Stefan Frei was medically cleared this week to return to Sounders FC training without any restrictions. The keeper sprained his left knee in May and developed a blood clot afterward that caused him to miss 17 matches, including the club's win against Tigres UANL in the Leagues Cup.
Frei, who's been on blood thinners, was put in uncontrollable situations, like scrimmages, to give a real assessment of his health. Sounders goalkeepers coach Tom Dutra has been doing on-field work with Frei since late-July.
"It's lifted his spirits being in with everyone," Dutra said Wednesday following a session at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. "Any time you bring a veteran guy back into the group it helps the team for sure, but before that it's been great for him to be back with the group and feel like he's part of it, again."
While Frei has been cleared to participate in every facet of training, "he still needs final clearance to play," according to Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer.
The Sounders, which are atop MLS Western Conference standings, are off Thursday. Seattle returns Friday to prep for the Cascadia derby rematch against the Portland Timbers on Sunday at Lumen Field.
It's unlikely Frei will be cleared to start Sunday. There's a FIFA international window in September, the Sounders not playing an MLS match until they host Minnesota United FC on Sept. 11 at Lumen Field — a possible return for Frei.
Schmetzer has already intimated the upcoming dilemma regarding who to start in goal once Frei is cleared. Stefan Cleveland exceeded expectations despite his last MLS start being in 2018.
Cleveland, a 2017 second-round draft pick, replaced Frei for 15 matches, including the Tigres win. He's conceded 15 goals and collected three clean sheets with 29 saves.
Spencer Richey, a former University of Washington standout, has been utilized for two midweek Sounders matches. Both were in Texas, Richey totaling a combined five saves in shutout wins against Austin FC and FC Dallas.
Frei, a 13-year veteran, hadn't missed an MLS start since 2018. The two-time league champion collected his 1,000th career save against Portland in May. Only eight players in MLS history have reached the milestone.
"It's a tough pill sometimes," Dutra said of the likelihood of Cleveland returning to the bench. "As goalkeepers, we know that. We only play one position. (Schmetzer) can't sub them in with 10 minutes to go in the game to be a right wingback or to help close out games as a center back. It's unfortunate with the position we choose to play. That's the way it goes sometimes. It's tough, no doubt about it, for all of them. They all want to play. That's what I love about them. But that's also the position we play."
Frei suffered his injury in the 90th minute against San Jose at PayPal Park. He landed awkwardly in attempting to make a save. Schmetzer was out of substitutions, calling on right wingback Alex Roldan to replace Frei in goal.
Roldan made two saves in preserving the 1-0 shutout.
Cleveland has repeatedly said Frei's encouragement since joining the Sounders in 2020 is part of why he's been successful in goal. Richey, who was signed in February, also praised the collaborative effort of the keepers' union to make each other better.
"I've been very happy with all of them," Dutra said. "This is a really good group and I don't say that lightly. Those guys bring the best out of each other."
NOTE: Schmetzer said the club is close to announcing new staff that will replace assistants Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore. Pineda is now head coach of Atlanta United and Traore returned to Europe to take a position that's pending announcement.