“It feels like it’s been a million years,” Stefan Frei says of self-quarantining while waiting in line with his wife, Jenn, at a burger joint on a balmy mid-March afternoon. It’s a peculiar place to find a professional soccer player around this time of year—and a quarter-pounder, for that matter. But amid Seattle’s novel coronavirus outbreak and social distancing declarations, Queen Anne fine-dining giant Canlis has pivoted from four-course dinners to drive-through cheeseburgers, and Stefan, who’s been holed up at the Freis’ nearby townhouse, has shifted from his usual in-season match prep as a Sounders goalkeeper to a mix of workouts and more leisurely pursuits.
About that season. A week earlier, the MLS had announced the 30-day suspension of all match play, and just hours before the Freis ventured to Canlis, the U.S. soccer league extended that ban for another several weeks. Team activities had halted entirely. Suddenly, like other athletes around the globe, the defending champions were in isolation. Creatures of habit accustomed to roaming vast fields together, confined. “It’s kind of strange timing when it comes to the mental side because we’re two games into it. You’re ready. You’re amped. You’re good to go,” says Frei.
The 33-year-old Switzerland native had just begun his seventh season with the Sounders. His sixth was full of repeat successes. In 2019, Frei won his second MLS Cup with Seattle, and the club named him (for the second time each) its Defender of the Year and Humanitarian of the Year, the latter for his work with Make-a-Wish and the club’s RAVE Foundation. As much as can be expected in the transient life of a professional soccer player, Frei has entrenched himself in the city within which he plays.
In particular, Frei has attracted local attention for his art. His abstract acrylic and mixed-media pieces feature lines approaching the center from myriad angles, like shots sprayed at the net all at once. During his self-quarantine, he’s been working on a piece commissioned by Washington Federal, the Sounders’ official bank. It’s on a 72-inch-by-72-inch canvas, over twice the size of what he’s normally used. “That’s been really challenging,” he notes. But he’s relished having more time to experiment with his creativity, preparing for a future without soccer. The extra hours at home have also allowed him to spend more time with the couple’s two dogs—a Miniature Shar-Pei, Cloï, and a Great Dane, Mobley—and (“not going to lie”) to play “Call of Duty: Warzone.” “I can still do things that I love to do,” he says.
But Frei hasn’t physically distanced himself from the season ahead, which the MLS still plans to hold in its entirety. A pull-up bar and Peloton treadmill at his house are plenty worn by now, and Sean Muldoon, the Sounders’ head strength and conditioning coach, has sent him and the rest of the squad workout schedules to follow. Frei is trying to maximize his gains while he still can, like he would during the off-season. “In the off-season when you’re working out, you really have a chance to mold your body a little bit more because you’re not worried about being sore on weekends for games and things like that.”
Frei hasn’t lost touch with his teammates, either. Some group chats are organized by team personnel, others by just the players. “Trying to stay away from the staff sometimes when we’re talking about them,” he quips. As social distancing has dragged on, their conversations have also turned to how they can help the community around them, perhaps organizing fundraisers on their own. Frei feels it’s an opportunity to connect with their fans differently. “Maybe now,” he says, “we’re forced to explore a little bit more and share a little bit more of who we are as people.”