The word “project” has been demonstrably drilled into the fabric of St. Louis City SC from the very beginning. The language the club uses to describe itself externally appears to be consistent with how its members talk internally - from the coaching staff to the players, everyone is onboard with the project, and have heard it from the very beginning of their relationship with the club.
So what does the “project” entail, and how does it carry meaning through the club? In an interview with Apple TV (and many, many interviews prior), Lutz Pfannenstiel laid out the three pillars of the club, in a specific order - community, academy, and professional team.
What has the club been up to in each category? It’s impossible to create an exhaustive look, but we’ll take a look at the most critical pieces to assess St. Louis City SC by the pillars it says it’s building upon.
I’ll also let you know - I don’t think I’m going easy on the club. They’ve set the tone early that this should be a standard-setting project, so my scores will reflect that attitude.
The soccer community in St. Louis is fundamental to the city. As crazy as it sounds, there’s a strong enough existing network of youth soccer in the Gateway region that investment by City isn’t technically a must-have.
But the simple brilliance of the club is to know that “good enough” isn’t good enough. A youth program is a must-have to live up to their chosen moniker of CITY. And an expensive pay-to-play model, as popular as it is among St. Louis youth soccer (editorializing put aside for the moment), also isn’t good enough. The club wants to make soccer accessible for everyone, regardless of economic status.
The biggest community undertaking is the CITY Futures program. Launched in March 2022, the Futures program aims to provide “no-cost, multi-level, high-quality soccer training and holistic player-person development throughout the St. Louis region.” That’s right - City has made soccer training free. Not just scheduled kickarounds, actual training. At least, that’s the promise.
And so far, City is delivering on this promise, with more on the way. Weekly Way to Play sessions are hosted at five locations throughout the region, and there’s promise of Soccer 101 clinics and a city-wide STL CITY Cup, which builds cross-neighborhood teams in an effort to build a sense of unity within the community.
St. Louis City SC has also embraced the community to marry its creativity with the soccer field. A futsal court, muralized by local artist Javyn Solomon, was unveiled in September 2021 to represent the local neighborhood. Not long after, Damon Davis revealed Pillars of the Valley, a powerful work of sculpture memorializing and immortalizing the former Mill Creek Valley neighborhood in which CITYPARK now sits.
Inside the stadium, the club enlisted its Flavor Officer, James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft, to bring in more than 20 local food partners to make the stadium experience the EPCOT of St. Louis. And homegrown talent Mvstermind will round out the senses, orchestrating the sounds of CITYPARK on matchday.
Overall, I think St. Louis CITY SC should be proud of their community engagement efforts so far. What they’ve accomplished already is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Grade: B+. Let’s round out those youth programs.
With the introduction of MLS NEXT Pro, St. Louis CITY SC was given the opportunity to have a leg up on the standard expansion team process. CITY2 was allowed to play a full season before the MLS senior team kicks off in 2023.
On its face, the results speak for themselves. A regular season western conference top finish and appearance in the championship game is a fantastic set of results for a great season. Caden Glover and Miguel Perez have signed Homegrown contracts in early 2023, proving CITY2’s inaugural season wasn’t just about wins and losses, but also was about player development.
There is very little to nitpick. But this is a scorecard, so I’ve got to ask questions where I can.
The glaring issue with CITY2’s success is the level of involvement we saw from senior-level players. The value of City’s best getting competitive minutes together, regardless of venue, cannot be understated. It is an absolute necessity, and the club did the right thing. But I can’t help but ask how a development squad bolstered by a few seasoned veterans can’t secure the title.
For those of you who watched the matches, I know this isn’t entirely fair. But let’s be honest - the real test comes in year two when the senior cameos are a thing of the past.
Grade: A-. Hardware always talks.
Last but certainly not least comes our boys in red, and this is the hardest pillar to assess right now. We’ve seen preseason results, but no matter the sport, we know preseason results don’t matter too much. What matters is the progression - the style of play, the team chemistry, and the ability to quickly adapt and learn from mistakes.
St. Louis City SC has shown the world its desire to play a high-octane, high pressing, counter-attacking form of soccer pulled straight from sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel’s “footballing” roots. When run correctly, it’s an exciting form of soccer with devastating pressure that keeps its opponents on the back foot during the entire game.
But when it doesn’t work, the defense can look amateurish. Even some of the most talented clubs in the highest leagues get beat over the top, or just get burned by a forward who finds the tiniest hole. A team needs a center-back pairing with a unified mind and out-of-this-world positional awareness. In this structure, the offside flag is your friend, but it only works if every defender is doing their job.
Moving up the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 requires a triangle of center midfielders capable of rotating through multiple demanding roles multiple times throughout a game. This sport is won in the midfield, especially in Major League Soccer. Complementing that triad are the two pairs of wing backs and wingers, respectively rounding out the four and three in the formation. While they are separated on paper by a level of two, the wings must communicate well and understand how to support one another in both defense and attack.
Last but not least, the one up top has to be rock-solid. It’s a lonely life as a target man, and if the scoresheet reads zero at the end of the night, it’s your name that will first be brought up. That one has to leave it all on the pitch every game while maintaining a killer instinct in front of the net. It takes a special breed to thrive in that role.
As we get into the season, this score will become apparent. For now, I’m impressed by Bradley Carnell’s aggression and strategy behind the formation. Whether it holds up remains to be seen, but setting the tone from day one as a team that pursues aggressive, assertive soccer is exactly what you want from an expansion side. We aren’t going to play to not lose. We’re going to play to win.
Grade: B-. It’s hard to accurately assess personnel right now, but I like the framework.
Summing It Up
St. Louis City SC is a monumental project for the city of St. Louis. It’s taken a community effort to get to this point, and everyone involved should be proud.
There are still plenty of areas of improvement as well. The club has promised a few more opportunities for youth that have yet to come to fruition. There is an amount of dissatisfaction around ticket prices and reselling restrictions (or lack thereof) that, while not entirely the fault of the club, still reflect poorly. The academy has set the bar high, but (we hope) hasn’t found its pinnacle. And the senior squad…well, that’s a giant mystery, no matter what anyone tells you.
B+ is a great score for a club that has yet to play a match. We will see how that fluctuates once the season gets going. But for now, we’ll keep our eyes on each pillar, and hope the incredible trajectory of growth continues throughout our inaugural season.
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