In the chaotic moments immediately following Stefan Frei’s injury, Brian Schmetzer called Cristian Roldan over to the sideline for a conversation. The Seattle Sounders head coach would not divulge exactly what was said, but he did confirm that he discussed what to do about replacing his injured goalkeeper.
The Sounders had one remaining substitute but not any remaining windows with which to use it. That meant a field player who was already in the game would need to throw on the brightly colored goalkeeper jersey, strap on the over-sized gloves and man the goal for the remainder of the match. It’s a scenario that has only happened 12 times in MLS history and never before involving the Sounders.
Schmetzer first considered putting Cristian in goal, but Roldan was able to convince his coach that he might be better left in the midfield. The Sounders would need to relieve pressure whenever possible and Roldan made the case that replacing him there would be more difficult.
“You just figure out who can do the job, who has good hands, who might have played basketball,” Schmetzer explained afterward. “You just figure it out. You have to make sure not to gut the team.”
Absent any obvious candidates, Cristian put forth the name of the player he most trusts: his younger brother Alex.
“Cristian just threw my name out there and basically told him that it would be better if I could go in there and he stayed in the midfield,” Alex said. “That decision came between them two and I was willing to take up the challenge.”
The decision had a hint of big-brother, playground dynamic, but it also made sense. Alex is roundly considered a very good athlete, a hard-nosed player whose working-class ethic is what allowed him to overcome being cut following the 2019 season and regaining his spot through trial while playing a new position last year. Even if he’d never played goalkeeper before — aside from, perhaps, as a youth — Alex was one player who wouldn’t shy away from contact and would be willing to put his body on the line.
His willingness to do just that was put to the test immediately. Referee Baldomero Toledo had immediately blown play dead when Frei went down, meaning the San Jose Earthquakes would be allowed to play a drop-ball from the same spot. Cristian Espinoza whipped in a cross right at the top of the six-yard box, a dangerous area even for a seasoned goalkeeper to defend. Carlos Fierro hit a glancing header that was headed for goal. But Roldan tracked it well, blocked it somewhat awkwardly and was then plowed into by Jackson Yueill before the ball was cleared to safety.
Over the course of the next three minutes, Alex was forced to make two more plays. Once he handled a shot from distance and the other was a cross he handled easily. The official records credit him with three saves.
Talking to the press after the game, Alex treated the entire situation rather matter-of-factly.
“It’s just something you step up and do if your name is picked, and you’re called upon to do a job,” he said. “Fortunately, mine was called there. That’s one thing about me, I always have confidence in what I do. The coaching staff and my brother put confidence in me to step in. Luckily we were able to come up with the win — that’s the best part.”
The 1-0 win moved the Sounders to a franchise-best 4-0-1 start and kept them atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. That it came against a full-strength opponent who was just a point behind in the standings when the Sounders were heavily rotating their lineup, trying a new formation, then forced to deal with the loss of two players to potentially serious injuries — Jordy Delem also suffered what looked like a knee injury in the 4th minute — and finished with Roldan in goal only served to highlight what has made this team so tough to beat during the Schmetzer era.
“MLS is a hard league, but the team is going to continue,” Schmetzer said. “You saw the spirit of the team in that game and the spirit and the energy guys put into it after Delem’s injury.
“You see the fight as the game was winding down. You see Alex being brave and making plays and the team rallying around Stef. This team is not done. We’ll get the next man up and we’ll keep moving and we’ll keep fighting.”
Frei’s injury is obviously a blow. Since joining the Sounders ahead of the 2014 season, he’s missed just eight games and now has to be considered one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history. Just in this game, he was called upon to make several key saves and the punch he made on his final play may have saved a goal as well.
It would be normal for players to feel a bit of self-pity, as they watched such a promising start to the season potentially get undermined by things entirely out of their control.
Schmetzer, for one, is intent on not letting that happen.
“A lot of people have written this team off,” he said. “Some people don’t think this team is good enough to win a championship, I disagree completely. We’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep fighting. If this game is any indication of how proud those guys are, I think we have a good chance.”