Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei welcomed the new year with a heartfelt tweet.
“And it is finally here... I have been waiting for 2013 since last March. It’s going to be a good year.”
It can’t be much worse than 2012.
Frei got in just one game — the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final against the Los Angeles Galaxy — before falling awkwardly in training March 24 while trying to deal with a backpass.
Speedy winger Joao Plata was coming at him and Frei looked to pass the ball to defender Adrian Cann to his left. He ran to the ball, planted his left foot on wet turf to make the pass and torqued his leg a bit to deliver the pass to the side.
“There were just too many motions going in different directions,” he recalled. “And then my cleats maybe got stuck a little bit in the grass.
“Sometimes it just happens,” he added. “I don’t really want to think about it too much because, like I said, freak accidents happen. ... Quite frankly I’ve learned a lot from the whole experience.
He broke his left fibula near the knee. Because of the break, a ligament near his ankle was put under stress and ruptured. That, in turn, put pressure on the tibia, which separated slightly from the fibula near the ankle.
Frei, 26, had surgery to repair the ligament and insert two screws to tighten the two bones.
“I was told it was a fairly common injury for hockey players actually because the lower part of their leg is locked in the skate,” he said. “So when they’re trying to turn, that same injury occurs quite often for them.”
Frei’s been told he may have to baby the ankle — and put up with some occasional soreness — but says he feels great.
“I’ve been forced to really pay attention to my body a lot over this past year — little things that make a huge difference. In terms of my overall health, I’ve never been in better shape.”
That was evident last season. Unable to bear weight on his leg for some two months, Frei worked his upper body. His torso was bulging with muscle as the year wore on.
Frei, who credits the team’s training staff and strength and conditioning coach Nick Milonas for his comeback, took the positive view that he could emerge better from “a 10-month preseason.”
“Now I’m ready to take this new body on a spin to see how it works,” he joked.
Toronto is counting on Frei, who has started 81 times for the club since being the top ‘keeper taken in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
Milos Kocic, who played 27 games last season in Frei’s absence, was traded to Portland in December. Toronto’s other goalies are 23-year-old Joe Bendik, who came over in the Kocic trade, and 18-year-old Quillan Roberts.
The injury was the first serious one of Frei’s career, although he has suffered through dislocated fingers.
“With those it’s more frustrating because it’s such a little thing but it hinders you so much,” he said. “I think I knew pretty early on, that this one was quite serious and I needed to just give it all the time it needed and all the attention and care.”
Apart from a two-week break to see relatives in California over the holidays, he was a regular at the TFC training centre. He put off plans to train overseas in the off-season — Glasgow Celtic, Newcastle United and German teams were possible destinations — to ensure he could focus on his return.
“In the back of my head, the most important thing was just being healthy 100 per cent,” said Frei, who spent a week training at Liverpool prior to the 2012 campaign.
Adding to his discomfort last season was having to watch his team struggle to a league-worst 5-21-8 record.
“It was very difficult,” the six-foot-three 195-pounder acknowledged. “For one, I wanted to help and I wanted to comfort them. Essentially, in the end, that’s the only thing I was able to do.”
While vice-captain of the team, Frei says he leads by example rather than by words.
“But that’s not possible if you can’t even walk around possibly. So that was a bit difficult for me to deal with. ... I had to kind of figure out what my place was. Eventually I just learned that I needed to be there for support. Obviously it was tough times for everybody, myself included, but especially the guys that played that year.”
“Losing hurts,” he concluded.
Frei, the TFC’s longest-serving player, says he will miss Kocic. The two, while rivals, were friends and supported each other.
Frei says he learned from veteran goalie Jon Conway that it pays to make the working environment with fellow ‘keepers as good — and competitive — as possible.
“That’s what we tried to do,” he said of his relationship with Kocic. “I think we did a really good job. We helped each other get better, on the field.”
New president and GM Kevin Payne is remaking the roster while the team waits the arrival of manager Ryan Nelsen from Queens Park Rangers.
Frei likes what he sees.
“Kevin’s got a plan. He’s got a bigger picture that he’s following ... I have a great feeling, especially if you watch the way Kevin handled the draft. I thought it was very exciting to follow it. I was very impressed with what we got out of it. I know we’re in great hands.”
Payne traded down twice, getting the players he said he wanted while acquiring allocation money to help fund other player acquisitions.
Frei also was impressed with Nelsen from their brief conversation.
“He seems like an awesome guy. Obviously he knows what it takes to be competitive and successful in the best league in the world. I hope he can bring what you see QPR doing right now — that fight, that hunger, the relentless battle not to surrender.
“I remember when I first came to Toronto FC, BMO Field was considered a fortress. I would love to go back to those days where teams are more than happy to come away with a point here.”
Away from the pitch, Frei is a keen artist who uses a pen tablet. His current project seems to integrate a grass motif in a geometric design but he’s trying to keep a lid on it other than selected Twitter peeks.
For Frei, the art offers a chance to get his mind off the pitch.
“For me, it’s more therapy than anything else,” he said. “You need perfection as a goalkeeper, because one little slip-up and obviously your team pays for it.
“In art, I still have a plan, and if someone was to watch me paint, I think they’d still think I’m a perfectionist. But it’s just nice knowing that if I do make a mistake in a painting, nothing’s going to happen.
“Sometimes in fact it’s really nice to make mistakes because something really strange or nice comes out of it.”
An Xbox gamer, he has also painted some console controllers and was recently asked to design a guitar.
Frei was 15 when he left Switzerland with his family after his father was offered a job in the San Francisco area. He went on play for the University of California before being drafted by Toronto.Report Typo/Error