SEATTLE — Seattle Sounders keeper Stefan Frei knows soccer can be an unpredictable game. But playing at a high altitude, as he will be asked to do Saturday against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, can add even more uncertainty and randomness to the game, he said.
While the effects of the thin air on outfield players is well-documented, less frequently discussed is its effects on the ball, which the 32-year-old keeper said can at times act as thought it’s achieved sentience.
“I’d argue [the altitude] changes it more for us keepers than for players,” Frei said. “For the players, it changes the lungs, that’s a given for everybody. For us, the ball has its own mind all of a sudden. The ball can be hit from 60 yards out and it can be a rocket, so you really have to watch your line. It comes off the boot much quicker, it can change direction at any moment, the way it cuts through the air. It’s difficult, but it’s not an excuse.”
In the reduced air pressure at high altitudes, the ball can carry further and break in unforeseen ways. It was this phenomenon that allowed AS Roma’s Miralem Pjanic to score from 60 yards out during a 2014 match at Denver’s Sports Authority Stadium against Manchester United, and why the NFL’s Matt Prater was able to knock in a field goal from 64 yards in the same stadium.
Rio Tinto Stadium sits at 4,500 feet above sea level, about 700 less than Denver’s mile-high stadium, but the impact on the ball—and the goalies who must stop it—will still be in play Saturday.
Asked how he could prepare for such conditions, Frei said he relied on Seattle’s experienced attackers to help.
“Some players know how to hit balls to knuckle them,” Frei said. “We try to emulate tricky shots. We do this on a weekly basis anyways, because even if you’re not at altitude you can still face players who know how to hit the ball to make it more difficult. There’s nothing unusual.”