Headlines have centered around Eduard Löwen, João Klauss and Roman Bürki, and rightfully so. All three were expected to lead the group, and they have, to the tune of four wins in four matches, the best start by an expansion club in league history.
Stepping up around them are role players, many of whom were overlooked at previous clubs.
In St. Louis’ most recent win – 3-0 over the San Jose Earthquakes – seven of the 11 starters either came from other MLS teams where they weren’t regular starters or from clubs who eventually passed on their services:
- Jared Stroud played just 41 minutes for Austin FC last season and was acquired in a trade.
- Jake Nerwinski spent most of 2022 out of position, then saw the Vancouver Whitecaps decline his contract option. St. Louis signed him in free agency.
- Indiana Vassilev, Nico Gioacchini and Johnny Nelson were left unprotected by their clubs and selected by St. Louis in the 2022 MLS Expansion Draft.
- Lucas Bartlett never made an MLS debut for FC Dallas, was brought in by STL for a trial and signed earlier this month.
- Kyle Hiebert went undrafted last year (nine teams passed on a third-round selection) and signed with St. Louis’ MLS NEXT Pro team before earning a first-team contract. He is currently with the Canadian national team this week.
The threads tying these performances together start with a clear identity and recruitment philosophy to match that vision and are completed by a coaching staff, led by Bradley Carnell, that have laid out clear principles and roles.
It doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a bunch of dawgs in the locker room, either.
“What Lutz and Brad have done really well, they put together a team with no egos,” Nelson told MLSsoccer.com this week. “No a-------, honestly.”
Carnell and Klauss pointed out on Saturday that nobody believed in them going into the season (Which is fair. Our predictions at MLSsoccer.com had nine of the 13 analysts, myself included, projecting STL to finish bottom of the West. The other four projected STL second to last).
“Everybody likes to prove somebody wrong, you know what I mean?” Nerwinski said.
“I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think it’s everyone,” Nelson added. “I saw some tweets that our backline wasn’t good and we’d allow a ton of goals. That’s just B.S. I took that personally. There’s no chance that’s going to happen. The whole team took it personally.”
Finding a new home
Nerwinski spent the first six seasons of his career in Vancouver playing a regular role. A natural right back, he began filling in at unfamiliar positions, including left back and then left center back in a back three.
“I was fine with doing that to help out the team, but at some point, it wasn’t progressing my career,” Nerwinski said.
After Vancouver declined his contract option, Nerwinski was eligible for free agency. Before that period even started, he looked over all the rosters in MLS to see where he may fit in as a right back. St. Louis were still building their inaugural roster, but Nerwinski liked what they were putting together.
“I went through the list of teams to see who the right back was,” Nerwinski said. “Where could somewhere be a fit. I was playing left center back the last few seasons, it’s not somewhere I wanted to be playing long-term. I looked into St. Louis, I saw everything being built and the style of play, it was so appealing to me.”
“I’m playing to prove people wrong”
“He was a really good coach with the Red Bulls, took over and helped secure the playoffs in a tough Covid year,” Stroud said. “I knew his style, I knew he was a coach that had belief in me. … For me, I’ve seen this before but for others, it’s like, 'who’s this new coach on the block?'”
Stroud won a regular role with the club as the season went on, starting 11 games while appearing in 20 (of 23 in the shortened season), and was selected by Austin FC in their Expansion Draft ahead of the 2021 season. He was a regular squad player in their inaugural season, racking up 1,167 minutes over 22 appearances but completely fell out of favor in 2022. He only played 41 minutes, with his last appearance coming in July.
“I mean, last year didn’t make much sense,” Stroud said.
St. Louis’ debut in MLS came on the road against Stroud’s former club, Austin. Stroud popped up to score a big late goal in a thrilling 3-2 win.
“The win against Austin felt really good,” Stroud admitted. “To show up, play really well, score and win? It was an emotional game for me.
"Every game I play is partially to be upset for what happened last year, to put my name on the board for what it deserves. Last year was tough, there’s definitely a sense of me that I’m playing to prove a lot of people wrong.”