Earlier than most previous MLS expansion sides, St. Louis CITY SC embarked on more of their initial roster build by signing eight players to first-team contracts by the end of this summer.
All eight of those players are in-market with their MLS NEXT Pro side, getting to know the club, city and country, too. That team, St. Louis CITY2, will vie for the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup on Saturday at Columbus Crew 2 (1:30 pm ET), one day before the final MLS regular-season matchday before St. Louis's first team debuts in the league next year.
Some of the key players signed include Champions League veteran and former Switzerland international goalkeeper Roman Burki, fellow internationals Tomas Ostrak and Selmir Pidro, as well as Designated Players João Klauss and Eduard Lowen.
Well, “Designated Player” isn’t a term that STL sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel particularly enjoys in the buildup to their 2023 introduction to MLS as the league's 29th team.
“We’re not really on the hunt any more for DPs. … We don’t need DPs. In my world, there are no Designated Players,” Pfannenstiel told MLSsoccer.com. “The only reason our two DPs are DPs is because of the transfer fees, otherwise we wouldn’t have DPs. We believe in DT – Designated Team! Eleven players must make a difference, not one or two.”
Klauss, a 25-year-old Brazilian striker, was with Hoffenheim but spent most of his time out on loan before signing with STL. Lowen, also 25 and arriving from the Bundesliga, made 77 top-flight appearances in Germany. Klauss already has four goals and three assists in just 217 NEXT Pro minutes, while Ostrak, Pidro and Burki each had a few hundred minutes after arriving this summer as well.
“We don’t need a ‘PR Player’,” Pfannenstiel said. “We will have our stadium full regardless. If we play against a Disney XI, with Goofy in goal and Pluto as a No. 9, we’d still be sold out.”
Ostrak is a 22-year-old Czech Republic youth international with a handful of Bundesliga appearances; Pidro, 24, has a few caps with Bosnia and Herzegovina; Joakim Nilsson has 14 caps with the Sweden national team.
Not a "typical expansion team"?
St. Louis will play a system under head coach Bradley Carnell focused on high-pressing, counter-pressing and transition. Carnell was previously with the New York Red Bulls, and Pfannenstiel has plenty of experience in the Bundesliga, which is the birthplace of Gegenpressing. Teams like this – such as the Red Bulls – often focus on young, rising players. St. Louis will be doing the same next year at Centene Stadium, their 22,500-seat soccer-specific venue, and on their travels.
“The superstar story about signing somebody at a certain age, comes over here and basically is the best player in the world, rock-and-rolls MLS? It’s basically a fairytale,” Pfannenstiel said. “My idea is the opposite. I believe in signing younger players who are hungry, who don’t believe they’re the best things since sliced bread, the ones who want to get better.
"That’s how you create a unit, not two or three classes of players. That doesn’t work anywhere in business, companies or other sports teams. Balance makes the difference, it’s a very big part of our club. We’re all the same, we work together. The team is the star.”
With those key international players getting a six-month head start on life in America (including a little taste of the expansive travel requirements), St. Louis are hoping to assuage some of the growing pains as an expansion club, as well as the settling-in time for those not accustomed to MLS.
“We don’t want to start like the typical expansion team,” Pfannenstiel said. “We don’t want it to be where [head coach] Bradley Carnell opens the door on the first day of preseason and there’s 25 people who have never met each other, good luck.”
“Getting to be with the team, know the staff, know where to live and the city, it means when they come back it won’t be something new, it’ll be like coming home,” he added. “It was really valuable for us. The possibility ownership gave me to bring the guys in so early was amazing for us.”
St. Louis have also already done the bulk of their work on the international market. Their strategy was to sign international players in the summer, then focus on the domestic market and add players from within MLS this winter. They have their Expansion Draft on Nov. 11, when they can add up to five players from the eligible player list, and will be active in the trade and free agent markets as well.
“My goal was to have the biggest amount of foreigners, maybe all of them, signed this summer,” Pfannenstiel said. “It takes away pressure to fish in different lakes. The foreign market is one market, the local is another. We tried to keep it separate. The summer was very clear to dive into the international market, to sign players who we know will be here next season.”
Expansion Draft and offseason ahead
St. Louis will conduct their Expansion Draft amid a busy offseason calendar, less than a week after the 2022 season concludes with MLS Cup on Nov. 5.
The club can select five players from the unprotected list across 23 teams, excluding Atlanta United, Austin FC, D.C. United, LAFC and NYCFC, who are exempt after having players selected by current expansion side Charlotte FC last year. The other 23 teams will have to submit a list of 12 protected players who cannot be selected, while homegrown and Generation adidas players (who haven't graduated from the program) are automatically protected.
“The Expansion Draft isn’t like going into a candy shop and getting just what you want," Pfannenstiel quipped. "It’s more complex than that."
St. Louis will try to predict which players will or won’t be protected by other clubs. He joked that teams like FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union have so many homegrowns that “even the kit manager is protected by homegrown rights."
“We’re doing our homework, we’re watching literally every game that’s played in MLS,” Pfannenstiel said. “The good thing is that Bradley knows the league very well, John [Hackworth] knows the United States soccer landscape like hardly anyone else, so I have two great guys with me. We’re aware of every single player.”
LAFC, Atlanta United and Nashville SC have been the standard-bearers for immediate success in MLS following expansion, while Austin FC have experienced a huge jump forward in their second season in the league, having clinched the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference this year.
“Some recent expansion teams did really well. Others did pretty well, too,” Pfannenstiel said. “Starting an expansion team is probably the most difficult job in soccer; you’re starting from ground zero. It’s not a surprise that most teams have had a rough awakening. But it’s not just what you do in the first year, it’s about the medium-term.”
MLS NEXT PRO Final awaits
Before continuing the roster build, St. Louis have a chance to win the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup final.
“Reaching the final wasn’t a goal, not at all,” Pfannenstiel said. “Genuinely we just wanted to win as many games as we lose, get some meaningful games in but more so to use the season to get to know the league, know the travel, know where to stay. It was a good test run, but we realized pretty early we had a chance to be better than midtable.”
Though the club brought in numerous players on MLS contracts to play a bit with the second team this summer, none of those key international players featured for more than 400 minutes. The group – led by Kyle Hiebert, Josh Yaro, Wan Kuzain and more – were playing to potentially earn first-team deals. Hiebert already has, while Yaro is expected to as well.
“Having a trophy in your first year is not something you can expect,” Pfannenstiel said. “Thinking back to when I arrived, we didn’t have a ball or net. I had a piece of paper and a lot of ideas. Now, two years later, we won a title [Western Conference]. And we hope to win the final, a real cherry on top. We don’t feel any pressure whatsoever, the pressure should definitely be on the Columbus side. Hopefully we can win the title and take it home to the Midwest.”