They can’t keep getting away with this! It’s a thought that's surely passed through at least a few opposing coaches' minds when matched up against St. Louis CITY SC, the first-year MLS club that continues to defy expectations in their inaugural season.
CITY SC’s most recent win, a 1-0 road victory at Toronto FC, ties them for the fifth-most wins of any expansion club in MLS history (with 13 regular-season games still to go) and only widens their points lead over the rest of the Western Conference. What’s more remarkable is this latest positive run of form (3W-0L-0D) comes without their only two Designated Players – João Klauss and Eduard Löwen – in the lineup, as both remain sidelined due to injury.
One major reason for the continued success? Elite play from the likes of Aziel Jackson, Akil Watts and Joshua Yaro, who all logged multiple matches for STL CITY 2 in MLS NEXT Pro earlier this year when first-team minutes were hard to come by.
“These are the guys that played with us, and we groomed them in a certain way. So we were just thinking, get these guys within our alignment, within our principles and alignment with a style of play and see how the year goes for them. And they've burned spots on the roster,” said head coach Bradley Carnell.
“... You have to take courage as a club, as a staff, and myself ultimately as a coach to be brave enough to play these guys. And I love the underdog. I love rewarding guys for hard work, and I love embracing the challenges, that if they embrace principles, I think we can achieve great things. So I've never been really one who cares much for names on backs of jerseys. I've always wanted to develop players.”
Jackson, who scored the game-winner Saturday at BMO Field off an assist from Watts, takes fuel from that belief and tries to instill the same feeling in his teammates.
“It starts internally, with how I prepare myself for the game… but also just the positivity around me that I just go into because it gives me adrenaline. And the staff believes in me, players believe me, and we believe in each other, and we all strive and we all excel,” said the 21-year-old attacking midfielder who was named to MLS NEXT Pro’s Bext XI last year for his play with MNUFC2 (before St. Louis traded for him in November 2022).
The winner is the culmination of a long journey for Jackson. The New York City native's path to MLS minutes wound through the New York Red Bulls Academy, Toulouse FC in France, Crossfire FC in Seattle and MNUFC2 in Minnesota. Upon returning from France to the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, things felt so grueling that he “didn’t want to get up for training.”
But all that perseverance in real life prepared him for the big moment in the 50th minute against Toronto.
“When I got the shot off, everyone was telling me 'shoot shoot shoot,' but I had to just be composed with myself and just find the right opening because I wanted to be patient in that moment," said Jackson. "And it felt super like I didn't hear anything around me. I felt just me and the ball, just like me in the park. It comes natural to my foot and I just believed in myself, and I was able to get the goal.”
Also honing that patience and composure were all the minutes Jackson earned in MLS NEXT Pro with MNUFC2.
“I think NEXT Pro was definitely a big year for me, being Best XI – those minutes. Because it's hard for young players nowadays. Like you think you need to be somewhere when actually you just need to stay where you are and continue to strive. Because a lot of players get complacent where they are,” said Jackson.
“I was one of those players, but learning through the MLS NEXT Pro system is just about game in, game out being professional, showing up. Showing up like you were on the first team, do the same thing you would do on the second team that you do on the first.”
With a busy schedule still ahead for CITY, including a marquee battle for Western Conference supremacy against LAFC on the road on Wednesday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), Carnell is simply pleased to have players all across his roster in great form.
“These are the heavy months now coming up, the next two months," Carnell said. "So these are the times where we need everybody. … It’s up to us to keep our foot on the gas.”