MLS newcomers St. Louis CITY SC have repeatedly proved top-flight soccer was well worth the wait in The Gateway City.
The expansion side did it once again Saturday night, reclaiming the way-early 2023 Supporters' Shield lead from FC Cincinnati via a 5-1 rout – all following a two-plus-hour weather delay that involved a tornado warning and thunderstorms.
St. Louis and Cincy players, unsure of when the game would commence, were relegated to the locker room to ride out the storm. However, the mood in the home dressing room was a sharp contrast to the weather outside.
"It was incredible just to see the boys hanging about with a bunch of friends, and just good teammates," head coach Bradley Carnell noted afterward. "I heard some good spirit in the locker room, and it was our purpose to come out of the locker room as energized as we were for two hours."
CITY SC certainly started the match with the energy their home games are becoming synonymous with as Jared Stroud opened the scoring after just two minutes and 40 seconds, rewarding the St. Louis faithful who braved the elements.
Carnell's side never looked back, scoring four more before the 57th minute to stun the visitors and send the home crowd into a frenzy. Cincinnati, who entered the match on top of the MLS standings with just four goals allowed, were the latest in a string of heavy favorites the first-year side have knocked off en route to a league-leading 18 points through Matchday 8 (6W-2L-0D).
After losses in their previous two matches, from games vs. Minnesota United FC and Seattle Sounders FC, Carnell's group never panicked. They never even considered that anything needed too much fixing, shortly removed from their record-breaking start to life in MLS (five season-opening wins).
"We never really wanted to speak about anything being broken. We're the creators of our own destiny," the South African manager said, adding "we knew nothing was broken, nothing structural" despite the recent dip in results.
"We've got out of the blocks really quickly with the five wins, so we as a group set out standards really high. So how do we bounce back? Just try to keep it competitive, try and keep things jovial, fun, loose but still serious... There's always this ebb and flow, and we've got to balance between the chaos and the intensity that we bring."
On the back of yet another statement performance from the first-year club, expectations from fans and media are rising. CITY SC, almost universally picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference back in preseason, are undoubtedly a team to beat. It's hard to overstate how much St. Louis have taken the league by surprise and proved their skeptics wrong.
Unsurprisingly, Carnell isn't putting much stock in that.
"If external expectations are growing after eight matchdays, we know where those expectations were before matchday one," he smiled wryly. "We'll leave the outside chatter as that: outside chatter. What we discuss internally, what we want to achieve internally, stays with us and drives us every single day."
"We're not playing that game. We're playing the game that we want to control and dictate."
It was a similar message from Stroud after St. Louis blew past a somewhat-shorthanded FCC side missing midfield playmaker Luciano Acosta (shoulder injury) and striker Brenner (nearing transfer to Serie A's Udinese).
"Shows resilience," Stroud said of the bounceback. "We've had tough times in the year where we've been down a goal and we've come back and won those games. It's important for us to have the right mentality. It shows the guts that the guys in the locker have and the camaraderie we have."