St. Louis CITY SC are ahead of schedule. And they want you to know they'll be here soon.
With the league still looking back on MLS Cup 2021, which New York City FC hoisted less than a month ago, and diving into all the offseason storylines – headlined by 2022 expansion club Charlotte FC building their inaugural roster and the European leaps made by Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike and James Sands – St. Louis dropped their own bombshell this week.
More than 13 months before they play their inaugural MLS game and more than 12 before preseason opens, St. Louis have their inaugural manager, naming former New York Red Bulls assistant and South African international Bradley Carnell as head coach.
“When we made our shortlist, Bradley Carnell was our No. 1. Our top candidate," sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel told MLSsoccer.com. "And it’s always a great feeling when you get your top candidate.”
The relationship between Carnell and Pfannenstiel goes back a while. They both have an extensive background in the Bundesliga and are disciples of the en vouge high press popularized in the country, better known there as Gegenpressing. Pfannenstiel included Carnell in a charity match in Nambia in 2015 and even taught the coaching course in which Carnell earned his coaching license.
That familiarity, and aligned tactical philosophies, made the pair a snug fit in MLS.
“I had some key engagements with Lutz and the ownership group, which was an aspiring process," Carnell said. "I was welcomed and embraced with totally open arms, the humility in which they went about their business was inspiring. It spoke massively to the club and helped me make my decision.”
St. Louis' early timeline was intentional, a decision that only Austin FC (Josh Wolff) made with more runway to their expansion season. Wolff was hired in the summer of 2019 with Austin arriving in 2021.
FC Cincinnati (Alan Koch) and Nashville SC (Gary Smith) retained their managers from their time in USL, announced prior in the spring. LAFC (Bob Bradley) and Charlotte (Miguel Ramirez) hired their managers in the summer prior to their expansion campaign. Inter Miami CF (Diego Alonso) officially appointed their manager less than two weeks prior to preseason.
“It was always a big goal to get our head coach in by January 2022, one year before we kick off," Pfannenstiel. "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.”
Carnell's profile was also deliberate. St. Louis made previous MLS experience a non-negotiable prerequisite, while his tactical vision matched what Pfannenstiel aims to build.
“We started to tick off the boxes, the most important for us was we wanted to have a coach who knows the league very well in detail," Pfannenstiel said. "I think that’s the biggest problem in recent MLS history, you bring in a big-name manager who just don’t know anything about the league. We definitely did not want to make that mistake. … Just as important was he completely understands our playing philosophy, our DNA.”
Carnell spent time as a player under Ralf Rangnick – current Manchester United interim manager and one of the world's leading purveyors of Gegenpressing – in the Bundesliga. Ragnick came of age as a coach at a similar time as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, with the two bringing the system wherever they went. Rangnick was previously manager of RB Leipzig and was also director of football for RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg.
“Ever since I could kick a ball," Carnell said he preferred this style. He enjoyed his time under Rangnick and learned the system more intimately.
Carnell was an assistant with the New York Red Bulls from 2017-21, serving as interim manager in 2020 after Chris Armas departed.
“There’s a lot of things to speak about in philosophy, but there’s one thing to talk about, it’s another to live it every day," he said. "... One word I spoke (about) as interim head coach was: Entitlement. We are entitled to nothing. We always have to put the club first, the club will outlive us, longer than any player or staff member. With a club so new, we can forge these pathways and build this culture that will live on for many years to come.”
This particular tactical ethos has taken a foothold in MLS in recent years, as it has in leagues around the world. The Red Bulls are best known for the system, starting under Jesse Marsch and through Gerhard Struber now. The Philadelphia Union shifted to it once German sporting director Ernst Tanner arrived, with both clubs experiencing great success. The Red Bulls have won two Supporters' Shields since Marsch first took over, while the Union have experienced their best passage in club history over the last few years, including a Supporters' Shield of their own.
D.C. United's Hernan Losada carries similar principles, while the notion of all-action high pressing has been used in different variances across other clubs. St. Louis will put their own spin and flavor to the vision.
For now, Pfannenstiel and Carnell will continue plotting the club's path forward together. One inherent benefit to a high-pressing system is the roles are defined, thus the key attributes are non-negotiable. That helps with recruitment and identifying talent. The club will continue building out its infrastructure while scouting and identifying targets. By the summer, players will begin to be signed.
“It’s no secret there’s a transfer window this summer where we want to be active and get some players for MLS," Pfannenstiel said. "It makes a lot of sense for Bradley to be here already, to be really involved in everything.”
Before you know it, St. Louis will have their first player. Summer will give way to fall and the roster-building process will ramp up. In little more than 13 short months, St. Louis CITY SC will take the field for their first-ever MLS match.
“The time flies," Pfannenstiel said. "I remember when I arrived in 2020, it feels like a few days ago but it was a long time ago. We’re just around the corner from kicking off.”