TORONTO - Almost gone but not forgotten.
Thanks to a suspension to goalkeeper Joe Bendik, veteran Stefan Frei is in line this week to make his first MLS appearance for Toronto FC in more than two years.
Frei, reduced to a backup by both Bendik and injury, is a likely starter Saturday in Chicago against the Fire in Toronto's penultimate game of the season.
It will like be a bittersweet swansong for the club's longest-serving active player.
"It'll be good to be finally get out there in a game," the six-foot-three, 195-pounder said succinctly
The 27-year-old Frei has appeared in 81 league games — all starts — for TFC but none since a 3-0 defeat to Chivas USA on Sept. 24, 2011.
Toronto has played 69 MLS games since then.
Frei prides himself on being positive but acknowledges that it has been a rough road of late.
"There were some tough moments, mentally," Frei said.
Frei's fine play and loyalty to the club have earned him much respect from Toronto FC fans. The team itself speaks of his professional attitude in the face of adversity. And Frei talks of working hard in practice to be ready when needed.
But behind the facade of diplomacy, there is a clear disconnect between the franchise and goalie.
Frei has taken the high road, mostly in silence this season.
While Frei won't speak an ill word publicly, it seems clear he feels betrayed by the way he has been treated by the club after losing his job through injury and not getting a chance to win it back.
In a rare interview ahead of the Chicago game, he chose his words carefully.
Asked if it was fair how he lost his job, Frei replied: "That's a question you're going to have to ask the head coach. He was the one that made that decision.
"I tried to stay professional, tried to work my butt off in training. That was pretty much all I could do. And that's all I'm going to say to that."
Asked if he remains the club's vice-captain, he said: "I have no idea, you'll have to ask the coach for that. Obviously there's been so much change."
His contract, hefty by MLS standards at US$200,000 this year, expires at the end of the season. Toronto is committed to Bendik as starter and recently traded for a backup in the form of six-foot-five Chris Konopka.
It is unlikely Frei will see more action for the Reds, leaving him tantalizingly close to former captain and current assistant coach Jim Brennan for the team record in league appearances (84) and starts (83).
Manager Ryan Nelsen has spoken glowingly in public about Frei's attitude.
But Nelsen has proved to be ruthless in remaking the team, shedding players to rework the salary cap. Fullback Richard Eckersley is currently out in the cold, the victim of a contract listed at $310,000.
Had Konopka been fully healthy — he is getting over a knee injury he had prior to joining the squad — he might have got the nod over Frei this week.
Nelsen plays his cards close to his chest. But it is clear Frei has been an expensive spare part ever since the 24-year-old Bendik took over.
As Nelsen likes to say, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
A supreme pragmatist, Nelsen has no time for sentimentality when it comes to soccer. Frei, essentially, has been in his rear-view mirror for months.
Frei's slide from starter to reserve started after a 2011 season that saw backup Milos Kocic make the most of a late run in goal after Frei injured a knee.
Frei began the 2012 season in goal in a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final in March against the Los Angeles Galaxy but gave way the next two games to Kocic. Days later, his season was derailed when he injured his leg and ankle in a freak training injury.
He broke his leg and required surgery to repair ankle damage.
Frei worked tirelessly to rehab the ankle and leg, often on his own with the team's trainers. He remade his body, with muscles rippling from hours spent in the gym.
Come pre-season in 2013, he was raring to go.
He got the start in the first game at training camp, only to break his nose when he ran into Columbus Crew striker Ryan Finley's boot while heroically going after the ball Feb. 9.
He had surgery in Orlando two days later. Bendik made the lost of his absence, winning the starting job with his play. All the hard work of his rehab seemed for naught.
"That made it mentally very tough for me to not be able to reap those rewards of that hard work I had put in for over a year," Frei said.
Frei has been restricted to the occasional Canadian Championship and friendly game ever since. He has tried to see the positives.
"it was a good learning experience. No only physically but mentally, to grow from this whole experience. I'm more of a positive guy. I tried to stay positive, keep working hard and I'm sure at some point things will turn for me."
That will likely have to happen in another uniform.
"I have my ideas of where I will be but as of right now I'm focusing on working hard here with TFC until the season's over and then we'll cross that bridge when we get there," Frei said.
Could that bridge lead outside MLS?
"Possibly," he said, without offering anything more.
Born in Switzerland, Frei moved to the U.S. in 2001 with his family when he was 15. After a stellar collegiate career at Cal, he was drafted 13th overall in 2009 and took over as Toronto starter early that season.
In recent weeks he has trained alongside Bendik, Konopka and 19-year-old Quillan Roberts.
He says he gets on with all of them, carrying on what he learned from veteran 'keeper Jon Conway.
"His attitude that he brought to working with his teammates was you're going to have to work with them on a daily basis, you might as well make it a good working environment for everybody."
Frei has seen plenty of comings and goings at Toronto FC.
Nelsen is the seventh TFC manager he has played under. And of other 17 players in the matchday squad for his last league start, only four remain with the club — Eckersley, Doneil Henry, Danny Koevermans and Ashtone Morgan.
Like Frei and Eckersley, the oft-injured Koevermans seems destined for the door as soon as the season ends.
"(Things) have changed again and again and again," Frei said of his time in Toronto.
It's going to take some time for the new regime and players to settle on, he added.
"I hope that there's going to be a little bit more consistency. But the guys that we have now in charge, from the top all the way down, are good people and are going to get this team in the right direction."
His fondest memory in a Toronto FC shirt was the 2009 Canadian Championship when Toronto, needing a miraculous comeback, defeated Montreal 6-1 on the road to win the Cup.
He says that day was "just pure joy."
"You kind of get addicted to it and you're longing for that feeling."
While Frei has had a rough time on the pitch recently, his personal life has taken a turn for the good this year. He got engaged to Jennier Childs and is due to get married later this year.
"We also bought our first house together, an apartment, so we'll always have a bit of a base here wherever our journey will take us. We got a dog as well.
"So from a personal level it's been the best year of my life. Soccer it's been a bit challenging but I've been trying to earn from all these situations that were thrown my way. I can't complain."
A keen artist himself, Frei has been his own canvas recently with extensive tattoo work done on his left arm. Still under construction, the three-quarter sleeve dovetails around an earlier tattoo of the Swiss flag.
Having studied classical civilizations at the University of California, he says he's always had a "connection" with ancient Egypt.
His sleeve, by tattoo artist Glen Hartless, depicts King Tut, Anubis and Osiris. Frei has put in 18-19 hours in so far, with another 10 left over.
"I think I'm going to take a break after this. It's been quite an adventure," he said of his tattoo.
You could say the same of his time in Toronto.