Perhaps it wasn’t a huge surprise to Seattle Sounders fans when goalkeeper Stefan Frei was called up to the US national team for the first time this month. Fans in Seattle have known about Frei’s quality for the past couple seasons, but the former Swiss youth international really came onto the international radar after his stunning performance in the MLS Cup final. Unfortunately for all, Frei’s big opportunity was cut short after an ankle injury sent him back to Seattle after just a handful of USMNT training sessions.
As of the team’s first training session on Tuesday, Frei is set to be out for much of preseason—if not the first part of the MLS season. Seattle General Manager Garth Lagerwey said that Frei is “gonna be out for awhile,” though he will make the preseason trips to Tucson and Charleston with the rest of the squad. Lagerwey said that Frei is “a ways away, multiple weeks away” from a return to action. But even if Frei does heal quickly, Lagerwey said that the team is going to be overly cautious with the goalkeeper. “What we have to be mindful of, we just played a nearly 11-month season, and with some of these veteran guys that played a lot of games, to some degree there is no reason to rush them back.” The team is very keen on young goalkeeper Tyler Miller, and seems to have full confidence in him for both preseason and the early part of the MLS season if necessary.
As for Frei, he’s optimistic about making a timely return to the squad. “I don’t try to dwell on the past, I’m very happy it’s nothing serious,” he said. Frei also noted that it was kind of the best time to deal with a minor injury like that, if you have to—there’s no pressure to play or heal quickly, and he’s surrounded by the club’s medical staff. The injury itself was due to the turf that the national team trained on in LA after rain kept them off the normal training pitch. Frei said that he was in a normal 1v1 situation and as he moved his right leg to make a save, “my leg just got caught and it wasn’t going anywhere so I just kind of folded over the ankle and injured the ligament there a little bit.”
Despite the disappointment of having to leave his first national team camp so abruptly, Frei said that he’s genuinely happy to have just made it there—and hopes to get called up again as soon as he can. Rather than think of it as some sort of reward, Frei sees playing for the national team as an honor and another opportunity to show what he can do. “It’s not just a reward for doing well for your club, it’s an honor and you should almost look at it as not a burden, but an opportunity to use that skill that you show with your club and further the national team.” Frei is also finally closing in on the path to citizenship, though he admits that it could still be awhile until it’s resolved. As for now, “I just try to focus on what I can, to stay healthy, perform well, and hopefully get another call-up.”
Not to define his career by a single moment, but it was Frei’s save against Jozy Altidore’s header in the MLS Cup final that really put him in the spotlight. He said that he thinks about the moment often: “I felt like I couldn’t give up on that play. We had come so far, it was such a tumultuous season, such a rollercoaster, I needed to just see if I could get to that ball.” But that save still made him an instant legend in Seattle, and Frei said that he has enjoyed some increased recognition around town—even to some strange extremes: “I get a bit more recognition, but people are still very friendly. I’ve had the occasional awkward kiss on the hand where I have my star (tattoo).” But Frei’s humility still gets in the way of braggadocio, as he chooses to focus on what it meant for the team, that his save allowed them to make it to the penalty shootout that they subsequently won. His focus is on the history that the team made, and seems happy to have simply played a role in making that history. But now, Frei says, it’s onto 2017: “hopefully we can get another one and keep building history.”