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Was Stefan Frei’s MLS Cup save ‘perfect’?

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Sounders goalkeeping coach Tommy Dutra thinks it was.

MLS: MLS Cup Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

TUKWILA, Wash. — Tommy Dutra has watched “The Save” countless times. The Seattle Sounders goalkeeping coach makes a living finding faults in otherwise stellar plays. He looks for elements that could be better, a slightly sharper read of the play, a more efficient use of the goalkeeper’s body, better control of the rebound.

Each time he sees Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei reverse direction, leap to his left and paw Jozy Altidore’s header away from the goal, he fails to find any faults.

As the Sounders prepare to play Toronto FC for the first time since that December day nearly five months ago, the emotions have dulled with time. But Dutra — who has coached such legends as Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann during his decade with the Sounders — can only shake his head in amazement.

“It was a perfect save,” Dutra says when asked about what proved to be the pivotal play of the Sounders’ first-ever MLS Cup. “The footwork on that play is something we work on weekly, to see it come out in that moment, that’s what made it so great to me. I didn’t think he was going to get there, but it was a perfect crossover, lateral movement, push off the top leg, go with the big hand.”

It’s tough to find anyone who disagrees with that assessment.

“It’s very close,” Sounders backup goalkeeper Tyler Miller says. “If you break it down from his angle on the cross, to his footwork, to changing directions, to the extension and also that belief of never giving up on a play. That’s part of being a goalkeeper and the crucial parts too. It’s those balls that are just outside your limit and you still try and somehow you get to, those are the incredible saves you see on highlight reels.”

What makes Frei’s save such an interesting case study is how many little things he had to do right in order to make it possible. The play seemed to almost unfold in slow motion, even in real time. Tosaint Ricketts chases down a ball near the endline and lobs in a cross, seemingly more out of an effort to keep it from going out of bounds than with danger in mind. Despite it appearing to be too high, Altidore finds the legs to get up and not only meet the ball, but to put it back on frame.

As the cross comes in, Frei slides over to be in line with Altidore to cut off the angle. But Altidore heads it back against the grain, forcing Frei to reverse his momentum. It’s a looping shot, but placed well enough that the whole stadium figured it was the winner. Frei takes a lateral step to gain his footing, makes two quick crossover steps and then pushes off. Although he’s right handed and will need as much strength as he can muster, Frei goes up with his left hand, reaches back and somehow claws the ball out just as it reaches the goal-line. Just as importantly, he leaves his save to the feet of Roman Torres, who quickly clears it away.

Self critical as he may be, Frei can’t find much to pick apart either.

“As a goalkeeper, you’re always striving for perfection,” Frei says. “Was that save perfection? No, it probably wasn’t, because there is no such thing. But it kept the ball out and that’s the most important thing.

“I think what I take from it is I was really happy with my feet, my footwork. I would have maybe liked to have gotten a stronger push off my left. Some people argue I should have used my right hand; I disagree, actually. Because if you reach with your right arm over your head it’s hard to bend backward and push forward. I think my choice to go with my left, which is actually my preferred hand on that save anyways, probably ended up working out.”

The world is full of goalkeepers who are good “shotstoppers,” guys who rely on their quick reflexes and athletic ability to keep the ball out of the net. But every goalkeeper on virtually every professional roster can do that. What separates those guys from the world’s best is footwork.

Dutra might not find anything to critique on Frei’s save, but it’s still a play he can use as a tutorial.

“With young kids for sure, even with Stef, it shows how important footwork is,” Dutra says. “Even for goalkeeper coaches, this this why you have to build a foundation. The foundation of goalkeeping is good footwork.”

That foundation isn’t built under the bright lights.

“It’s something we work on every week,” Dutra continues. “This Monday and Wednesday were a lot of movement. Some days I’ll just do lateral movement. Some days I’ll do crossover movement. You need both and he used both there.

“It was being in the moment and thousands and thousands of hours coming out on the biggest stage. But it’s a save I’ve seen him make in training.”

Practice does, after all, make perfect.