St. Louis is the home of soccer in America. From its earliest days, the sport took root and bloomed here. And then when the dark days came, it was one of the few places where the game didn’t just stay alive, but thrived.
The collapse of the old ASL, 90 years ago, couldn’t stop soccer in St. Louis. When the US men’s national team made the World Cup in 1950, that group was littered with guys born and raised in St. Louis, players who’d played semi-pro for local factory teams and achieved US Open Cup glory on a near-yearly basis. Those players – those pioneering winners, conquerors of England – would go on to coach the next generation out of America’s heartland. That generation created a college dynasty at St. Louis University, and won Open Cups, and then turned into coaches themselves, seeding the entire St. Louis area with the kind of institutional knowledge on “how to build a soccer player” that other spots in the US and Canada couldn’t even dream of. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all learning the game from the crib to college and beyond, generation after generation. Kids turned into pros in the old NASL, and then into the Major Indoor Soccer League, and then finally, in 1996, into MLS.
Soccer had meant something (to some folks soccer had meant everything) in St. Louis for almost 100 years by the time MLS was born. Naturally, the talk of putting a team in the Gateway City started right away, but for one reason or another (which all came down to never having the right ownership group step in with the right plan at the right time), it kept getting pushed back.
Ten years passed. Fifteen. David Beckham came and went, ushering in a new era for the sport in our league, in our country. Twenty years passed, and would St. Louis ever get in? MLS, with the addition of academies and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) and a third DP, and soccer-crazed markets like Seattle and Portland and Atlanta and Orlando, had started to hum. The city where soccer never slept was still putting pros into the league, into Europe and the national team, but the chance of getting a team of their own was always pushed back to the next few years, to the next round of expansion – or the one after that.
But then, in September 2018, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on meetings between MLS brass and state officials from Missouri. Was the ball actually rolling here? A month later, we got our answer: Yes! An ownership group had coalesced, one with the right kinds of resources and a strong, generations-long local connection. They were soccer people from St. Louis, and they were going to bring soccer to St. Louis.
In November 2018, the town board approved the new stadium with a unanimous vote. The following spring, MLS officially said the league wouldn’t stop at 28 teams, but would keep growing to 30, and that St. Louis was one of the two markets deep in discussions with the league.
Four months after that came the announcement a hundred years in the making: St. Louis was getting its team.
It was a long wait (COVID hit and caused it to be a year longer), and in the end it was all worth it. I’ll pick at a few scabs later on in this column – the tactics, the personnel, the underlying numbers waving bright red flags – but this year, first and foremost, was a celebration of this sport in this town. The fans, the generations of families who’d passed the game down from one to another, and had never let it fade or die, deserved that celebration. They deserved that kind of joy.
They got it. MLS finally came to St. Louis, and St. Louis won. And the fans stood and screamed and then screamed some more.
That’s what 2023 meant for St. Louis CITY SC.
Formation & Tactics
By hiring German executive Lutz Pfannenstiel – he of the Hoffenheim lineage – as sporting director, CITY’s ownership group made clear right away that they wanted to be tough, fast and direct. Pfannenstiel doubled down on that identity when he hired Bradley Carnell – he of the Red Bull lineage – as the team’s first head coach.
And so yeah, St. Louis were tough and fast, vertical and direct. There was a bunch of high pressing in there, but more often St. Louis sat in something closer to a mid-block, setting up ambushes around the midfield stripe. Winning the ball there allowed them to attack into more space than if/when they won it higher.
As such they had the fastest direct speed in MLS by a mile (1.8 meters/second), and the second-fewest passes per sequence, and the second-shortest sequence time, and the second-highest percentage of passes played forward. In postgame interviews, Carnell would frequently say stuff to the effect of “we had too much of the ball in the first half, we needed to pass less” when explaining the team’s halftime adjustments and subsequent second-half explosions.
There was no truly set formation through all of this, as Carnell had this team play out of a 4-4-2 diamond, and sometimes out of a 4-2-2-2, and sometimes out of a 4-2-3-1.
You could also choose the first meeting with their blue-clad neighbors to the West, Sporting KC, in late May. St. Louis had cooled off a good deal at that point; maybe the bloom had come off the rose a bit?
Nope. They beat the brakes off their well-established neighbors, sending them back to the cornfields of Kansas on the backs of a 4-0 win.
But I’m choosing the other regular-season win over Sporting for this season’s high point:
St. Louis did not actually play all that well in this game. But Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Roman Bürki put in a time-capsule performance, and DP center forward João Klauss scored a time-capsule goal, and Carnell did his line-change-at-the-hour-mark mass substitution thing that won this team so many games this year.
And just like that a tight, scoreless affair through the first 70 minutes turned into a laugher over the final 20. It finished 4-1, a win built on the pillars of the team’s success.
With the win, CITY became the first expansion team ever to win a regular-season conference title. Even the old Chicago Fire hadn’t done that.
The crowd went berserk.
They wouldn’t win another game all year, dropping their last two regular-season matches to finish just shy of the single-season points record from an expansion team (they had 56; LAFC reached 57 in 2018).
When Sporting came calling in the playoffs, things got worse. My line was “this is the type of series we could still be talking about 30 years from now” and I guarantee you Sporting fans will, in fact, do exactly that. They absolutely cooked the hosts, forcing St. Louis to carry possession, winning every second ball and banging home one golazo after another in a 4-1 win to open the Best-of-3 series.
Four days later they’d close it with a 2-1 home win that never felt all that close.
It was a painful, bitter end to a dream season.
All four of Nicholas Gioacchini, Aziel Jackson, Indiana Vassilev and Sam Adeniran have a case, though none broke out to the extent that I’m 100% confident we’ll see the same level of productivity next year.
There are some red flags, especially with this team’s finishing.
There were also some red flags with the quality of chances this team gave up. Once Bürki came off his heater, he stopped bailing the defense out so often, and once that started happening… well, 8W-12L-4D over the final five months of the year across all competitions paints a fairly accurate picture.
If I were to point to one thing, it’d be the play of center back Joakim Nilsson. The 29-year-old Bundesliga veteran was supposed to be a foundational piece, but he missed a huge chunk of the year with injury and then never looked up to speed when he got back. St. Louis won just one of his seven starts.
Five Players to Build Around
- Bürki (GK): Even if he’s not as good as he looked the first half of the year, he’s still one of the better goalkeepers in MLS.
- Klauss (FW): If he can stay healthy, he looks like he'd be good for at least 15 goals. And he’s the one guy who really showed up for the playoff series vs. Sporting.
- Eduard Löwen (CM): Productivity tailed off after mid-year injury, but his class is apparent.
- Tim Parker (CB): Had a bounce-back year after a few miserable seasons in Houston.
- Jackson (AM): Has a ton of tools, and can be a super dynamic chance creator at times. Then he’ll disappear. Has to find consistency.
Fullbacks, and depending upon what they think of Nilsson (they have to make an honest assessment there), maybe another center back as well.
The other honest personnel assessment they have to make is of d-mid Njabulo Blom, who was excellent over the first third of the season but got progressively worse throughout the year. This is brutal ball-watching in a must-win moment:
The goal this offseason has to be giving Bürki less work to do in 2024.
Bear in mind CITY have a DP slot open, so they can go big on a new 6 or CB if they see the need.