SEATTLE — Stefan Frei didn’t have to mention names, but he was thinking big picture — about his own circumstances, about those who have never been here before, those who haven’t won championships.
That’s how his mind races and works. He wasn’t just talking soccer with the MLS Cup just a day away. He was talking about all of professional sports. And the list of those without titles is long — and just a little bit sad. Those who were great and never won.
Dan Marino and Steve Nash. Ted Williams and Randy Moss. Barry Bonds and Borje Salming. Pavel Bure and Dan Fouts. Ferguson Jenkins and Marcel Dionne. Charles Barkley and Darryl Sittler.
Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith. Ken Griffey Jr. and Mats Sundin. Eric Lindros and Allen Iverson. Gil Perreault and Karl Malone.
All of them giants of their games, spectacular figures. None of them champions.
“I started thinking about that the other day,” said Frei, the goalkeper for the Seattle Sounders, the former goalkeeper for Toronto FC in the bad old days. “For us to have another opportunity to win, this soon, play this game, I can’t believe it.
“There are players who have had terrific careers, amazing careers, who never have a chance to win a championship.”
This is Frei’s third start in four MLS Cup championship games against the team he used to play for. The team names may be the same, but the rosters have changed somewhat over time, as they play for a title on Sunday at what should be a noisy and sold-out CenturyLink Field.
TFC wasn’t expected to get this far. Neither were the Sounders. Both won conference title games on the road here.
And here they are, for the third time in four tries — not dynasties of any kind, just those who have pushed and managed and, against all odds, will play for the title once again.
“How awesome would it be if you can have that feeling again?” said Frei, who has felt both sides of the final-game emotion. He made the now-monstrous, semi-impossible save on Jozy Altidore to enable the Sounders to win in Toronto in 2016 in a game they had no business winning. And then, a year later, after being hero and champion, he was the goalkeep of record in the Sounders’ loss to TFC at BMO Field in 2017.
“To lose that game was brutal,” he said. “It’s one thing to get the opportunity. It’s another to not take advantage of it. That was tough, losing. That was hard to get over. After 2017, I thought, this may be the last time you ever get this chance. So, that year, it was rough.
“To be back here is amazing.”
Amazing to be playing in the MLS Cup. Amazing to be home for the championship game at home for the very first time.
“There are so many factors that go into doing this, so many go into getting here. A lot of things have to go right for you. And you think about it, to get a third chance in a pretty short time. That’s crazy.”
To get a third chance in a pretty short time, the same two teams, the teams Frei has spent almost all of his career with, that’s even crazier.
He was in Toronto for four seasons when TFC changed coaches about as often as the weather changes in Ontario. The team went from bad to worse to lousy to terrible depending on whatever optimistic moment was being sold to the public at the time. What TFC is now and what TFC was then are two completely different franchises under the same name.
Yet, Frei looks back fondly on his time in Toronto, an injury aside, which isn’t easy: In those last two semi-pathetic years, Toronto won 11 of 68 games. In the three seasons TFC has competed for the MLS Cup, they’ve won 47 games, including the remarkable 20 wins and only five losses in 2017.
“The city was a good city,” said Frei. “Great people, great restaurants. I think the people are amazing here. Yes, we had our struggles as a football team. But the commitment (from ownership and management) was always there. They pumped a lot of money into the team, those kind of things can’t be overlooked.
“We had so many coaches, but we had state-of-the-art training facilities.”
They did have so many coaches. Frei played for six coaches in five losing seasons.
“It was pretty frustrating at times,” he said. “But they always had good pieces there.”
They have good pieces now. So do the Sounders. And now for the opportunity Frei talks so much about: To win another championship. To cherish all that can be. The pain of losing in 2017 may never leave him. It rarely does with athletes at any level.
“I want another one,” said Frei.
He wants that championship feeling again. At least one more time. At home. While thinking of those who have never been this far before.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019