Nicholas ‘Niko’ Gioacchini is no stranger to the Midwest, spending the first eight years of his life in the Kansas City area. His memories of those early childhood days don’t run too deep, though.

“I remember my house, the yard that we had, the local supermarket we went to and the soccer field, the soccer complex that they were building down the street,” Gioacchini recalled to MLSsoccer.com. “They were getting rid of all the baseball fields and putting in new turf fields.”

It’s safe to say Gioacchini won’t forget his second Midwest chapter any time soon.

The 23-year-old US international forward, with 10 goals and one assist through 21 starts, is St. Louis CITY SC’s leading scorer as their dream inaugural season sees them atop the Western Conference standings. And it’s all the byproduct of a November 2022 phone call, when he found out Major League Soccer’s newest team was picking him with one of their five Expansion Draft selections.

“My life changed then,” Gioacchini said. “That’s why I always try to stay positive because sometimes it's tough, you don’t know what’s coming. Then one second later your whole life can change.”

World travels

At the time, Gioacchini was less than four months into being an Orlando City SC player – originally returning Stateside in late July 2022 after nearly a decade climbing the professional soccer ranks in France. He’d accumulated eight USMNT appearances along the way, but was enticed by Orlando’s approach and wanted to return home in search of a refresh and increased minutes.

“The Orlando experience, that wasn't one that I had planned,” Gioacchini said.

Nor is this St. Louis one, but then again Gioacchini is used to changing locales and trying new experiences. Due to his father’s work selling pasta machines, he moved to Parma, Italy and Paris, France as a child, as well as back to the US in Bethesda, Maryland. That led to Gioacchini, technically the middle of three children (his younger sibling is a twin brother), speaking three languages fluently and working to pick up a fourth (Spanish) within a year.

He’s developed a worldly outlook from those stops, even if it wasn’t easy at times.

“French, it was so hard to learn,” Gioacchini joked. “At training, at first I never really asked what people were saying. I would just observe. I just looked. I just watched what everyone was doing. I listened and I tried to replicate what they were doing, what they were saying, even sometimes without fully understanding what was going on. I think that's how I learned it. 

“That's how I got the basis of French, it was definitely by ear. I have the blessing that I learn languages fairly quickly. I catch on to things and my brain just memorizes and understands it quickly. That really helped, but of course I had moments where I was completely lost. Probably for the first year you never saw me first in line when I was coming up to do any drill.”

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But surely, Gioacchini’s mixture of talent, athleticism and motivation allowed him to forge ahead. He was first at Paris FC, then climbed the ranks at Caen – two clubs that now compete in Ligue 2 (France’s second division) – and had a loan stint at Montpellier.

Like most players, Gioacchini’s breakthrough came when a coach showed faith in his potential. Caen coach Pascal Dupraz, who now leads French side Dijon, provided the path. After scoring in bunches for their youth teams and reserves, Gioacchini was given a first-team debut in October 2019 – against Paris FC of all opponents – and never looked back.

“I will always remember that,” Gioacchini reminisced. “It was my first professional game, my first start and my first goal all in one. It was against my old team as well, so it was a quad combo all wrapped together. My mom was there as well and we absolutely obliterated them. Definitely a crazy night, crazy night.”

USMNT opportunity

As Gioacchini steadily impressed at Caen, he caught the eye of USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter. His first camp? It arrived in ​​November 2020 and was the program’s first after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world.

Part of a European-heavy roster, Gioacchini earned his international debut with a late-game cameo in a 0-0 draw at Wales before later starting and scoring twice in a 6-2 win over Panama, the latter game held at a neutral site in Austria. It was all a whirlwind, with Gioacchini looking to prove he belonged.

“The first game I got into, I was nervous as hell obviously, definitely exciting,” said Gioacchini. “I must have gotten 10 minutes in that game, but coming in and being able to play with top, world-class players was a great experience, especially coming from such a small club in France. It was career-changing.

“My second game, so my first start, I had a brace. It was life-changing as well because I wasn't expecting to make a difference. I had no expectations of myself going into there considering who was playing around me. When you have guys like Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams, you're saying look where these guys are playing and look where I play you. It’s almost like what am I doing, but you come out with a top performance and you almost surprise yourself.”

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Might there be another USMNT push coming, especially as Gioacchini hovers within striking distance of the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi? He’s in the ‘let your play do the talking’ camp. 

“I don't really think about the international team too much,” Gioacchini said. “It's not the most important part right now in my career; that’s to do well with my club. If Gregg decides to call me later, he does. If he doesn't, he doesn't. I mean, I have no control over that no matter what I do on the field. So I'm just focused on St. Louis CITY.”

Trophy dreams

That approach has certainly boosted St. Louis, who have defied all first-year expectations and set numerous expansion-club records along the way. And, in Gioacchini’s case, that often meant providing a No. 9 answer while DP striker João Klauss dealt with a long-term muscular injury. Samuel Adeniran, acquired for a low-price trade with Seattle Sounders FC, deserves plenty of credit as well for solving that predicament.

From the Midwest and nation’s capital to Italy and France, it’s all shaped the player St. Louis fans have grown to love. The feeling is mutual.  

“St. Louis will always feel like home because of how I've been treated,” said Gioacchini. "I say home is where the heart is, so I feel the love from the fans and from the group here. That goes a long way. I also have ambitions and dreams that I'd like to put into reality, but for the moment I'm definitely very happy here in St. Louis.”

Maybe it will all end with a memorable Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs experience as the West’s No. 1 seed. Or even raising the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Dec. 9.

“It would definitely be cold then, but I'd rather lift up the trophy in our freezing weather than in some warmer place that isn't home,” said Gioacchini. “Lifting a cup at home would be a dream come true.”

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