St. Louis CITY Soccer Club has made it clear after two matches in Major League Soccer that they are ready to compete, perhaps like no other expansion team in league history.
CITY started their inaugural MLS season 2-0, becoming just the fourth expansion team in league history to do so. And they did so against stiff odds.
CITY made their MLS debut away from home at Austin FC. Austin finished second in the Western Conference and made it all the way to the Western Conference Final in 2022. The 2023 season is Austin’s third year in MLS, and many expected the team to be amongst the best this season. Yet, CITY left Austin with all three points after a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Then on Saturday, in a sold-out home debut in CITYPARK, CITY took down Charlotte FC, 3-1, in front of 22,423 cheering fans.
You probably already have watched countless replays of each of the goals and listened to and watched interviews with everyone from head coach Bradley Carnell, to forward João Klauss, who has scored two goals in his first two MLS matches.
But what I will focus on here is the strategic and tactical planning that went into the first two wins and the prospect of successfully carrying that forward for the next 32 games ending in mid-October.
Following the Plan
Before the season started, many MLS analysts and experts predicted that CITY would fail to make the playoffs. Critics believed that CITY’s aggressive pressing playstyle would lead to poor results.
Despite that, Carnell has been adamant that CITY will stick to their identity.
“We have to be truthful to who we are. We will step up, we will defend forwards, we will be brave,” Carnell said before the match against Charlotte FC.
“We want to create havoc, we want to create chaos and turnovers, and execute accordingly.”
CITY has stayed true to their principles and it’s clearly working. Scoring six goals in two games is no small feat. CITY has also conceded three goals in those two games, but Carnell isn’t worried about his team’s defense.
“If over 10 games, if we still don't have a clean sheet, we'll look at it. But if we have 30 points on the board, you know, after 10 games, we're not going to say anything either,” he said in a press conference after the Charlotte match.
The consistency in the performances against Austin and Charlotte suggests that CITY is determined to play the game their way. In both matches, CITY averaged significantly less possession than their opposition. CITY also had a worse passing completion rate. But CITY was still able to get off more shots and out-score both their opponents.
CITY also showcased the effectiveness of their suffocating press. There were many sequences in both matches in which CITY, through their gegenpress – designed to win the ball back closer to the opponent's goal –prevented opponents from moving up the field.
This is how CITY generates so many goal-scoring opportunities despite having minimal possession. Once CITY causes a turnover deep in their opponent's half, CITY plays with quick one-and-two-touch combinations to exploit the spaces in their opponent’s disorganized defense. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy that has taken MLS by storm this season. CITY will hope they can continue to reap the rewards of this playstyle on March 11 against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park in Portland.
Against Austin, CITY predominantly played in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Austin completed 22 crosses – a pass from a wide area of the field into CITY’s box. Many goals in soccer are scored from crosses, making it one of the most lethal plays in the sport. Most of Austin’s crosses came as a result of exploiting the half-spaces (the spaces between a center-back and fullback) in CITY’s defense.
CITY was fortunate not to concede any goals off of those crosses. Carnell and his staff must’ve learned from this and adjusted accordingly against Charlotte. It was clear that Charlotte was also trying to take advantage of these half-spaces, but CITY defended those attacking sequences better. Charlotte only completed 10 crosses against CITY.
On paper, CITY started the match in a 4-4-2 formation, but CITY showcased their fluidity throughout the match. In a few attacking sequences, midfielder Tomás Ostrák positioned himself more centrally with forwards Nicholas Gioacchini and João Klauss. Depending on the situation, this shift in positioning put CITY in a 4-3-2-1, 4-3-1-2, or a narrow 4-3-3.
This benefited CITY because it created an overload in the center of Charlotte’s defense. The overload made it easier for CITY to gegenpress when they lost the ball, then play with quick combinations once CITY won the ball back.
Because of this, Charlotte’s midfielders anchored themselves in the middle of the pitch instead of getting wide to help the fullbacks defend. Because Charlotte’s fullbacks were usually isolated, CITY went at them 1v1, or CITY’s fullbacks pushed up to create 2v1 opportunities. This is how CITY completed 14 crosses against Charlotte. Whereas against Austin, CITY only completed eight crosses.
CITY’s first-half dominance forced Charlotte to switch to a 3-4-3 formation. CITY also made adjustments in the second half. Once midfielders Rasmus Alm and Indiana Vassilev came on, CITY reverted to their traditional 4-2-3-1 formation.
Winning the first game of the season was unexpected for CITY. But it also brought on even more pressure for CITY’s home opener against Charlotte. When CITY midfielder Eduard Löwen stepped onto the pitch at CITYPARK, he knew this match would be something different.
“It was incredible,” Löwen said after the Charlotte match. “The moment I stepped out, I had goosebumps. You could tell the whole city was waiting for this moment for so long.” Despite the festivities off the pitch, CITY head coach Carnell wanted his team to stay focused on the pitch.
“We’ll let that party happen around the field, you know? Cause it’s going to be a celebration. It’s going to be a party. But for us, it’s almost business as usual,” Carnell had said in a pre-match press conference last Thursday.
“Filter everything out so you don’t get caught up in that moment,” Carnell said. “Cause if you do, the moment will swallow you up, and you’ll forget about playing soccer.” It looked like CITY might’ve gotten caught up in the moment 25 minutes into their MLS home debut.
Victory in CITYPARK
In the 25th minute, Charlotte broke CITY’s gegenpress and initiated a lethal counter-attack. Midfielder Kamil Józwiak carried the ball through the midfield before finding Karol Swiderski on the right wing. Swiderski then gave an inch-perfect cross to find the head of forward Enzo Copetti to give Charlotte a 1-0 lead, the first MLS goal in CITYPARK history.
Charlotte’s goal was completely against the run of play- it was Charlotte’s first shot of the game. For a moment, it seemed the visitors would spoil CITY’s highly-anticipated homecoming.
But CITY supporters in CITYPARK didn’t lose hope. “The atmosphere is amazing. The whole stadium, not just one part of the stadium, was completely electric,” CITY captain and goalkeeper Roman Bürki said after the match.
“It didn’t feel like 22,000. It felt like [50,000]” CITY forward Nicholas Gioacchini exclaimed after the match.
CITY fed off the energy from the crowd and found a breakthrough in the 41st minute. Fullback Jake Nerwinski received the ball off a quick throw-in from Gioacchini and crossed the ball into Charlotte’s box.
“I saw Klauss in there, and I know he’s good in the air,” Nerwinski said after the match. “If it’s a dangerous ball, anything could happen.”
Nerwinski’s ball was dangerous enough to prompt Charlotte FC defender Bill Tuiloma to compete with Klauss for the ball. Tuiloma won the contest, but his prize was a header into his own goal.
Late in first-half stoppage time, CITY was awarded a penalty kick following a handball by Swiderski in the box. CITY’s set-piece specialist Eduard Löwen stepped up to take the penalty. Löwen drilled the ball into the top left corner, and CITYPARK erupted. Despite being down 1-0 after 25 minutes, CITY headed into half-time up 2-1.
The nail in the coffin came for Charlotte in the 71st minute. Charlotte defender Adilson Malanda was facing his own goal when Tomás Ostrák pressed Malanda from behind. Malanda checked over his shoulder, saw Ostrák coming, and passed the ball back to his goalkeeper.
CITY forward João Klauss anticipated the back pass. “That’s kind of luck and also work from the team,” Klauss reflected after the match. “I think it’s because of our effort on the pitch. Everyone is working really hard to get the ball back and putting a lot of pressure on our opponents.”
That’s two goals in back-to-back games for CITY in which the opposing team mistakenly passes the ball back to CITY attackers. Midfielder Jared Stroud scored a similar goal last week in Austin.
Carnell believes this is more than just a coincidence. “Opponents like to reset the game to get their rotations organized and set,” Carnell said after the match. “The minute you take that away, you take away their game plan and their game model. So yeah, we just have a knack of standing in the right place.”
What’s Next for CITY?
CITY started the season with a chip on their shoulder. The team listened to the predictions which had CITY as one of the worst teams in MLS this season. “We let them talk,” Bürki said after the match. “We're just [going to] keep focusing on ourselves, working on our weaknesses. And yeah, just keep going with the same energy.”
The aggressive press CITY employs is promising but physically draining for the players who carry out the scheme. Because of this, critics believe that CITY’s recent success is only temporary. Critics argue that CITY players will run out of fuel before the season ends. Only time will tell if this taxing playstyle can be successfully implemented throughout an entire MLS season.
Winning back-to-back games as an expansion team sends a message to the rest of the league. “We kind of like showed a second time that everybody can count on us, that we can compete with everybody,” Löwen said after the match.
Despite the promising start to life in MLS, Löwen wants CITY to stay hungry. “It doesn’t matter how many games [we win],” Löwen said. “We have to stay humble. We have to keep working hard.”
Julian Trejo, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, is a native of Arkansas, and a former goalkeeper for several state championship teams. His work is supported by the River City Journalism Fund.
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