When Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei is not making game-defining saves and winning championships, he can often be found in his art studio building upon his portfolio of canvases as a way to decompress from one of the most pressure-packed positions in sports.
The 34-year-old, who is often regarded as one of the best keepers in Major League Soccer, recently closed on a piece of property in Blakely Harbor where plans are underway for his “dream home” to be built for his wife Jenn and two dogs. The Frei family is residing in a rental in the Ferncliff neighborhood where they will stay until their home is complete. Frei said he hopes everything will be done by the end of summer 2021.
“I don’t think I realized how much it meant to me until I turned pro,” Frei said of his artistic endeavors. “It became a huge outlet to kind of rebalance myself, especially with dealing with stress as a goalkeeper. I wanted to establish a platform to be able to follow yet another passion once I would retire from soccer. I want to show my humble beginnings as an artist and have people come on this journey to hopefully one day be able to show in galleries all over the world. Dream big, right?”
Frei grew up in his native Switzerland and moved to Concord, CA where he attended De La Salle High School before attending the University of California, Berkeley to be the soccer team’s goaltender. In 2008, he was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team. Frei began his MLS career with Toronto FC in 2009 and served as the team’s keeper through 2013.
Before the 2014 season, Frei was traded to the Sounders. The 2016 season was Frei’s career-defining year, recording eight clean-sheets in 33 appearances, helping qualify the Sounders for the postseason. His stellar play continued through the 2016 playoffs, recording four clean sheets in six matches and only allowing three goals the entire playoffs.
Frei was named the MVP of the MLS Cup after leading Seattle to a championship in a 5-4 penalty shoot-out victory following a 0-0 draw. His memorable save on Jozy Altidore’s header in extra-time will forever be etched in the minds of Sounders faithful. Frei and the Sounders followed the 2016 title with another one in the 2019 MLS Cup, beating Toronto 3-1. His major contributions to two championship-winning teams will eternally define his legacy in the history of Seattle sports.
It is hard enough already for any team in any sport to defend their championship. Things got even more difficult for the Sounders when the 2020 season was shut down after two games in March. After the MLS found a way to finish the season in a “bubble” in Orlando, Seattle participated in the MLS is Back Tournament, where they fell short of their goal to repeat.
Since then, in efforts to get the league back on its regular schedule, the next MLS season has already begun, this time in empty team stadiums across the U.S. and Canada. With the Black Lives Matter movement fighting police brutality in the name of social justice, the sports landscape has found itself in an important position to relay social messages in unity. The Seattle Sounders organization and the MLS are just one example of that.
“It’s been difficult to find your place as an athlete, as a white male on top of that,” Frei said. “You don’t want to hijack a movement; you want to be part of it. It’s been good to know that they’re (Sounders organization) going to have your back so it’s allowed people like myself to maybe speak up a little bit more freely and try to use my platform in the right way.”
Since moving to the Seattle area before the 2014 season, Frei and Jenn first moved to Belltown, where they rented for just over a year before finding a nice loft in South Lake Union ,where they stayed for about 2 1/2 years. Upon rediscovering his passion for art, the Frei family sought out a townhouse in upper Queen Anne where he created an art studio.
“That kind of allowed me, last year, to make some good strides on my art side, start selling art pieces, and really come out as an artist,” Frei said.
Growing up in Europe, Frei said he started “innocently doodling” as a kid, citing train rides to school where he would soak up the vibrant graffiti that would contrast with the natural scenery of the country.
“It’s like a piece of nature mixed with something manmade,” he said. “It would always be striking, that color combo for me.”
Frei stated he would have liked to pursue art, along with architecture, at Cal-Berkeley but was advised not to due to soccer. Since turning pro, Frei’s mother and brother got him a pen tablet so he could digitally sketch some of his ideas.
“Nothing good comes from a mistake as a goalkeeper and as an artist, as much; as I want to have control and not make mistakes, it’s nice and liberating to know that truly, you cannot really make a mistake because either you just paint over it again or it turns into something beautiful that you hadn’t even thought about before,” Frei said about his art philosophy.
While hopping from place to place around Seattle, Frei said he and Jenn had been planning the perfect spot to build their home. After considering some long-distance options in Mexico and Hawaii, the Frei family narrowed its scope to Western Washington.
“It’s beautiful here (Seattle), let’s start looking east, let’s start looking west a little bit,” Frei said about the process. “We wanted it to be close and potentially be able to move in while I was still playing soccer.”
Frei’s first consideration of Bainbridge Island came in a quite odd and quirky fashion. Last year, Frei sold an art piece to a family in Blakely Harbor and wanted to hand-deliver it so he took a ferry ride over.
“I liked Bainbridge Island already, but for me, Blakely Harbor, I fell in love with it,” Frei said. “It was so quiet; it was so peaceful. I think that kind of set the seed in my mind that ‘hey, this could be something.’ Lo and behold, we kind of started looking around the end of last year and toward December we found a piece of land in Blakely Harbor that was absolutely perfect for us, and we quickly pulled the trigger.”
The Frei family closed on the property in March and sold their place in Queen Anne to move to Ferncliff to be closer to the design and construction process. So far, Frei said the island atmosphere has been just what he needed.
“I just love that switch on for me — going to the city in the morning, going to practice, putting in a hard shift and being focused, and then quickly coming back over here to decompress right away. It’s very unique, but it’s very, very good for me, personally.
“I think we’ve started to explore nature a bit more,” Frei went on to say. “Having grown up in Switzerland … I’ve always wanted to not see too much of nature here because I thought it was a big tease. I think with the dogs, we’ve realized how beautiful it is and how much we want to enjoy it a little bit more.”
Since relocating, Frei said said his family has been able to get out and discover the island a little bit, embracing the inclusive community.
“Bainbridge Island I think is such an amazing mix because the downtown area is super charming,” he said. “It feels like a small community where people trust each other and know each other. Having lived in the city where it’s always hustling and bustling, it’s really nice to get away from it and be by yourself and have your own oasis in nature.”
Frei has teamed up with Seattle construction company Method Homes, which specializes in prefabricated modern structures to allow 100 percent quality control every step of the build. This company will allow much of the house to be built offsite, making building in the wintertime more attainable and ensuring a quicker turnaround for completion, Frei said.
The property is just over an acre, and the project is in the permitting phase. Other companies involved are Smallwood Design & Construction Inc, which will conduct the onsite work, and Alchemie, a Seattle-based landscape architect. Frei said his next immediate focus will be looking into the design of the house.
“It’s been super exciting just to build your dream home,” Frei said. “You can go to the utmost detail of how you want it customized to your own liking. We’ll take it in stride, we’re happy to be here, and we’ll see how it goes.”