It won’t be perfect throughout 2023. This league can be humbling like that. There will be natural dips, times when the ball doesn’t bounce quite right (or bounce across the six-yard box at all before you can head home a late game-winning goal), but it’s clear the expansion club has gotten a few things right to start their inaugural MLS season.
Before any players were signed, and more than a year before their first MLS preseason began, St. Louis CITY SC named Bradley Carnell as their head coach.
It was a strong hire. Carnell had ample MLS experience as an assistant with the New York Red Bulls and boasted a long playing career in the German Bundesliga. He also aligned with sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel’s high-pressing tactical belief, having played under Ralf Rangnick (considered the godfather of modern Gegenpressing in the Bundesliga). The fit was sound.
Having a defined playing style early is key. Having the head coach on board, able to help build the roster and be involved in conversations with potential signings is key, too. That philosophy colored every single roster decision the club made, with defined characteristics for every position in the squad.
“It was always a big goal to get our head coach in by January 2022, one year before we kick off," Pfannenstiel told MLSsoccer.com after the news went official. "It gives us plenty of opportunities. Obviously I want the head coach involved in the recruitment process, there’s a big way of communication in that. Secondly, it’s really important for Bradley to get to know the football culture in St. Louis.”
It sounds simple, but this sort of early planning/clear-eyed vision from the top down hasn’t always been the norm in expansion builds around MLS. Irrespective of what players came, it was clear they’d fit the mold. That’s half the battle.
It’s subjective, but CITY SC's biggest signings include João Klauss, Eduard Löwen, Roman Bürki, Tim Parker, Joakim Nilsson and Njabulo Blom. Nilsson is currently injured. The other five are leading the way.
The vast majority of the playing roster has performed well. Yet, undoubtedly, St. Louis are being led by Klauss, Löwen and Parker so far.
Löwen made MLSsoccer.com’s Team of the Matchday presented by Audi each of the first two weeks of the season and has 1g/3a already. Klauss has two goals, plus has displayed a roundness and high-quality hold-up that few knew he had. Those are the club’s two DPs.
Parker scored the club’s first-ever MLS goal and has looked rejuvenated in central defense, anchoring the team with Nilsson out long-term. He was the club’s biggest domestic addition. Bürki has been solid in goal and Blom has impressed in his two appearances in defensive midfield.
Beyond the expected top contributors, STL are getting big performances from the rest of the roster as well.
Jared Stroud has enjoyed a breakout first three matches, getting a run of games he hasn’t previously had in his MLS career. MLS NEXT Pro standout Kyle Hiebert has admirably stepped in for Nilsson, scoring the game-winning goal at the Portland Timbers last Saturday. John Nelson has started all three games at left back.
When your best players are indeed your best players, role players have a better platform to excel. Their best players have excelled so quickly in part because…
… Most key additions were signed early and arrived last summer rather than in January for preseason.
First, it was for getting deals sorted. They didn’t wait to rush signings through in January after preseason already started. They identified and acquired targets in the spring and summer, most of whom would become centerpieces as well (four of the six I mentioned above).
Selmir Pidro was the club’s first MLS signing on Feb. 1, 2022, more than a full calendar year before their MLS debut. Tomáš Ostrák, Klauss and Bürki were signed in March. They had eight signings officially announced by August, seven of whom came from abroad.
All of those players came to town early, a particularly surprising development for the likes of Bürki, Klauss, Löwen and Nilsson. By the summer, they were in the Midwest.
“We don’t want to start like the typical expansion team,” Pfannenstiel told MLSsoccer.com in October. “We don’t want it to be where Bradley Carnell opens the door on the first day of preseason and there’s 25 people who have never met each other, good luck.”
The drawback was the Bundesliga-level players had six months where they weren’t playing top-flight soccer, but the positives vastly outweigh the concerns. All players were able to acclimate to life in St. Louis off the field, as well as train with the group every day. They didn’t play a ton of MLS NEXT Pro minutes – what did a player like Bürki, with UEFA 33 Champions League appearances at German giants Borussia Dortmund, have to gain by playing every week in a third-division development league? – but they were still training at a strong level.
“It was great for me to come six months early,” Löwen told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month. “I could do all the important stuff you need to do to get settled into a foreign country and now I just get to focus on the season.”
Arriving to market early also showed commitment from ownership. The club had to sanction those deals and pay MLS salaries for six months, despite players not playing MLS games. They essentially started the clock on the wage bill early with no boxscore results to show for it.
“Getting to be with the team, know the staff, know where to live and the city, it means when they come back it won’t be something new, it’ll be like coming home,” Pfannenstiel said. “It was really valuable for us. The possibility ownership gave me to bring the guys in so early was amazing for us.”
That investment is paying off now.
St. Louis have only played one home game, so it’s too early to tell if CITYPARK will truly become a fortress this season. But it’s not too early to say the atmosphere at the 22,500-capacity downtown venue is going to be great.
Their home debut was a long time coming. St. Louis is among the American cities with the deepest soccer history, if not the deepest. In the 3-1 home-opening win over Charlotte FC, there was something palpable in the crowd that felt that wait. It was electric.
It wasn’t just a one-off. This city immediately bought up season tickets and there’s already a waitlist. Austin FC showed pretty quickly in 2021 that their atmosphere was going to be strong, even when the team wasn’t doing great. The results caught up in 2022.
St. Louis have multiple senior roster spots open, as well as room for a Designated Player if they want to pursue that. This team can make additions in the summer, big or small.
I reported over the weekend St. Louis are among the teams interested in signing superstar striker Roberto Firmino in the summer; the Brazilian international is set to leave Premier League side Liverpool. They wouldn’t have to do much (if at all) roster rule maneuvering to make that happen. Ditto for any other high-priced addition they would want to make.
This idea isn’t unique, but they still got it right. It’s something Nashville SC, Austin and Charlotte have particularly prioritized during recent expansion builds.
Nashville have taken a few swings with DPs in the summer (Jhonder Cádiz in their first season, Aké Loba last year). They had the budget to make significant additions in their first offseason. Austin added Sebastián Driussi in the summer of their debut season and Ruben Gabrielsen in the winter. Charlotte started re-tooling their roster last summer, then had the budget for a DP center forward (Enzo Copetti) this winter.
It’s something all teams should be doing. No matter how confident you are, no one gets every single signing right. Players underperform for different reasons – adaptability, fit, injury, luck or just not being good enough relative to their salary cap hit.
St. Louis seem to understand that and are poised to act if needed.