By Sam Vanolinda
First-year expansion team St. Louis City SC has officially clinched the playoffs, with a firm hold of first in the Western Conference in their inaugural season.
An incredibly successful season for a city that has craved another professional team since the Rams moved out west in 2016.
Led by head coach Bradley Carnell, a South African former defender who enjoyed stints for VFB Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach, St. Louis has the highest goal difference in the league, scoring a Conference-high 56 goals and conceding 39.
The team is primed for a strong playoff showing, with a home-field advantage that should give them a large boost, considering they are 10-2-3 at brand-new stadium CityPark this year.
Many say that Charlotte FC should be given time to develop into a great MLS team since they are still young, but compared to St. Louis City, it is obvious that with an efficient organizational structure, expansion teams can immediately make an impact.
Let’s look at a couple of the reasons why St. Louis had such a successful inaugural season compared to Charlotte FC’s first year.
Coaching and front office
Miguel Ángel Ramírez was given the keys to the project that was Charlotte FC when the team was created. This ended up being the downfall of the club in its first season, and those effects still linger into the team's second year.
Ramírez was a coach who had zero MLS experience, and it led to very inconsistent roster building and performances. St. Louis on the other hand, appointed Carnell, who came up as an assistant, and eventually interim manager for New York Red Bulls.
Carnell has been around the MLS since 2017, so he understood the league at a different level than Ramírez did when he was hired in the Queen City.
On top of that, St. Louis brought in a sporting director with rich European experience, Lutz Pfannenstiel, who helped create a vision that everyone in the club could follow.
He focused more on team play, deciding against having three DPs in the team's first season.
Pfannestiel said in a MLSsoccer.com interview “If you look into the past, clubs that really believe that one or two people can carry them through and you're spending a massive part of the budget on it, did that really pan out or work out the way they wanted to? I'm not too convinced about it.”
Pfannestiel’s approach to roster building has been incredibly successful. He believes that the budget should be spread around on team depth and overall ability rather than splashed on a couple of players. Especially for a club like Charlotte or St. Louis, smaller markets that can’t attract big names like Miami or LA.
It's evident that money isn’t all that matters for roster construction; one of Charlotte’s starting center backs is a third-round SuperDraft pick who makes less in a year than Lionel Messi makes in a day.
To emphasize more the genius of Pfrannestiel’s philosophy when it comes to DPs, João Klauss was brought in as one of the team's DPs this year and picked up a quad injury in his game against Colorado on April 22. Instead of panicking, St. Louis was confident in their team depth, and expansion draft pick Nicholas Gioacchini came in and scored 10 important goals for the team while Klauss was sidelined.
Another important note is that St. Louis spent one of their DP slots on a midfielder, unlike Charlotte FC who went mostly for forward talent. Eduard Löwen is a center midfielder who pulls the strings and calms the game down for St. Louis. Charlotte could use a player like that in the middle to keep composure when in the lead, and also have the creative spark that has resulted in 13 goal contributions this year for the German.
Toronto FC, at an extreme level, is an example of big-name signings hindering the team's success. St. Louis has figured out in its first year an efficient and effective way of spreading its money out, and maybe Toronto and Charlotte could look towards them for future seasons.
Money isn’t everything
As the graphic below shows, St. Louis’ salary spending is near the bottom of MLS (as of April 2023). Their clearly defined system and style of play have made it so they can find value options and prospects who can fit in and succeed immediately.
Graphic from Jeff Rueter of The Athletic
For Charlotte, the coaching changes have led them to roster build around multiple philosophies in two seasons. This has likely led to many of the inconsistent results we are seeing on the field. Charlotte fans have been watching their team recalibrate, while St. Louis was set to fire on day one and haven’t looked back.
Balanced vs. unbalanced production
A final thought on the difference between these two clubs is their goalscoring production. St. Louis City is currently third in MLS in goals (58). This production has been spread out among several different scoring threats. Gioacchini (10 goals) has already reached double digits in scoring this year. Klauss (eight), Samuel Adeniran (seven), and Löwen (six) are all knocking on the door of 10 goals as well.
These four goalscorers for St. Louis have nearly scored as many goals (31) as Charlotte’s entire team (36) so far this season. St. Louis has been able to find balanced teamwide goalscoring production all season.
The primary issue Charlotte has faced is their overdependence on Karol Świderski to provide the team with goals. Enzo Copetti is The Crown’s second-leading goalscorer with five. The team production just hasn’t been there for Charlotte in their first two seasons. This has put them quite a bit behind the pace of the stronger attacking teams in MLS.
Team scoring production has been St. Louis City’s biggest asset which is leading them to a playoff appearance in their inaugural season. The lack of balanced goalscoring production has been Charlotte’s biggest issue and has led them to be a team trying to scrape their way to the playoffs from the outskirts for a second consecutive season.