SPORTS

Former Toronto FC goalie Stefan Frei saviours comeback year in Seattle

11/20/2014 04:29 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST
After sitting almost two years in Toronto, Stefan Frei hasn't missed a beat this season in Seattle.

In fact, the 28-year-old goalkeeper didn't miss a single minute during the MLS regular season, playing all 3,060 minutes of the Sounders' 20-10-4 road to the Supporters Shield. He also saw action in the U.S. Open Cup and has played two playoff games with at least two more to come against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference final that starts Sunday in Carson, Calif.

Frei set a league record for the post-shootout era with 20 wins, ranked first in the league with a 59 per cent win percentage and finished third with nine shutouts.

The Swiss-born 'keeper was rewarded for his play Thursday when he was named a finalist for MLS Comeback Player of the Year along with Charlie Davies of the New England Revolution and Rodney Wallace of the Portland Timbers.

It really has been a long ride back for the former Toronto FC vice-captain.

"It's been the longest season for me," Frei said in an interview. "It's a new territory for me, not just getting into the playoffs but also how to cope with it body-wise and then health-wise."

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, a nominee for MLS coach of the year, says Frei has always trained well and taken his craft seriously.

"But when you don't play for that period of time due to injuries and then, obviously, a coach's decision as well, it does impact your confidence a little bit and it takes you a little bit of time for it to come back," he said. "I think as the season's gone on, he's become stronger and stronger, he's become mentally a lot more confident and sure of himself. Right now I think he's in a very good place.

"I always thought he was a talented goalkeeper, from the first time I saw him. And I saw him at a young age. My opinion of that never changed. Goalkeepers get better with age. They're not like regular field players. Their life expectancy is a little bit longer and I think their peak years are when they're a little bit older.

"So we were excited to get him because I felt we got him at a good age and I'm happy for him how the season's turned out so far."

Frei says knowing his new teammates and coaches "had my back" despite some early mistakes helped him regain his confidence after the Toronto layoff.

Having veteran Marcus Hahnemann as a teammate helps. The 42-year-old former American international made 300 appearances in 13 years in England for Fullham, Reading, and Wolverhampton and was a member of the U.S. World Cup squads in 2006 and 2010.

Add in 27-year-old 'keeper Josh Ford and you have what Frei calls a "competitive but good environment."

Seattle acquired Frei last December for a 2015 first-round MLS SuperDraft pick. Toronto subsequently flipped the pick to FC Dallas as part of the trade that brought Brazilian midfielder Jackson north of the border.

Compared to his days at Toronto FC, Frei has packed a lot into his 20-win Seattle season.

As a starter in Toronto, the former club vice-captain played 81 league games from 2009 to 2011, a stretch that saw the club win just 25 games in total. And Frei has made the post-season ahead of the Toronto franchise.

Frei has worked hard for his success. And he deserves it after miserable 2012 and 2013 seasons.

It started when he fell awkwardly in training in March 2012, breaking his left fibula near the knee and rupturing a ligament near his ankle. That combination put pressure on the tibia, which separated slightly from the fibula near the ankle.

Frei missed the entire season after undergoing surgery to repair the ligament and insert two screws to tighten the two bones.

After a lengthy rehab that left his body rippling with muscle, Frei welcomed 2013 with a heartfelt tweet.

"And it is finally here... I have been waiting for 2013 since last March. It's going to be a good year.''

Instead, he came out for a 50-50 ball in the first pre-season game in Florida and broke his nose when he ran into the boot of Columbus forward Ryan Finley. Frei underwent surgery before returning to practice with a plastic mask.

By the time he was healthy again, backup Joe Bendik had taken over in goal.

Frei saw action in two Amway Canadian Championship games, suffering through a 6-0 loss in Montreal.

"I could not make a save to save my life today," a dejected Frei said after the game.

Frei played in place of the suspended Bendik in Toronto's penultimate league game of the 2013 season. The 1-0 loss was his first MLS start since Sept. 24, 2011.

Frei never complained out loud. Instead he mostly kept his thoughts to himself.

In a rare interview ahead of the Chicago game, he chose his words carefully when asked if it was fair how he lost his starting job with TFC. But it was clear he didn't like it.

"That's a question you're going to have to ask the head coach," he said. "He (Ryan Nelsen) was the one that made that decision.

"I tried to stay professional, tried to work my butt off in training. That was pretty much all I could do. And that's all I'm going to say to that.''

In Seattle, Frei has had more enjoyable problems. Like getting used to playing before a league-leading average crowd of 53,734 at CenturyLink Field.

"It's awesome," he said, while noting the roar sometimes makes communicating with teammates difficult.

Frei still keeps in contact with some of his former Toronto teammates and plans to return with wife Jennifer, a native of Ottawa whom he met in Toronto, over the winter break.

"I'm still very fond of the city," he said.

But Frei and his wife, who just celebrated their first wedding anniversary, have taken to the Pacific Northwest. They live in downtown Seattle and are enjoying the local restaurant scene.

"People are extremely friendly as well," he said. "Its a beautiful city."

An avid artist during his time in Toronto, Frei says he has been relaxing more these days in front of a video game console. He and some teammates took in the launch party of "Destiny" made by nearby Bungie Studio. More recently he has been playing "Assassin's Creed Unity."

Frei was 15 when he left Switzerland with his family after his father was offered a job in the San Francisco area. He went on play for the University of California before being drafted by Toronto.

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