Motivation

Sounders use snub as extra motivation in do-or-die game

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By Geoff Baker / The Seattle Times

TUKWILA — Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei wasn’t about to end what could be his team’s final practice of the year Wednesday dwelling on near misses.

Frei instead deflected questions about finishing runner-up to Zack Steffen of the Columbus Crew in MLS Goalkeeper of the Year voting and focused on how his team can survive this playoff round. The Sounders need at least a goal Thursday night against the Portland Timbers and for Frei to keep balls out of his net to advance from a Western Conference semifinal they trail 2-1 after Sunday’s opening leg.

“I think we’re ready,” Frei said. “We had a couple of good sessions. We tried everything we could in terms of trying to get back home quickly, sleep in our own beds, recover. Get the spirits high. We had some team bonding, but some recovery at the same time.”

Rather than a three-hour-plus bus ride home following Sunday’s loss at Providence Park, the Sounders caught a quick charter flight and were back in Seattle by early evening. Any added rest gained from it could prove huge given the earlier-than-expected Thursday scheduling of the second leg due to an auto show this weekend at CenturyLink Field.

That schedule puts the Timbers at an inherent disadvantage since they’re being forced to play their third playoff match in only eight days and their fourth game overall in 11 days. Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese at least rested his starters — fairly controversially — for the Oct. 28 regular-season finale, sparing his squad further damage.

But if ever a team was poised to hit the proverbial wall of exhaustion, it’s a Timbers side that — except for a brief flurry in Sunday’s first half — was outplayed by the Rave Green for the most part.

The Sounders were already upset with themselves postgame for not coming away with at least a draw. Adding to that chip already carried is the knowledge Frei got bested in a highly debatable Goalkeeper of the Year result given that winner Steffen didn’t come close to topping the leaderboard in any critical netminding statistics.

Throw in Chad Marshall losing Defender of the Year honors Wednesday to onetime Sounders2 prospect Aaron Long of New York Red Bulls — albeit in a more palatable result — and the home side should have plenty of extra “edge” to them going into Thursday’s rematch.

Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer didn’t miss the opportunity to message his players about Frei’s snub being a shot at them personally.

“We already started that yesterday about Stef,” Schmetzer said. “And I’ll do the same with Chad.”

Frei overwhelmingly won the media portion of the vote, with 31.52 percent compared to 22.73 percent for Luis Robles of the Red Bulls, 16.67 percent for Tim Melia of Sporting Kansas City and only 14.55 percent for a fourth-place Steffen.

Steffen narrowly won the club staff and executives part of the vote at 24.04 percent compared to 22.12 percent for Robles, 21.15 percent for Melia and 18.27 percent for Frei. But what swung the award for Steffen — almost single-handedly — was an overwhelming 36.18 percent player vote, with Frei placing fifth at just 6.76 percent.

Players can’t vote for teammates, but many also don’t watch other games beyond TV highlights because they’re often playing at the same time. On his Twitter feed Tuesday afternoon, Frei reacted to the snub with the comment: “WOOOOOW Blows my mind.”

Schmetzer complimented Steffen as “a great, young up-and-coming goalkeeper” within MLS, but also could barely contain his exasperation with the result.

“Who was our most consistent guy when, in the first half of the season, we weren’t firing on all cylinders?” Schmetzer said. “Who was our most consistent guy? You could argue that Stef was. Stef kept us in this season, because this was the deepest hole we’ve dug ourselves. So, if you’re asking me, I think it’s a bit of a … it’s a shock to me, of course.”

Schmetzer figures Frei will use the result to motivate himself even more against the Timbers.

“It’s human nature,” he said. “I hope it bothers Stef a little bit … deep down inside, every competitive athlete has that little bit of drive and desire to be the best at what they do.”

Marshall will have to wait a while to take out any frustrations on opponents, having undergone surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. He’s likely out until at least the second leg of the conference final — if the Sounders make it — and more realistically the MLS Cup final a month from now.

And while Schmetzer termed Cristian Roldan a “game-time decision” due to a strained hip flexor, he admitted it might be “a stretch” for him to play. That leaves Harry Shipp to start in the team’s biggest game of the year.

Left back Brad Smith will dress for the game and could theoretically be pushed up to left wing. But he’s missed more than a month with a hamstring injury and looks more like a second half substitution.

Full match fitness will be key in this contest and not only because the Timbers could be running on fumes. The Sounders need to press forward to score at least once while also getting back to defend quickly and avoid Portland’s dangerous counterattack.

“We’re at home and I think you have to come out on your front foot,” Frei said. “You have to try to really go after them, make them uncomfortable as early as possible and make it hell for 90 minutes for them.”

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