Saint Louis City SC host Austin FC on Sunday night to resume both teams' MLS season in a contest that could be described as the surprise team of 2023 against that of 2022.
After both teams were eliminated in the group stage of the Leagues Cup, resulting in a multi-week break from competition, expansion St. Louis (13-8-2, 41 points) resumes its first season by leading the Western Conference.
It does so despite weathering past injuries to striker Joao Klauss, and midfielders Eduard Lowen and Njabulo Blom. And with 11 matches to go, it's in a position to post the best MLS initial campaign by an expansion franchise since LAFC in 2018.
So the break has been a double-edged sword, says SLC manager Bradley Carnell, providing a chance to reflect but also the temptation to feel satisfied.
"Looking backwards, it's OK, but I don't want to get sort of caught in those thoughts, right?" Carnell said this week. "Because then you get caught in what has been. And the minute you get caught in those thoughts, the world stands still, and people catch you up."
Blom has returned after he was a late scratch in a 4-0 loss to Club America that sealed his team's group-stage exit. Klauss hasn't played since April 22 but has been upgraded to questionable with a quad issue.
Austin (9-9-5, 32 points) finished second in the West behind LAFC during their second MLS season in 2022, and are now within striking distance of the upper reaches again following a slow start.
But they've received some pushback from their own supporters after trading Verde original Diego Fagundez to the LA Galaxy in exchange for midfielder Memo Rodriguez and some allocation money.
Austin also acquired center back Matt Hedges from Toronto in a separate move to solidify a defense that struggled early this year.
"We lost a really good player. We actually added two good players as well this window," said Austin midfielder Ethan Finlay. "So any notion that we've punted ... I think is a misconception, is not accurate. If anything I think we addressed some defensive needs and we also have a player in Memo who has a similar profile to Diego."
—Field Level Media