It’s no exaggeration to say St. Louis CITY SC shocked Major League Soccer during their inaugural season. As deafening home crowds packed into CITYPARK week after week, the newcomers defied bearish predictions by finishing first in the Western Conference in the regular season – their rugged, chaos-inducing high press tormenting opponents.
It was one of the best expansion years in league history, and Roman Bürki is proud of the achievements therein. That includes the All-Star and Best XI selection’s landslide capture of the Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award after tabbing 123 saves, 42 goals conceded and a 74.55% save percentage in 33 MLS games.
Now, he speaks of his team’s motivation to prove it wasn’t merely “beginner’s luck” when STL’s 2024 regular season begins with a Feb. 24 home match vs. Real Salt Lake (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). Yet CITY SC’s Swiss captain carries a bitter taste in his mouth this winter, thanks to his first experience of a particularly MLSian tradition: A high-flying team ambushed in the early stages of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
“We broke so many records,” Bürki told MLSsoccer.com at Media Marketing Day in Miami earlier this month. “But then still at the end of the season, you stand here with nothing. It’s a little bit like, ‘Yeah, we won the West, but at the end, we end the season disappointed.’
“If you are not going through the whole thing, you end up with nothing in your hands.”
All the work to build a tightly-knit squad and a distinctive playing style from scratch, to connect so profoundly with the fans, to stack up the results required to post a 17W-12L-5D league record? The veteran goalkeeper felt like it all fizzled into the ether when eighth-seeded Sporting Kansas City swept STL in Round One to produce the biggest upset of the ‘23 postseason.
It was a searingly powerful lesson in what makes the North American sporting landscape different, even – perhaps especially – for a 33-year-old who arrived on these shores with more than 400 matches played across several of Europe’s top competitions.
“Look, for me it is like a big achievement if you're at the end of 34 games, you're on top of the league or your conference. It's a big achievement,” said Bürki.
“Then you think back and you see teams like Seattle or LAFC, they could have won the Western [Conference] too, but they played it smart. Maybe they, I don't want to say they didn't want to win the other games. But then they were smart enough to know, ‘OK, we just have to go to the playoffs and then it counts.’”
Level-setting for '24
He went on to lament how the combination of a FIFA international break and the playoffs schedule chopped up CITY SC’s autumn calendar, with six matches in September and only half that many the following month, robbing them of rhythm and momentum.
The two-time World Cup veteran stops short of setting a specific trophy haul for the upcoming season, instead focusing on the street smarts St. Louis will need to develop to earn such opportunities.
“I don't want to say my expectation is that we're going to win a trophy,” he said. “My expectation or my wish/goal is that we're going to be more consistent in how we play and just also a little bit more, like, smarter … so that you don't end the season disappointed like we did. It would have been different if we go to the second round, maybe, or third round in the playoffs and then you go out. It would have been different than going out in the first round, especially against Kansas.”
Suffering thusly at the hands of their rivals from the other side of Missouri rubbed that much more salt into the wounds. For Bürki, the scale of that disappointment was big enough to cast a shadow over everything that had come before it, and perhaps what lies ahead.
Were STL sprinting through what their more established counterparts know is a marathon? Will head coach Bradley Carnell and his staff need to adjust the side’s sensibilities to push their no-egos, team-is-the-star culture to the next level?
A few months of introspection left Bürki convinced that winning MLS Cup is a different beast.
“We were chasing records and [every] game we take game by game,” he noted. “You use a lot of energy analyzing, why did we lose this game? Why did we draw in the last minute and use a lot of energy instead of just focusing: ‘OK, that happened. It doesn't matter because we're going to the playoffs and then it counts.’
“So you could have saved that energy that you put into analyzing and being frustrated after a game because you lost. Just make a cut and use that energy … because we knew that we can beat almost everyone if we stay true to ourselves, unless then we play against a team that puts the same amount of effort on the field and is better quality-wise with the ball.”
St. Louis found success with modest roster spending compared to the MLS elite, relying on a comprehensive collective commitment to an up-tempo system that prioritized the creation and exploitation of errors by their opponents. In 2022 sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel memorably declared, “In my world, there are no Designated Players … We believe in DT – Designated Team! Eleven players must make a difference, not one or two.”
With the second-lowest wage bill in the league according to MLS Players Association documents, CITY SC have followed through on those values. All that said, Bürki’s on-field excellence and all-around leadership underline how impactful star performers can be in a salary-budget league. As MLSsoccer.com’s Joe Lowery noted back in October, Bürki was the undisputed, far-and-away champion of American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, adding more than nine goals’ worth of value mainly via his superb shot-stopping.
While the ex-Borussia Dortmund man is the highest-paid ‘keeper in MLS, said to be making around $1.6 million annually, he reportedly took a steep pay cut to set out on this North American adventure, and his performance levels thus far make him one of the best values in the league. The CITYPARK faithful certainly see it that way: They’ve repurposed songs by Lady Gaga and The Cranberries to serenade his saves.
He’ll probably need to sustain that form if STL are to match or exceed their year-one heroics. They have made a handful of winter acquisitions and appear prepared to run it back with much the same squad executing that selfless, hard-working ethos.
The underlying numbers have already led analysts to predict a regression towards the mean in the coming season, a pattern that notably afflicted Austin FC from 2022 to 2023. Then again, Atlanta United won MLS Cup 2018 in their second year of play. As differently as ATL and STL have gone about their business in MLS, that’s the kind of ambitious, driven mindset Bürki wants the Midwestern side to embrace.
He firmly believes in the project.
“I think we showed that in the regular season that it's not just about quality, it's also about mentality,” said Bürki. “How you approach games, how you deal with setbacks, maybe not-so-successful games, and how you come back.
“We just created a unit in our team. We knew that we maybe have not the quality that other teams have with the ball, but we know that we can outwork almost every opponent, and just be the team that nobody wants to play against.”