Amid the drudgery, however, came a moment of magic, one that Emerald City supporters will replay in their minds and mobile devices forever and that connoisseurs of fine goalkeeping will cherish. Heck, anyone with an appreciation for athletic achievement will marvel at Stefan Frei’s deed.
The scene unfolded in the 18th minute of extra time, and although Seattle’s triumph wouldn’t take hold until deeper into the frosty night at Toronto’s BMO Field, Frei’s save on Jozy Altidore’s header will stand as the pivotal point.
Frei, a former Toronto starter, was protecting his near post. Tosaint Ricketts dodged a challenge and crossed from the end line, forcing Frei to slide to his right and protect the center of the net. Altidore charged unmarked into the heart of the penalty area, leaping in stride to direct a looping header toward the upper opening that Frei had just vacated. “The ball,” Toronto Coach Greg Vanney said, “had eyes for that corner.”
Frei redistributed his weight and changed direction. But he couldn’t possibly get there in time — could he?
“Sometimes you feel like you’re not going to get to a ball,” Frei said, “but you never know until you try.”
In that desperate moment, Frei first had to set his feet. Without doing so, he wouldn’t be able to launch himself. He powered off his left foot and fully extended his left arm.
With the ball dipping, he reached back with his gloved left hand.
“All of a sudden,” Sounders Coach Brian Schmetzer said, “here comes this paw.”
Watching the flight of the ball, Altidore hopped in anticipation of an icebreaking goal.
Frei, though, slapped it to teammate Roman Torres, who volleyed the ball clear of danger. “No way he should have gotten there,” Sounders defender Chad Marshall told the Seattle Times.
Altidore reached for the back of his head with both hands, flabbergasted by the goal denial. “Hell of a save,” the U.S. national team striker said.
Without a goal in regulation or extra time, Frei and Toronto counterpart Clint Irwin stepped into the penalty-kick spotlight. Frei made a routine save on Michael Bradley’s uninspiring attempt in the second round. Irwin thwarted Alvaro Fernandez’s try in the third.
In the sixth stage, Toronto’s Justin Morrow hit the crossbar, and Torres ended it with a quickly taken shot, deflating the red-clad masses huddled at the lakeside venue. Frei was then voted the match MVP.
The match capped a remarkable turnaround by the Sounders, who by midseason had lost U.S. World Cup star Clint Dempsey to heart irregularities and fired the only coach in their eight-year history, Sigi Schmid.
With an interim title, Schmetzer, previously Schmid’s top assistant, steered Seattle to the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. The club would later reward him with the permanent role.
The outcome will keep the cup in the Pacific Northwest, where the league enjoys its most feverish support. Seattle’s I-5 rivals, the Portland Timbers, won the title last year.
And with bragging rights shifting north, the decibel level of the annual Cascadia Cup (which also involves the Vancouver Whitecaps) will soar — thanks in large part to Frei’s extra-time gem. That save, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer would later tell the MLS website, was “something from the heavens.”