SEATTLE — Given that he’s missed more than half the season with an injury that led to him going on blood-thinners, it’s perhaps understandable that Stefan Frei’s performance has flown a bit under the radar. But after posting another shutout on Sunday against one of the league’s top teams and making several impressive saves along the way, it’s probably worth taking some extra time to appreciate how well he’s played this year.
Simply put, Frei is in the midst of what could be a historic season.
The top-line numbers are impressive enough. In five of his 10 starts, the Sounders have recorded a shutout (Frei is technically only credited with four shutouts after leaving one game with the aforementioned injury). In each of the other five starts, Frei has only given up one goal for a goals-against average of .50. Of those five goals, two have come off direct free kicks, another came off a pass on a free kick and one was an own goal, meaning that Frei has allowed just one goal scored by an opponent from open play.
If Frei were to maintain this pace over the final seven matches, he would break Kevin Hartman’s 11-year-old record for lowest GAA in a single season and become the first goalkeeper in MLS history to allow fewer than 10 goals while playing at least 1,000 minutes during one season. In 2010, Hartman allowed just 12 goals in 20 games for a GAA of .62. The fewest goals an MLS goalkeeper has allowed while playing at least 1,000 minutes in a season is Brad Guzan, who gave up 10 in 1,260 minutes in 2017.
Given his stout play, it’s probably not all that surprising that the Sounders are 8-1-1 in his 10 starts. His winning percentage of .850 would qualify as the best mark of the post-shootout era among goalkeepers with at least five wins in a season. Matt Reis, who went 7-0-4 (.818) in 2013 currently has that honor.
Frei’s performance against the Rapids was somewhat emblematic of the season he’s currently having. Despite the Rapids generating about 1.1 expected goals, Frei was able to secure his 86th career MLS shutout (tied with Joe Cannon for third all-time). Frei made four saves in the game, including a near point-blank header by Cole Bassett in the 88th minute. (Xavier Arreaga also came up big with a goal-line clearance and a block on a breakaway.)
For the year, only Andre Blake has performed better on a per-90-minute basis against xG than Frei, who is effectively allowing .30 goals fewer per game than the statistics suggest he should be.
While a good deal of the credit for Frei’s performance should probably go to the defense around him — and most of Frei’s starts have also come with a first-choice defense — it’s worth pointing out that he’s outperformed his primary backup considerably. Stefan Cleveland has in some ways been a revelation and should probably be a starting goalkeeper somewhere, but he’s allowed more than twice as many goals per 90 (1.13) and has actually allowed slightly more goals than the stats say he “should” have (+.08).
Frei has also done quite a bit to help those defenders. Only three goalkeepers with at least 10 starts have stopped a higher percentage of attempted crosses than Frei (11.0%). Cleveland has stopped 8.6% which is still very good by MLS standards, but he ranks seven spots behind Frei.
Despite all this, I fully expect Frei to be largely overlooked when it comes to Goalkeeper of the Year voting, just as he usually is. Even if Frei starts the Sounders’ final seven matches, he’ll still have missed half their games. Andre Blake and Matt Turner — the two most likely frontrunners — are not only enjoying very strong seasons of their own, but they’ll also likely end up playing 10 to 12 more games.
Frustrating as that is, Frei hasn’t seemed to pay such individuals honors much mind in the past. He seems more than happy to focus on team achievements ... like the pursuit of a third MLS Cup.