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The secret to Sounders goalkeepers’ success

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Frei might be No. 1, but clean sheets in Seattle are a team effort.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Seattle Sounders FC Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

For a team like the Seattle Sounders, it’s easy to miss much of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Because Frei starts nearly every match in which he’s healthy, most fans don’t get too many glimpses of the backup keepers. Even fewer get to observe Tom Dutra, the Sounders’ “Club Director of Goalkeeping,” conduct a session with the keepers at Starfire.

Frei is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer, but he will be the first to pass credit for success to the crew he works with every single day on the training pitch. His backups for the 2017 season are Tyler Miller, who has been with the team since they selected him in the 2015 SuperDraft, and Bryan Meredith, who is in his second stint with the club.

Miller’s few appearances for the first team have been impressive, as well as his many appearances for S2 over the last couple seasons. Since he’s still fairly young, Dutra said “the most important thing for him is getting games,” even if that’s with S2. He put in a good shift in the Sounders’ friendly against Necaxa a couple weeks ago, and he played a huge part in S2’s win over Timbers 2 last weekend.

Dutra also mentioned the pivotal role that Meredith played in the Sounders’ 2012 season, when he stepped in after a series of injuries and helped the team with a 3-3-5 record with three clean sheets. “[I] keep encouraging them, you never know when your chance is gonna come.”

But even though all three of Seattle’s goalkeepers obviously want to start, Dutra said that the group is tight and constantly supportive of one another. “They all want to be the goalkeeper, the No. 1 guy. But they all know that there is only one guy that can play. So they support everybody.” He said Frei is an excellent role model and mentor, even if he doesn’t really see himself in such a position.

The goalkeeper group is often the last to leave the training pitch at Starfire, something that Dutra said often comes from Frei’s “unbelievable” work ethic. Not only does he want to improve his own play, but he also wants to keep his fellow goalkeepers sharp.

It’s Frei’s work ethic that encourages the others to do the same, something that Dutra said can be very hard for a backup goalkeeper. “It’s not easy, there are some guys who wait four or five years until they play.” It helps that the Sounders have a competitive second team in S2, Dutra said, but “it’s not the same as first team.” Either way, it’s a chance for those guys to log competitive minutes in goal, which keeps them sharper than regular training sessions do.

Frei’s popularity has certainly exploded in Seattle after his epic save and subsequent MVP award in the MLS Cup final, but Dutra has recognized Frei’s quality for years. “I always felt about Stef in 2014, after that Open Cup game here at Starfire against Portland, from then on he really just took off.” Frei made seven saves in that game, a 3-1 extra-time victory that paved the way for the club’s fourth U.S. Open Cup title.

Injuries had kept Frei from regular minutes until that point, when he was able to start playing consistently for the Sounders. It was that consistency, Dutra believes, that helped Frei to become one of the best in the league. “From a goalkeeper perspective, technically he’s gotten cleaner, positionally he’s very good, and in the last year or so, he’s gotten better with his feet as well, making good decisions with his feet.”

Frei is quick to thank Dutra and his fellow goalkeepers often, like he did after being named MLS Cup MVP. “I’ve got to give all the credit to my keeper coach and my fellow keepers. They’ve been working their butts off all year and I think that save is an accumulation of that hard work that we’ve put in as a keeper unit.” It appears humility isn’t in short supply on this crew, though, as Dutra has always brushed away suggestions of his own influence on the result or Frei’s famous save. “I’ve had so many people ask me about that. I always say I’m happy for him first and foremost because he’d had a good game up to that point. When those things happen and a good save happens, that’s all on the team and the goalkeeper.”

The Sounders earned their first clean sheet of 2017 against Atlanta United last weekend with Frei in goal, but his focus is on the next game; to get another shutout and give his attackers a chance to win it at the other end. He and Dutra have identified some areas they want to improve on as the season progresses. Communication was a common thread, especially given the changes that the Sounders’ back line has gone through in just four league matches thus far.

Dutra stressed that the goalkeeper has to really be a “coach on the field” by positioning his defenders, telling them what to do, and enabling them to pass out from the back as effectively as possible. “Make sure you give them good early communication. Make sure you’re clear and decisive.”

Training sessions are especially key for working on communication, Frei said. “It’s difficult in a raucous environment like CenturyLink Field, so it’s communication here on the training field where we can hear each other. We work on transition from offense to defense, defense to offense.” By training together over and over and working on connecting with teammates on a deeper level, the connection and communication becomes “ingrained” in them on the pitch.

As a team that likes to play possession-based soccer, the Sounders often focus on controlled attacking from back to front. Because that starts with the goalkeeper, Dutra said that they train with that philosophy at the forefront of their minds. “Once you kill that play and make that save, let’s go and keep it going, can we play out of the back and get your team to attack as quickly as possible.”

Frei looks at it in terms of “transitions,” and that the goalkeeper and defenders should always be on their toes, waiting to transition in the event of a turnover at the other end of the pitch. “Let the crafty guys up top do their magic and we’ll take all the pride with getting a shutout.”