Seattle 'keeper Stefan Frei relishes his time in Toronto
2016 MLS Cup MVP played 82 games for the Reds and still loves the city
Stefan Frei still loves Toronto and he isn't afraid to let that be known.
Now the Seattle Sounders' No.1 goalkeeper, the 31-year-old was originally drafted in 2009 by TFC, chosen 13th overall in the MLS superdraft.
He made 82 starts for the Reds before being dealt to Seattle in December 2013. He was the MVP of last year's MLS Cup final, an extra-time win over those same TFC.
Back then, TFC was nowhere near the powerhouse it is today, but that had no influence on how he felt about the city and its fans.
"I always loved the city," Frei said Thursday as he and his teammates prepare for Saturday's MLS Cup final against his former team. "I always saw it as a great place, all that it was really lacking was the success on the pitch."
Despite the team's struggles, Frei appreciated that fans recognized the effort of players, and remembers games at BMO Field as being a unique experience.
He recalls fans throwing streamers at opposing players as they prepared to take corner kicks, and the wind being a greater influence on games before the stadium upgrades.
"When I first started in 2009, it used to be called the fortress," Frei said. "It was a place where teams didn't want to come."
For a young guy from Altstätten, Switzerland, the culture shock could have been a lot to handle, but Frei found settling into Toronto couldn't have been easier — it felt like home.
"[You're] looking at very friendly people and it goes into the stereotype of Canadians being friendly, but it's true," he said. "Everybody was helpful here to a newcomer, to someone who was new to this city. I felt welcome right away."
No stability back then
But not everyone was like Frei. Some players didn't want to play for a Canadian franchise and TFC's poor results in those early years didn't help. There was no sense of stability within the organization.
While Frei said there was no question owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was willing to invest in making Toronto a successful team, the organization wasted a lot of money buying out numerous coaches.
"There were quite a few Americans who weren't happy to be here. They had to leave their country, exchange rates, and all the other fun stuff that comes with it," Frei said, issues he thinks were larger than they should have been. "If you can't see past as an American that now you're in Canada and you're having it great here in this place, then something's wrong with you."
With back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances, TFC looks to be finally beyond those days.
Winning has certainly helped TFC become a more viable destination. Reds defender Justin Morrow points to teammates Drew Moor (American), Chris Mavinga (French) and Victor Vazquez (Spanish) as examples of the culture change that's taken place.
'Guys who chose to be here'
"We added pieces that decided to come here — they chose to come here over other places and that was for one reason — to win," Morrow said. "We have guys from all over the world that chose to be here and that's important in an MLS team."
Heading into Saturday's championship game, Frei is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Sounders defend their championship.
The past four seasons have resurrected his career and he's found a new home in Seattle.
But looking back on how far TFC has come since his rookie year, Frei can't help but be happy that everyone else now sees what he saw in the city of Toronto.
"You look at their training facility — it's state of the art," he said. "All that really was missing was a bit of success, a bit of time to let a team and a coach gel. Now that they've got it, of course everybody loves it. What's not to love? If you're coming into this team now, you've got it all."