TORONTO — Here’s one great thing about sports—and, especially, about soccer. You can slog through a night of mostly nothing, of missed chances and utterly unmemorable exchanges, and then out of nowhere comes a moment so transcendent that you know it’ll be seared into your cortex for as long as you roam this earth.
That’s what happened on Saturday here in the 2016 MLS Cup final. Seattle and Toronto played a tense but unfulfilling game, the kind where even neutrals shake their heads and wonder when it’s going to get good. At one point toward the end of regulation, before the penalty kicks, Seattle star Clint Dempsey (out due to a heart condition) informed coach Brian Schmetzer on the bench that the Sounders didn’t have a single shot on goal.
He was right. It was a record low for an MLS final.
But then in extra time of a 0-0 game, something truly magical happened, the kind of moment that can redeem an otherwise stultifying night. Toronto’s Jozy Altidore received a cross and unspooled a looping header back across the Seattle goal. It looked certain to be the goal that would put Toronto ahead in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 36,000 mostly TFC fans.
So did the feet of Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. He had already moved from the near-post to the center of the goal with the flight of the cross, and now Altidore, who had scored in a record five straight playoff games, was heading the ball back across the area from where he had just come.
If you stop the video and look at the expression on Frei’s face, there’s a moment when something fires in his brain and you can see a look of engagement take hold. It’s a completely different expression than the one Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had recently when teammate Gary Cahill sent an own-goal looping past him. Courtois’s gaze was one of despair. Frei’s was one of possibility.
As the ball that would determine the fate of the 21st MLS Cup final hung in the air, Frei exploded back to his left, took leave of his feet and stretched with the grace and determination of a soccer Nureyev. Somehow he thrust his left hand behind him and to the ball, parrying it wide of the goal.
“Well done by Jozy trying to go against the side where I’m coming from—it’s probably exactly how you want to hit that one,” Frei said. “Sometimes as a goalkeeper you feel like you’re not going to get to a ball, but you never know until you try. I tried to keep my feet moving and give it my best shot.”
From his vantage point on the sideline, Toronto coach Greg Vanney saw Altidore hit the ball and thought it was heading for the back of the goal.
“I thought the ball had eyes for that corner it was heading toward,” Vanney said, “and I thought [Frei] was maybe caught a little bit in the middle of the goal and wasn’t going to get there.
“But just because it was kind of looping and it didn’t have a lot of gas behind it, it just gave him enough time to set his feet and get back across the goal. It seemed like he almost pulled it out from behind him in some ways. It was one of the great saves I’ve seen in a big moment. Because that goal to me ends the game.”
MLS Cup Winners Through The Years
1996 — D.C. United
1996 — D.C. United (beat LA Galaxy 3-2 in extra time)
1997 — D.C. United
1997 — D.C. United (beat Colorado Rapids 2-1)
1998 — Chicago Fire
1998 — Chicago Fire (beat D.C. United 2-0)
1999 — D.C. United
1999 — D.C. United (beat LA Galaxy 2-0)
2000 — Kansas City Wizards
2000 — Kansas City Wizards (beat Chicago Fire 1-0)
2001 — San Jose Earthquakes
2001 — San Jose Earthquakes (beat LA Galaxy 2-1 in extra time)
2002 — LA Galaxy
2002 — LA Galaxy (beat New England Revolution 1-0 in extra time)
2003 — San Jose Earthquakes
2003 — San Jose Earthquakes (beat Chicago Fire 4-2)
2004 — D.C. United
2004 — D.C. United (beat Kansas City Wizards 3-2)
2005 — Los Angeles Galaxy
2005 — Los Angeles Galaxy (beat New England Revolution 1-0 in extra time)
2006 — Houston Dynamo
2006 — Houston Dynamo (beat New England Revolution in penalty kicks after 1-1 draw)
2007 — Houston Dynamo
2007 — Houston Dynamo (beat New England Revolution 2-1)
2008 — Columbus Crew
2008 — Columbus Crew (beat New York Red Bulls 3-1)
2009 — Real Salt Lake
2009 — Real Salt Lake (beat LA Galaxy in penalty kicks after 1-1 draw)
2010 — Colorado Rapids
2010 — Colorado Rapids (beat FC Dallas 2-1 in extra time)
2011 — LA Galaxy
2011 — LA Galaxy (beat Houston Dynamo 1-0)
2012 — LA Galaxy
2012 — LA Galaxy (beat Houston Dynamo 3-1)
2013 — Sporting Kansas City
2013 — Sporting Kansas City (beat Real Salt Lake in penalty kicks after 1-1 draw)
2014 — LA Galaxy
2014 — LA Galaxy (beat New England Revolution 2-1 in extra time)
2015 – Portland Timbers
2015 – Portland Timbers (beat Columbus Crew SC 2-1)
2016 – Seattle Sounders
2016 – Seattle Sounders (beat Toronto FC in penalty kicks after 0-0 draw)
2017 – Toronto FC
2017 – Toronto FC (beat Seattle Sounders 2-0)
2018 - Atlanta United
2018 - Atlanta United (beat Portland Timbers 2-0)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris was nearly speechless about it afterward. “An unbelievable save,” he said.
How often does Frei find himself reaching behind himself to make a save?
“Usually something will have broken down for you to do that,” he explained. “But sometimes it’s just ‘throw technique out the window’ and just try to make the save.”
Frei would use his same left paw to make a save on Michael Bradley’s attempt in the penalty-kick shootout, the one that finished in the sixth round with Justin Morrow’s kick off the crossbar and Román Torres’s confident trophy-winning clincher for Seattle.
And so the Sounders won a final without having a single shot on goal. But that hardly means they didn’t earn it. Frei allowed this to happen with that save in extra time. And to hear him tell it, that defining moment came down not just to a man straining to make the save. It came down to all the practices and all the games since Frei came to Seattle, after two years of injuries and coaches’ choices had led Toronto, of all teams, to trade him away three years to the day before Saturday’s final.
Frei thanked not just his goalkeepers coach, Tom Dutra, but also his Seattle goalkeeper backups, Charlie Lyon and Tyler Miller, and the Seattle organization for “their simple belief in me to give me a chance in Seattle. At that point I had been on the bench or rehabbing for two years. So for them to take a chance and then go through growing pains but keep on reassuring me that ‘you’re the man, we’ve got your back, we believe in you,’ it allowed my confidence to come back.”
“You need people around you to believe in you so that you believe in yourself.”
That belief paid off in extra time here, when Frei made the greatest high-stakes save in MLS history.