Stefan Frei rebuilt his career in Seattle after it fell to pieces in Toronto
The last thing Stefan Frei needed heading into MLS Cup was another distraction. The Sounders goalkeeper had spent much of the preceding two weeks shielding his eyes from a blinding media glare. The lead-in to the title match provides excess time to fill with pregame hype, and Frei's return to Toronto's BMO Field, where he spent the first five seasons of his career, was an obvious storyline.
The stakes of the match itself were high enough before you even began to unpack his emotional baggage. Frei was returning to the city where he met his wife, where he began his professional career and where he once feared it might end, a place where he still has an apartment and friends.
So no, Frei was not prepared to deal with his panicky mother, Marlies, that morning. She was stuck at San Francisco International Airport being prevented from boarding her flight to Toronto because as a Swiss citizen, she'd forgotten to file for the correct visa in time. She called both of her sons in a huff.
"She was pretty angry," Frei says, smiling at the memory now. "Mom can get a little crazy." You deal with it, he told his older brother, Michael, before rolling back over in bed at the team hotel. I've got a game in a few hours.
Ahead of Saturday afternoon's MLS Cup rematch at CenturyLink Field, Frei's performance that night in Toronto has only grown more impressive in retrospect. He left the stadium around 2 a.m. that night with the Most Valuable Player award in tow but the day of the championship game was filled with negative omens almost from the moment he picked up his phone that morning.
The official temperature at kickoff that night in Toronto was 28 degrees, but that number hardly captures just how frigid it felt for those on the field and in attendance. BMO Field sits along the shores of Lake Ontario; the wind whipped in off the water in chilly sweeps.
It was so cold that despite protests from the players and in accordance with league rules, when BMO's groundskeepers watered the pitch prior to warm-ups, it immediately froze. The ball picked up ice off the surface as it rolled, giving Frei the impression that he was getting peppered by massive snowballs.
"His warm-up was terrible," said Seattle goalkeeping coach Tom Dutra, who tried to keep his mounting sense of panic from his players. "His looking at his gloves, and I don't even know what to say to him. 'Just stay with it. Stay with it.'" One piece of advice stuck with Frei: Dutra told him to rub his gloves on the gristle of his beard to wipe off the ice. You'll notice this if you run back the replay of the game, Frei desperately raking his cheeks and jaw line during stoppages in play.
It was also during warm-ups that Frei caught wind of the taunts coming out of the beer garden. Though they do their best not to show any emotion, goalkeepers can hear precisely what you're yelling at them from behind the net. At first he was slightly taken aback by the barbs. Hadn't he given his all for TFC for the better part of a half-decade? Then he turned around and stole a look.
"They were all really young fans," Frei said. "It made me feel disconnected, which was a good thing. This is a new generation. They're just fans, and I'm just the away goalkeeper.
"They were trying to dig stuff up -- 'I know where your wife Jennifer lives' and stuff like that -- but it almost made me feel good. Feelings would have been stranger if someone behind the goal had been yelling, 'Stefan, we miss you. You're still the best.'" He certainly was that night in Ontario. His performance was, at least in part, a tribute to the Sounders' coaching staff that pieced back together his shattered confidence after acquiring him in a trade in late 2013.
Though Frei had some good times in Toronto as well, two straight seasons limited by injury and inconsistent playing time took their toll. It was a mark of just how far his stock had fallen within MLS that he was dealt for a mere conditional draft pick. Frei credits Seattle with saving his career when it easily could have gone the other way. There were some hiccups early on, but Dutra and longtime Sounders coach Sigi Schmid stuck with him. Following a particularly glaring error at Vancouver midway through that first season, Frei is certain he's pushed that patience to the breaking point.
"'Don't sweat it. We've got you,'" Frei says Schmid told them at film study the following Monday. "I remember driving home from that meeting and having the biggest smile on my face. And then I'd show up the next day for work all excited and that's how I improved, from the inside."
He carried all of that with him into the biggest game of his career inside a stadium he knows a little too well. But while all of those forces could have just as easily broken his concentration, they instead raised his game to another level.
Frei's night will be remembered in Sounders lore for his acrobatic, one-handed save of Jozy Altidore's goal-bound header in the 108th minute of a scoreless game, and with good reason: it was a truly transcendent stop. But he was locked in from the opening minute. He'd denied a pouncing Altidore in the final minute of stoppage time, too, and dragged a team that didn't register a single shot on its goal into the shootout that would clinch its first-ever MLS Cup triumph.
"I knew he had that ability," Dutra said. "Whether he could control the emotions -- that, I didn't know. I just didn't know. I knew everything else was going to be fine but I wasn't sure emotionally how everything was going to affect him.
"I knew he had the ability to have that kind of game. Everybody wants to talk about the save but really, he was good the entire game."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.