Stefan Cleveland is all about growth.
The 28-year-old Ohio native is in his sixth year of professional soccer and growing every day. Now with the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, Cleveland has found out that growth doesn't just come on the pitch making a big save or two. He's grown off the pitch as well, wanting to better himself and those around him.
On the field, his growth has shown, too. Cleveland went from making five appearances in three years with the Chicago Fire to finding himself in the midst of a solid goalkeeper rotation for the Sounders. Last year, he found himself in between the sticks when starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei went down with an injury. His play helped Seattle punch their ticket to yet another bout of MLS Cup Playoff matches.
Seattle was just what the goalkeeper from Dayton, Ohio, needed. Speaking with Sounders Nation, Cleveland said that coming to Seattle was the rejuvenation of his career and his love for soccer.
Stefan Cleveland is in the middle of a key season for the Seattle Sounders
"When I got the call that I was being traded to Seattle, I was really excited," Cleveland said over the phone. "I like the city, the success of the club speaks for itself, but more than that, the goalkeepers that come through the club are always successful, whether they stay or leave the club. There is so much opportunity to be had."
Before coming to Seattle, Cleveland was on loan with Lansing Ignite FC of the USL League One, which is the third-tier division of professional soccer in the United States. Cleveland made 21 appearances with the Michigan-based club, and helped the team reach the USL League One semifinals.
"I didn't know what my career was going to look like after Lansing," Cleveland reflected. "I was starting to worry if I was coming to the end of my professional career. When I got the opportunity with Seattle, I felt a rejuvenation in my career, energy and passion for soccer. I knew good things were going to come from the move."
Good things have indeed come for Cleveland. As mentioned, he had to fill in some mighty big shoes when Frei went down with a quad injury last summer. In 2021, he started 15 matches, making 29 saves. This season, Cleveland has filled in during some busy moments and stretches of scheduling, making six starts and 26 saves.
Although he isn't starting every match, Cleveland said that coming back to Seattle was a big priority in the 2022 offseason.
"There were a couple pieces to why I wanted to come back to Seattle. One of them being the goalkeeper group we have, including [coach] Tommy Dutra, is very good," Cleveland stated. "I knew, thinking about my career long-term, this was a good step. A lot of guys feel they need to leave in order to take a step up, but for me, I care about the process of getting better and whenever it is time for me to step on the field, whether it's one game or for a whole season, I know the people who are helping me in Seattle are getting me the most prepared I can be."
Cleveland said that Seattle is an environment that he felt he could grow in. He has an immense love for the city and felt comfortable in Washington, but also knew he would feel uncomfortable in training -- a good thing for a goalkeeper.
"Getting uncomfortable and getting better in training was important for me, personally," Cleveland said.
A tight-knit goalkeeper group
One area that Cleveland doesn't have discomfort with is training with the fellow goalkeepers and coach Dutra. This is Cleveland's third season with the club, joining in the 2020 offseason. It's his third season working with Stefan Frei and Dutra, and his first alongside Andrew Thomas and Wallis Lapsley, who spends his time with the Tacoma Defiance.
Cleveland said every day the goalkeepers go into training with the purpose of making each other better, picking up someone if they have an off-day and just providing overall support.
"I remember being told in college that, yes, it's one guy on the field, but that person is representing the entire goalkeeper group," Cleveland said. "Stef [Frei's] success, and when I've played in the games that I have done well in, I think those are testaments to the entire group, and the work we put in Monday through Friday...if you have a bad goalkeeper group, whether physically, mentally, or whatever it is, it's very hard to perform week in and week out.
"For me, when I have had to step in, Stef's been very supportive, Andrew has been supportive, Tommy has been supportive. The confidence that we all give each other is very high, while always pushing each other to be better and better."
Cleveland said that goalkeeper coach Dutra has helped him expand his game. In fact, it's not just on the field growth, but mental growth in the goalkeeper position that Dutra provides training on, too.
"For me, the position that I am in, I always need to be half-expecting to play," Cleveland explained. "The communication has always been there at least a couple days ahead of the game, where I can mentally prepare. That's something that Tommy really values, the mental preparation. It gives me the best opportunity to do well when it's my time to step in."
Cleveland is on a team jam-packed with talent. There's no doubt that Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are the star-players, scoring the goals and getting plenty of recognition for their attacking game. However, Cleveland couldn't help but rave about the defensive stars for the Sounders, including the likes of Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Xavier Arreaga.
"The defense, I don't feel like they need to step out of their position to make the game," Cleveland said. "That allows them to defend really well, and trust each other in their defending. We have some very good individual defenders, and each defender has their own specialty, but as a collective unit we have to be very good, and we are very good."
Growing on and off the pitch
Cleveland's growth doesn't just stop on the pitch. Now 28, the goalkeeper -- who has an Ivy League education with Dartmouth College and went on to obtain his master's degree from Louisville while playing a fifth year of collegiate soccer in the ACC -- has learned to use his platform off the pitch, too.
Cleveland was part of the Sounders' efforts to celebrate Pride Month in June, teaming up with teammate Kelyn Rowe and OL Reign players Tziarra King, Jessica Fishlock and Lauren Barnes for the Pride flag raising at Lumen Field. Cleveland has also spoken out about gun control and supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
All in all, Cleveland says he just wants to help grow and promote humanity.
"As athletes, we are automatically granted platforms and everyone has a right to do what they want with their platform," Cleveland said. "At the end of the day, I'm not too vocal on social media, but when there is an opportunity to make a difference and promote humanity and to move culture forward, I think it's an opportunity you don't want to miss...we're not trying to force our opinions on anyone else. For me, I want to promote being a good human, and the sensible things that come with that."
Cleveland said that he's formed a bond with a few OL Reign players, namely due to the connection that Rowe and Barnes have -- the two overlapped at UCLA and now play for the MLS and NWSL clubs in Seattle. He has gone to a few OL Reign games, and looks up to those players, who he called "standup characters."
"I think it's awesome that they are playing at Lumen Field this year. It allows fans to come to their games more easily than driving down to Tacoma, and it allows us to go to the games more, too," Cleveland said. "They are awesome people and they all stand for really fantastic things and have really great drives and motivations."
When he's not catching an OL Reign game or at training, you can catch Cleveland taking in the sights of the state of Washington. Coming from Chicago, Cleveland said the city was pretty much the attraction. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Cleveland gets a nice balance of city and nature.
"That's the amazing thing about Seattle, you have the city -- albeit sometimes it feels very small because you run into the same people all the time -- but you have the hiking, the mountains, the water and the lakes," he said. "The state of Washington is absolutely stunning. I love Seattle. The greatest characteristic of Seattle is that you can be in so many different climates and elements within a one-hour drive, so you're never at a shortage of things to do."
Cleveland: Always looking to improve
Of course, his favorite moment in Seattle, though, came on the pitch this year, when winning CONCACAF Champions League. Although he did not play in any of the CCL matches, Cleveland was an integral part of the goalkeeping unit that saw Frei win the tournament's Golden Glove and MVP award.
"That was the first trophy that I won as a professional, and trophies are never easy to come by, especially that one," Cleveland said. "Being part of the experience, with the final in Seattle, was incredible. The entire journey of it -- going to Honduras, going to Mexico twice, playing New York City FC at Red Bull Arena -- all of those games had a different intensity to it. You could see it in everyone's eyes in the locker room. Then for the final, to have the city of Seattle with us, almost sold-out, was awesome."
With the season halfway over, the Sounders are now looking to build some consistent performances in MLS. Seattle has had a rough stretch of games, winning twice and losing four times in a busy July. The Sounders currently sit in ninth place with 29 points, and still have a good shot of making the playoffs, something that the team has done every single year since its first MLS season in 2009.
Cleveland said right now he's learning to control the controllable elements of his game and be ready whenever he is called upon.
"When the opportunities to play do come, my goal is to be as prepared as I can for those, take those opportunities and continue to build my case for the future," Cleveland said. "In the same vein, I want to get better in training, get better at my weaknesses and improve my strengths even more. I just want to be a more well-rounded keeper, so when they ask me to step in, I'm ready."
"In my career, of course, I want to be the starter," Cleveland stated. "I want to be the guy that steps in week in and week out. Is that going to happen this year? Probably not, but is it going to be in the future sometime? I hope so.
"When that time comes, I want to be ready."