When you watch the goals individually, without context, it’s easy to write them off as individual gaffes, the brain farts that inevitably crop up in the early weeks of any season.
Stuff happens, right? How else could you explain, in isolation, why Austin FC’s Kipp Keller passed the ball straight to Jared Stroud to hand St. Louis CITY SC the equalizer on opening day, setting the stage for the high-pressing expansion side’s stunning 3-2 comeback away win in their inaugural match? Much the same can be said for Bill Tuiloma’s own goal, or the Adilson Malanda back pass right to João Klauss in Charlotte FC’s loss to STL a week later.
But then the deadly self-inflicted wounds kept happening to St. Louis’ opponents:
- A costly Cristian Espinoza turnover deep in his own end to instigate a deflected Tomás Ostrák goal in their win over the San Jose Earthquakes.
- Yet another pass, this time by Pablo Ruiz, straight to Klauss early in a buildup for Real Salt Lake leading directly to a one-on-one with the goalkeeper to hand CITY SC the third goal in a 4-0 road rout.
Perfect execution or sheer luck?
At what point should we start framing all this as something more than an incredible sequence of dumb luck?
“You can ask that question to every coach in the league. You ask somebody from St. Louis, they'll tell you it's because of the press,” ruminated LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo on Thursday. “If you ask a coach from the opposing team who made a mistake, they’ll say it’s a mistake.
“The truth is, it's somewhere in the middle.”
St. Louis lead the league in scoring with 15 goals and are a consistent menace on set pieces. Klauss in particular has feasted on errors, scoring most of his second-in-MLS five goals that way.
“When we go over the video later in the week, it is something we will show [the players],” Minnesota United FC’s Adrian Heath told reporters of the Brazilian’s strange knack for picking off passes ahead of his side’s visit to CITYPARK Saturday (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). “Maybe it’s not a coincidence.”
Whatever you believe, it’s added up to a perfect 5W-0L-0D start and a three-point lead atop the Supporters’ Shield table for St. Louis, the last team in MLS with an unblemished record and the only one with a double-digit goal differential (+11). So MLSsoccer.com took Cherundolo’s advice and asked an array of CITY SC boss Bradley Carnell’s counterparts if they can explain how STL are doing it.
All according to plan
Giovanni Savarese has worked in North American soccer since before the dawn of MLS, and his viewpoint reflects it.
“We have to understand that they're playing in a city that is one of the most important soccer cities in the history of soccer in the United States. So there is I'm sure a great feeling around with the history and the passion that the city has had in the past. They've been hungry for this moment,” said Savarese, whose Portland Timbers were undone by the Midwesterners on Matchday 3.
“Good for them, they're a good group of guys. I do think the luck comes because there is this understanding of where to be on the field: There is pressure, a determination to press that forces players to play those balls. At the end, that luck is there because of their creation. So it's not a luck that comes out of nothing,” noted Savarese while adding "they find their own luck."
Not everyone indulged us. Some managers begged off, citing the amount of work they have to do with their own squads. But in general, even the teams that don’t have CITY SC on their schedule are paying attention.
“It's probably the top story of the league so far,” said Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin on Wednesday. “And probably a surprise to the outside, and probably not a surprise to those guys in that locker room, because there's a real belief in what they're doing.”
“Sometimes it is just bad passes, let's be honest. The Klauss guy is not invisible,” he added with a grin. “But look, they want to make the opponent uncomfortable. I think that's pretty clear to the way that they want to play. When you think of the Red Bull ideas, it’s similar … when you press a team, when you make them uncomfortable, when they're fatigued at the end of the game – I'll just say when guys are tired, those mistakes come.”
A tried-and-true philosophy
Vancouver Whitecaps FC coach Vanni Sartini revealed some insight Carnell shared with him when their teams met in Coachella, California during preseason.
“He said we looked for, and we are evaluating in this first year, people that are hard-working and we can rely on in terms of the work rate and the professionalism and the capacity to sustain the demands of MLS,” said the Italian. “I think that’s the key. It’s not a secret that they built the team in a way that has to be high-energy, pressing, and I would say very hard to play against.
“Every game they play is really open. They score a lot of goals, maybe they can concede a lot of goals, but it’s very open because they’re very aggressive, and so far it’s paid off. But also I think it pays off in this league, especially in this league more than in other leagues around the world, to have a clear philosophy of playing. And they have a clear philosophy of playing.”
The trajectory of Curtin’s Union project is instructive here. After spending most of their first decade of existence thrashing about in search of a sustainable plan and dependable leadership, Philly honed in on a rugged, press-centric game model upon the arrival of Ernst Tanner from Red Bull Salzburg in 2018.
The German executive would help Curtin crystallize a blue-collar, collectivist ethos staffed by a fertile academy and clever, under-the-radar acquisitions both within MLS and globally. Winning the 2020 Shield, then advancing to last year’s MLS Cup final – even while raking in millions of dollars in transfer fees for the likes of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie – quickly made the DOOPers a role model around the league.
Carnell spent years on the New York Red Bulls’ staff, and St. Louis sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel is a longtime acquaintance of Tanner dating back to their days as colleagues at Hoffenheim.
“There are a lot of similarities. There's a lot of crossover,” said Curtin, who noted approvingly that CITY SC are “building a club, they're not buying the club,” much like Philly. “Lutz and Ernst are close. They've shared dialogue and stories and the great job that Lutz has done piecing together a roster, I think it was done uniquely, similar to how Philadelphia has done kind of uniquely, mining different areas of the globe.
“Finding different ways to put together a real team, that all 11 guys on the same page can beat any group of superstars, I think they have a similar mindset and philosophy. And they have players right now that have belief, and that is a really powerful thing.”
Noted Cherundolo: “Any team in this league who has a very clear idea of how to play, and are disciplined and stick to that way of playing and do not go left or right and really, really play that 90 minutes, are successful. And that's what they’re doing.”
Separation in the preparation
Many newcomers to MLS have been hampered by rushed countdowns to their debuts or difficulties in transitioning from lower divisions. STL found a sweet spot by participating in the first season of MLS NEXT Pro last year, bringing in many of their signings months ahead of time to get settled and help build tactical cohesion and locker-room culture. Plus their CITYPARK home and adjacent training ground were ready for year one.
“They made a good preparation last year with their second team, having some of the players already that are participating this year, being part of that,” said Savarese. “They anticipated years before in order to make sure they had the ideas clear of what they wanted. I think there's an understanding in the way they want to play. The way they play, they can get always more. It's been proven that the system and the way they play, you can get more from players than maybe other ways.”
Charlotte’s Christian Lattanzio suggested STL are already well ahead of his club, who had to pivot just months into their 2022 debut when Miguel Ángel Ramirez was let go suddenly.
“They already had a team while we started, for example, from scratch,” said Lattanzio. “So they already had something to build from, as opposed to being a totally new project like we are. And it’s not the same.
“Credit to them, they are doing well and they are following their own philosophy. I have respect for what they are doing, and this is what we are trying to do here, in a different way.”
Tougher tests ahead
History, and some of the coaches we spoke with, suggest even with a long-term, sustainability-oriented mindset, St. Louis will sooner or later hit a rough patch. It could strike as early as Saturday, given that Minnesota can sit deep and play reactively in a way CITY SC haven’t really encountered yet. Or perhaps impending duels with talented Seattle and Cincinnati squads will impose some reality.
Then there’s the question of opposition scouting and analysis. Cherundolo’s words pointed to the work other organizations will be doing to drill down on soft spots in the St. Louis system.
“There are ways to bypass presses, and teams against St. Louis up until now have chosen not to,” said the leader of the reigning Shield and MLS Cup holders, who competed against Carnell during their playing days in the Bundesliga. “Certainly you have that choice with the ball; you can bypass it, you can try to play through it. And over the first five games, the opponents have chosen poorly in those moments.”
For the time being, though, there’s overwhelming respect for STL from the ones who know better than any how difficult it is to achieve what they have in their first month of play.
“It all comes down to execution,” said Chicago Fire FC’s Ezra Hendrickson, who’ll welcome CITY SC to Soldier Field in May. “Bradley has them playing very, very organized as a team and we all get a break every now and then.
“Yes, [Klauss] is scoring goals, but there's no real superstar on the team. Everyone just rolls up their sleeves and fights for each other, at home and on the road. I'm really happy for them and what they have going on down there.”