TORONTO — Six years ago, Stefan Frei sat in the stands at BMO Field and watched the MLS Cup final as a spectator, never imagining that he would one day be on that same stage, making the save of his life to help his team win a championship.
That is exactly where Frei was on Saturday night, turning in a career performance to help the Sounders overcome being outplayed for the better part of 120 minutes. Seattle didn't manage a single shot on goal, but what the Sounders did have was a resolute defense, and an inspired Frei, who made every save he had to make, including a jaw-dropping stop to deny Jozy Altidore in extra time.
BMO Field was where Frei began his professional career, and where four years ago he was left wondering when his next real chance would come again. He joined the Seattle Sounders in 2014 believing it was the perfect place to revive his career, and Saturday's MLS Cup victory was the fitting cap to his personal journey to re-establish himself as a top MLS goalkeeper.
The 2016 MLS Cup Final wasn't pretty, but the Sounders won't care. Seattle failed to record a single shot on goal on a night when Toronto FC played the better soccer, but couldn't convert that advantage into goals. As the minutes ticked away the Sounders gained more and more confidence and belief that they could leave Canada with a championship trophy.
Toronto has only itself to blame for not finishing the handful of chances that did come, though Frei deserves his share of credit as well. The Sounders were no strangers to being outplayed in a game they eventually win. You only had to go back to the Western Conference final victory against the Colorado Rapids, when the Rapids dominated play in the first half of the second leg, but failed to capitalize.
Once again, the Sounders found a way to play better soccer after halftime, and while Brian Schmetzer may not have been able to make moves to help the Sounders create chances, he did make the moves necessary to help Seattle keep its Canadian opponent from finding the net the way it had throughout the playoffs.
Seattle's victory was about much more than Frei. You have to spread the credit around, from the central midfield tandem of Osvaldo Alonso and Christian Roldan, which kept TFC from finding a passing rhythm in the final third, to the center back tandem of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall, which combined to help keep the red-hot Jozy Altidore under wraps, and the ever-dangerous Sebastian Giovinco from working his magic.
Torres was particularly impressive, shaking off a shot to the face that left him crumbled on the ground to turn in a dominating defensive display that he capped with the winning penalty shot.
On most nights, Torres would have been Seattle's man of the match, but Frei was a deserving winner after making a handful of important stops, none bigger than his extra-time save on Altidore's header, a full-stretch one-hander that almost appeared to happen in slow motion and served as the moment when the momentum in the match turned towards the visiting team.
Toronto FC played well enough to win, but never could finish off its stretches of possession and passing combinations, and never showed the killer instinct in front of goal we saw throughout the playoffs. TFC's attackers will take the blame for that shortcoming, but Seattle's defense and Frei deserve considerable credit for making that happen.
TFC didn't win a title, but Saturday's spectacle was a victory in different ways for the city of Toronto, which grew to embrace Toronto FC"s success throughout its recent run. The sold-out crowd provided a memorable atmosphere on a bitterly cold night. No, Saturday's final didn't produce much in the way of beautiful soccer, and isn't one that will be remembered for its skill and quality, but it had plenty of drama and left the sold-out crowd entertained and enthralled on a bitterly cold night.
Perhaps it was fitting that it was so cold for Saturday's final. Six years ago, this same stadium hosted the 2010 MLS Cup final, which Colorado won over FC Dallas, and on that night Stefan Frei braved the elements and told Goal USA he was praying Saturday night wouldn't be as cold. It did wind up being just as cold, but it's a safe bet Frei didn't care one bit, especially when he put his hands on the MLS Cup trophy. He once watched from afar, but now can call himself a winner of that trophy.