The pattern of a first-year MLS club is pretty well set by now. Team gets announced, we all joke about the league being a Ponzi scheme (still might be!), they begin play in a stadium that looks fun as hell in front of raucous crowds, and then kind of eat it for most of the season. Maybe they pick it up in year 2 like Austin FC or are just bankrolled and glitzy like LAFC in 2018 to crush skulls from jump street, but for the most part, for as goofy as MLS can be, new teams still have to take their lumps.
St. Louis City SC have decidedly said, “Fuck that noise.”
City SC have started the year 5-0-0, are atop the Western Conference, have the best goal difference in the league, and have already collected just shy of a third of the points they’ll probably need to get to the playoffs in their inaugural season with only 15 percent of the season gone. So who the fuck are these guys?
It’s probably necessary to understand that in MLS, aside from maybe the top two or three clubs, the talent bases of these teams don’t vary wildly. It’s why any team that can find or produce a quality No. 10 to direct the attack generally finds itself in the playoffs. The other way to do it is to have a system and tactics that every single player buys into and is acquired to serve and play that system to the absolute hilt. Synergy goes a long way on these shores.
St. Louis has blended these, but have leaned more into the system part of that equation. Manager Bradley Carnell is a coaching product of the Red Bull system, serving as an assistant for the New York chapter and briefly serving as an interim manager after Chris Armas got shitcanned. He also played under Ralf Rangnick. Which means that he believes his team should press the shit out of the opponent as high up the field as they can, and St. Louis City certainly do that. Only DC United had won more tackles in the opposing third of the field so far this season, and no team has won the ball more in the middle third than St. Louis. You may escape the first wave but you won’t get past the second. It’s telling that Josh Nelson, the team’s left-back, leads the team in tackles with nearly half of them coming in midfield, giving you some idea of how high up the field St Louis wants to engage.
They’ve also found a battering ram up front in Brazilian striker João Klauss (it’s as fun to say as you think), who has bagged five goals and an assist in five games. Klauss had barely held onto squad player status in tours through the Austrian, German, and Belgian league, but has found a home in Missouri. He’s 6-2, and apparently is a lot like Giannis when he gets rolling downhill…
Or when he’s not doing that he’s just ripping off full volleys from 20 yards:
But this is MLS, and you can’t get too far without someone pulling the strings right behind the strikers. St. Louis has Edward Löwen, whom they pulled out of the Bundesliga. Löwen had made some noise for Bochum last season, starting 15 times, amassing 1400 minutes, and contributing two goals and two assists. He’s already matched that goal contribution in just five games in MLS.
Partnering Klauss up front is former USMNT thing/hope Nicholas Gioachinni, who is clearly hoping to be a USMNT thing/hope again. He’s only 22 and has scored in the club’s last two matches. Partnering Löwen in the center in St. Louis’s usual 4-2-2-2 is Indiana Vassiley, whom I only mention simply so I could write, “Indiana Vassiley.”
Bubble bursting index
This is usually the time when I spit up some analytics that will portend to a summit with the Earth for a high-flying club…and this time will be no different.
One, the schedule has been a touch kind. SLC has gotten looks at San Jose, Real Salt Lake, and Charlotte, none of whom will be confused with league powers. But to be fair, they won in Austin, last year’s darling and widely predicted to be an MLS Cup contender this season. And they clubbed Portland in Portland, one of the harder places to play in the league.
No, Klauss isn’t going to keep scoring on 56 percent of the shots he gets on target. No, they’re not going to keep doubling up their expected goals tally. But Löwen looks like a definite MLS architect in midfield, which means the chances should still flow, even if fewer of them go in.
At the other end, goalkeeper Röman Burki (how many umlauts is a team allowed?) does have pedigree, and will probably bail them out more than a few times when things get rough. Like this:
They also appear to have one of the bigger home-field advantages in the league, as a St. Louis market that has always been a hotbed for producing talent and has been baying for a team of their own finally gets their wish fulfilled:
For all the things MLS is, good and bad, it still really only takes a clear plan, two or three players in the right spots, and a little slice of luck to piss on most of the league. And when you think of urinating in public, don’t you think of St. Louis?