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Stefan Frei’s patience might land him on the USMNT

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The Swiss keeper’s career has been a long and strange one, with little fanfare outside of his own MLS markets. But standout seasons with a better team and a singular save on MLS’s biggest stage have him primed for a January Camp invitation.

2016 MLS Cup - Seattle Sounders v Toronto FC Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

You know who Stefan Frei is. Of course you do by now. Who hasn’t seen this highlight?

This should’ve been Toronto’s moment. Years and years of mediocrity vanished this playoff season. Jozy Altidore looked like a rhinoceros against opposing defenses, battering in goals and assists at an incredible rate to push TFC to a home final, and then spent 120 minutes knocking on Seattle’s door virtually unanswered at the other end of the field. When Tosaint Ricketts floated a softball cross into a streaking Altidore, he reared his head back and put in a perfect header, floating it back across a shifting Stefan Frei’s body and looping into the near post upper corner. It was most likely the only place he could’ve put it in order to score given the lack of pace on the cross, and it looked for all the world like he had done it again, for the sixth time this playoff season. Jozy Altidore had won it for Toronto.

Stefan Frei had other ideas.

But past the save, the physics-bending paw reaching back to the goal line and snatching Toronto’s championship away, Frei also completed a journey 15 years in the making. He shone brightest in the MLS Cup final, on the ground where so many in attendance hoped he would bring glory just years before.

Stefan Frei had just managed to break into the Swiss international ranks at the U-15 level when his family moved to California. It’s impossible to say just how that move ultimately affected his career, but given the general patterns of development in the U.S. and the lack of notoriety its scouting system has on the world stage, it’s simple to assume Frei experienced a delayed and slow professional progression as a player. He did shine at the NCAA level with Cal, and when he made his professional debut at the age of 22 with Toronto FC, a still-new club themselves, hope for Frei’s development remained high, albeit mostly in Toronto where he played. That hope was justified: Frei soon established himself as one of the top young keepers in MLS. Unfortunately for him, Toronto FC was an awful team mired in coaching change after coaching change and no appearances in the playoffs during his tenure there. After 4 official head coaches over the course of 5 seasons, with another interim coach thrown in, and an injury-riddled stretch from 2012-2013, Frei lost his starting spot in Toronto and was traded to the Seattle Sounders.

Seattle’s title ambitions have never been a secret. The club with the biggest regular attendance in the league had managed to win the U.S. Open Cup, but MLS’s biggest price still eluded them (at the time) even as they brought in more and more expensive designated players. Frei’s acquisition was seen as a minor upgrade compared to signing players like Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins to big contracts. A lesser player may well have faded into MLS obscurity at that moment, having fallen from a pivotal team member in an exciting young club to trade bait. But Frei bided his time and entrenched himself in the Pacific Northwest as a premier shot-stopper, continuing to improve his game and leaving the injury bug behind him in Toronto. All it took to finally propel him to the next level was a couple of good-to-great seasons, a near-perfect final game, and a rumor of citizenship.

Goalkeepers are not afforded much in the way of memorable moments outside of their saves. Messi, Ronaldo, or Neymar may have every shot, free kick, dribble, or pass anthologized into a million highlight videos, but if a Keeper cannot stop a shot, there’s no chance of him being noticed for his excellent ability to catch crosses. There’s more to being a keeper than making a save, but sometimes there isn’t anything else that matters, either. Frei put his body on the line in that final to keep Seattle alive, going toe-to-toe with Jozy Altidore (with the help of some large friends like Chad Marshall and Roman Torres), making a save on Michael Bradley’s penalty in the shootout, and guessing correctly on just about every penalty taken against him as well. But his save on Altidore will always be his moment, back in Toronto once more, where he stood taller than anyone else on the field.

So, at thirty years old, Stefan Frei stands a chance at getting invited to Bruce Arena’s January camp. It’s a perfect storm for him, really. For the first time in modern memory, the U.S. is without a clear-cut #1 goalkeeper. Tim Howard had an excellent MLS season, but his injury against Mexico and looming 38th birthday leave the door open. Brad Guzan has had his confidence obliterated in England. Ethan Horvath is talented yet green, Bill Hamid has been on the national team shelf for a couple years now, multiple other younger options have failed to step up, and Bruce Arena finds himself in a position where every avenue needs to be explored. An experienced keeper still at the top of his ability is undoubtedly attractive to a coach who values MLS far more than his predecessor. Frei is not yet a U.S. citizen, and while he has a green card, he will still need to get his FIFA eligibility in order after appearing for the Switzerland’s youth set-up should he finalize his citizenship process.

Just don’t worry about Frei having to play the waiting game. It’s taken him fifteen years to reach this moment. He’s patient enough.