Sept. 26, 2008
By Nicole Baudouin, Daily Cal Staff Writer
This story was originally published in the Daily Californian on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008. Click here for original version.
Reprinted by permission.
"Some guys lead by example, some guys lead vocally, but I think he leads by both," says Grimes. "He's definitely aware of the whole team's dynamic, which I think is important for a captain and especially a goalkeeper, since they see the entire game in front of them. He's not just thinking of himself, he's thinking of the whole team and how we can improve."
Frei enters his third season with the Bears as the top goalie on the roster after a stellar sophomore year that saw him receive every recognition possible. Frei was named a first-team All-American by the NSCAA, first-team Far West All-Region and first-team all Pac-10.
In addition, he led the conference in nearly every goalkeeping statistic, from saves to goals against average.
And although he has already garnered preseason acclaim-he was named to the watch list for the MAC's Hermann Trophy, roughly equivalent to college football's Heisman-there was a time when opposing players were far from his biggest challenge.
Born in Altstaetten, Switzerland, Frei moved to California at the age of 15, leaving behind increasing soccer opportunities.
"My whole family moved over here in 2001," he says. "It was difficult, because I had to leave everything behind, family and all that. Well not family, so much, but friends. Also soccer-wise I was doing very well, I had just made the youth national team-the under-15s-and I got to travel and all that. And I had to leave that behind, which was kind of tough."
The language barrier made the move even more difficult.
"My English wasn't very good at that point," says Frei. "So I came over in April, had about three months of English here and then I started high school. So that was it, three months of English, and then I was thrown in there."
High school was De La Salle, where Frei was a standout on varsity, earning both regional and national awards. But high school held a new learning curve, too.
"The English I learned was with foreigners," says Frei. "So it was completely different from what you use in high school. I learned a whole different English there; I had no idea what things meant."
Now at Cal, language is no longer the issue, and it shows.
"He yells at us," defender Evan Sassano says. "But it's always positive and encouraging, giving you direction more than getting on you for doing something wrong. I mean he'll tell you bluntly, but he's encouraging and will help you through things, especially after plays."
Even from the other side of the field, sophomore Davis Paul agrees.
"I hear him a lot actually," he says. "I feel like he yells at me more than anybody else. He's very outspoken on the field, he loves to command that defense and kind of dictate the game."
Perhaps Frei learned that passion from the best, as he grew up following FC Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga, which at that time was led by its volatile keeper, Oliver Kahn.
"Oliver Kahn was always my idol," Frei says. "Yeah, something of a nutcase and I always kind of admired that. And before that it was Peter Schmeichel from Manchester United, who was famous for the exact same thing, just a nutcase.
"I admired that they sacrificed themselves for the team and didn't really care about their body. That was admirable to me as a little kid watching them."
And the goalkeeper will be the first to admit he can get pretty heated while between the posts.
"I'm a totally different person on the field," Frei says. "I can get a little mean sometimes. A lot of people when they get to meet me, especially if it's on the soccer field, they think I'm kind of scary. But if they meet me in person off the field they think I am a great teddy bear, that's what they always say."
"He's a lot quieter off the field than on the field," Sassano laughs. "He says enough on it, he doesn't really need to talk afterwards."
The talk isn't confined to gametime, though, as Frei takes it upon himself to be a leader and captain during practice, as well.
"The great thing about 'Swiss' is that day in and day out he always performs, so you know that you are going up against one of the finer keepers in the country," says Paul. "I know that my finishing and game have changed a lot, just because he is in goal. He's actually very helpful with it, he gives all the insight, from shooting and turning, to places to put shots, and how to trick keepers."
During practice, you'll never hear Frei's actual name. He's always just "Swiss," a tribute to his heritage.
"My freshman year in high school, I played JV and we had a Russian kid, a Mexican, an American, and me, a very international defense," he laughs. "And then we just called each other that. It's funny because when I moved up to varsity for a whole year my head coach thought my last name was actually Swiss. It's stuck with me ever since."
In fact, more than just a nickname has stuck with the junior. On the underside of his left bicep is a tattoo of the Swiss flag.
"I don't want to sound like a patriot completely," he says. "But I do realize that I really love my country and I would love to play for them at some point."
A second tattoo in hieroglyphics spells out "live and let live," a motto that Frei embodies. At this point, that willingness to roll with the punches will help in his endeavors to keep playing soccer, particularly in Europe.
"I'm not going to be picky, because of soccer," he says when asked where he would like to go. "But at some point I would love to live in Switzerland again.
"Hopefully in the future I can play for that country, because it is still my country."