make an immediate impact at his new club. His debut came in the club’s first game of the 2009 season, in which Toronto secured a 3-2 victory over Sporting Kansas City, and he soon after replaced veteran shot-stopper Greg Sutton as the club’s first choice goalkeeper.
Frei would have a great few years between the Toronto sticks, winning four consecutive Canadian Championships and emerging as one of the club’s star players. However, soon after the start of the 2012 campaign, it was announced that Frei had suffered a broken fibula which would rule him out for the rest of the year.
Frei returned to the picture in time for the 2013 campaign. However, he now had the emerging Joe Bendik breathing down his neck. An minor, yet devastating injury ahead of the season opener gave Bendik the opportunity to snatch the first choice keeper role from Frei’s grasp, which would eventually lead to Frei’s exit at the end of the season.
Frei had hardly kicked a ball in two years, but Seattle Sounders decided to take a chance with the shot-stopper, who was reaching the age when goalkeepers usually begin to peak. Frei would prove this to be true, making an instant impact, as the club won the 2014 MLS Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup in his first season.
They came agonisingly close to clinching the treble that year, reaching the semi-final stage of the MLS Cup play-offs, only to be dumped out by eventual champions LA Galaxy. However, the MLS Cup wasn’t lost, as 2016 saw Frei add the missing trophy to his MLS collection – and in exceptional fashion, too.