TORONTO – The writing has been on the wall for quite some time with regards to Stefan Frei’s future at Toronto FC.
Now it appears to be a certainty that this will be his last season in Toronto.
TFC acquired goalkeeper Chris Konopka from the Philadelphia Union for a third-round pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft ahead of Major League Soccer’s 5 p.m. ET roster freeze deadline on Friday. It was a minor trade, but one surely signalling that Frei’s tenure in Toronto is almost up.
Frei, 27, is in the final year of his contract, which pays him $200,000 US, making him the most expensive backup goalkeeper in the league. Toronto tried to trade him to Philadelphia earlier this year, but the deal fell through.
Konopka, 28, earns $46,500, making him a far cheaper option than Frei as a backup option to starter Joe Bendik. And while Toronto coach Ryan Nelsen didn’t categorically rule out the possibility of retaining Frei, it’s pretty clear that Konopka’s arrival means the Swiss goalkeeper won’t be back in 2014.
“We’ve had our eye on Chris for a while. He’s at a good price, good experience,” Nelsen told reporters after Friday’s practice. “(Stefan’s) such a good guy and such a great goalkeeper. He wants to be a number one and he deserves to be a number one. … With his contract up at the end of the year and Joe doing so well, it’s a very difficult situation.”
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Nelsen confirmed that Frei will continue to serve as the backup goalkeeper for the club’s last six matches of the season, including Saturday’s road game vs. the New York Red Bulls. Konopka is expected to officially join TFC next week.
Toronto currently sits in second-last place in the overall MLS standings with a 4-13-11 record. Although long out of the playoff picture, the Reds could be officially eliminated from post-season contention this weekend.
Frei has endured plenty of heartbreak and tough times during the past two seasons after a bright start to his career.
A first-round draft pick (13th overall) in 2009, Frei quickly displaced Canadian Greg Sutton as TFC’s starting goalkeeper, becoming a fan favourite due to his natural athleticism and expert shot blocking ability.
He began the 2011 campaign as the club’s starter, but split playing time with Milos Kocic after suffering minor injuries. Kocic was tabbed the club’s starter at the beginning of the 2012 campaign. Frei broke his leg in practice during the second week of the season and missed the rest of the year.
Following a year of recovery and Kocic being traded to the Portland Timbers, Frei entered the 2013 pre-season as TFC’s No. 1 goalkeeper. But he broke his nose in an exhibition game, paving the way for Bendik to earn some playing time. Nelsen was so impressed with Bendik’s form that he made him the starter for the regular season.
Bendik, 24, has started all 28 league games this season. The only action Frei has seen has come in both semifinal legs of the Canadian club championship back in April and May (including an embarrassing 6-0 loss in Montreal), and in a friendly against Italian side AS Roma on Aug. 7.
Frei’s last appearance in an MLS game was on Sept. 24, 2011 in a 3-0 loss away to Chivas USA. In total, Frei has played in 81 league matches for the Reds, posting a 20-24-25 record with 19 shutouts.
“He’s such a good professional. He comes to work every day and tries to get better and works hard. He pushes Joe all the time. It’s such a comforting feeling knowing that if anything happens to Joe, you’ve got someone like Stefan there,” Nelsen said.
Konopka’s arrival also means Canadian Quillan Roberts will remain the third-string goalkeeper in 2014. Nelsen said that Roberts has made great developmental strides in recent months, but at only 19 years of age, he’s not ready to start in MLS.
Nelsen confirmed that the team will try to send Roberts out on loan next season.
“That’s what he needs. His progression has been so quick this season but we thought he was a still raw to (play). His progression in the last four of five months (has been good) and it puts us in a position now where we can confidently (loan him out),” Nelsen explained.
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As for Konopka, the New Jersey native played in one MLS game since joining Philadelphia last year.
He was originally drafted by the Kansas City Wizards in 2007 but left the team that same year. He bounced around the Irish first division for a few years, with stints at Bohemians FC, Sporting Fingal and Waterford United.
Konopka rejoined MLS in 2011 as part of the league’s emergency goalkeeper pool, and he was called into action by New York and the Columbus Crew that season before signing with Philadelphia last March.
Nelsen said TFC had been tracking Konopka for some time and that they decided to go after him on the advice of goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr.
“One of Stewart Kerr’s real strengths is that he studies all of the goalkeepers in the league, their first, second and thirds. Even in the lower leagues. … He knows what it takes to take a goalkeeper to the next level,” Nelsen stated. “This was not a decision made off the cuff. This has been months and months and months of due diligence on Chris. Finally when the opportunity arose to get him, we snapped at it.”
Frei declined to talk to the media on Friday.
NOTES: Welsh forward Robert Earnshaw, who leads TFC in scoring with seven goals this season, is questionable for Saturday’s game due to a hamstring injury… Defender Richard Eckersley left Friday’s practice early after colliding with another player. He was expected to be available to play against the Red Bulls… Dutch striker Danny Koevermans will travel with the team to New York and will play in a reserve league game on Sunday. He won’t play in Saturday’s match. Koevermans has missed most of the campaign recovering from off-season knee surgery and then suffering a calf strain.