It was the save heard ’round the soccer world.
Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei pulled off what Sports Illustrated called “the greatest high-stakes save in MLS history” on Saturday when he miraculously fended off a late-match shot that ultimately helped Seattle win its first MLS Cup.
Frei, who was named MVP of the final versus Toronto after racking up eight saves, almost defied physics with the acrobatic, one-handed save that required quickness, flexibility, strength, soccer IQ, and much more. It not only kept the match tied at 0-0 in the second overtime period but also preserved what ended up being a historic season.
To get a more scientific analysis of the play, GeekWire caught up with Miguel Morales, an associate physics professor at the University of Washington who also happens to be a life-long soccer fan and was watching the match when Frei made the save.
“This was fun for me to watch it as a fan, when everything happened so fast, and then go back and watch it in slow motion,” he said. “The physics analogy is about how far Frei can go to cover the net. It’s speed multiplied by time. Athletes at that level are almost playing a chess match, where the moves take a few hundredths of a second between each other. There are a lot of really good athletes out there and a lot of people who have pretty high speeds. But I think what really separates out somebody like Frei is the time. It’s all the little things that steal you those few hundredths of a second, so you can get a little farther because you’re making decisions faster, or setting things up.”
Here’s more from Morales breaking down the amazing play by Frei, who ended up getting a tattoo to commemorate the save.
Morales: “The first thing I saw was actually from his teammates in a series of moves that stole a little bit of time here and a little bit of time there. Jozy Altidore, who headed the shot, was coming into the box from further than normal. That’s because Sounders defenders Roman Torres and Chad Marshall were playing him so hard throughout the game when he got the ball up front. Later in the match, he started playing back a little bit so he could come at the ball.
Ideally, Altidore wants to head a hooking line drive cross at the six or eight yard box. If you do that, there’s no time. It doesn’t matter how fast the goalkeeper is — you just can’t cover that much of the net.
Torres and Marshall had already stolen a tenth of a second by pushing the play from the 8-yard line back to the 12-yard line.
Then, Torres pushed Toronto forward Tosaint Ricketts, who made the pass, all the way down to the goal line. Ricketts made a beautiful cross, but he had to loop it because Marshall was positioned in the passing lane. It’s not coming in at speed; that gives you another few hundredths of a second. Leading into Frei’s incredible play, his teammates already stole him a couple little ticks. He made use of that.
Morales: On the actual play, the first thing I noticed was his foot placement when the ball was struck. To use another analogy, if you’re standing and you want to suddenly go to the left or if you want to run forward, the first thing you have to do is step back and plant your foot. If you want to go to the left, you have to plant your foot to the right so you can push off and go.
But Frei didn’t have to take that step. As a really good goalkeeper, his feet were already out and his foot was in the position where as soon as the ball was struck, he had already taken that step. That steals another few hundredths of a second. He’s ready to move.
It’s fascinating because you hear people talk about — and it’s so hard for a fan to understand — but you hear about all kinds of professional athletes talk about footwork. What are they talking about? I’ve been struck with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman of the Seahawks talking about watching film and watching their footwork. If you don’t have your feet in the right place, you have to take that extra half-step. That costs you time. You have to be anticipatory. You have to be ready to move when it is there. The footwork that Frei had was a key part of him being able to make the play. And it happened before the ball is struck.
At that point, it’s a quick step, an incredible jump, and a huge reach out with one hand. You could not have touched it with two hands; you have to use one.
Morales: Then the thing that struck me at the end was the strength in his arm. If you think about having somebody throw you a soccer ball — which is not a light ball — from 12 yards out, and you stick your hand straight over your head in the full outreach position and not allow the hand to move more than a couple centimeters when that hits, that’s incredible shoulder strength in order to keep that stiff.
Not only was it the shoulder strength that didn’t allow the ball to cross the goal line, but also the wrist and hand strength in order to not have the ball bend his hand back and deflect into the corner of the net. You see that all the time, even with professional goalies, when the ball is struck hard enough and they get a hand on it but aren’t able to deflect it far enough. The amount of leverage Frei had on that, that’s why these folks live in the weight room. You have to have that amazing combination of quickness and strength. You can’t have one or the other. That’s just an amazingly athletic little piece of the play.
As a fan, it just happened so fast. All you can do is cheer. And be stunned. But then to go back and see all these little decisions that separate out the very best players — it really is kind of a chess match that’s happening at speed and all these little decisions that have to be made. That’s really what separates out the great athletes in a team-like game, is that ability to process information.”