St. Louis CITY take record-setting year into playoffs: “We have to deliver” | MLSSoccer.com
St. Louis CITY SC, by any measuring stick, have enjoyed a spectacular 2023 season. When considering how first-year journeys typically go for MLS expansion teams – hard lessons learned, growing pains, roster flaws exposed, etc. – that belief only grows.
That’s worth celebrating, sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel said while previewing St. Louis’ (No. 1) Round One Best-of-3 series vs. Midwest rival Sporting Kansas City (No. 8). But those accomplishments also only matter so much during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
“We have to find that line to stop thinking about the regular season and really get focused completely on the playoffs,” Pfannenstiel noted.
“I think we drew that line last weekend. It’s a great success and we can be proud about it, but it doesn’t count for anything anymore. We’re starting now from ground zero. It doesn’t matter if you were one or eight, or two or seven. You have the same opportunities to win the cup and to go as far as possible.”
With that framework, CITY SC are laser-focused on Sunday’s Game 1 vs. Sporting KC at CITYPARK (10 pm ET | Apple TV – Free, FS1, FOX Deportes). They won this fixture twice during the regular season, too, beating Peter Vermes’ side by a combined 8-1 scoreline at home.
Since these neighbors have plenty of familiarity, St. Louis head coach Bradley Carnell said tactics won’t dictate much.
“They know what we’re doing, we know what they’re doing,” Carnell said. “At the end of the day, it’s just down to who believes in it more, who feels better going into the game, who wins that first battle, who has that first momentum shift during the game.
“These are all things, yes you can train throughout the week, but when that whistle blows, in that atmosphere, in that environment you can get everything on your side and earn the right to succeed or to be successful. That’s most important and long-lasting.”
The first team to two wins advances to a Conference Semifinal vs. either Houston Dynamo FC (No. 4) or Real Salt Lake (No. 5) on Nov. 25-26. That means Game 2 at Sporting’s Children’s Mercy Park (Nov. 5) is guaranteed and Game 3, if necessary, prompts a win-or-go-home battle at CITYPARK on Nov. 11.
The momentum battle might favor Sporting KC, who beat the San Jose Earthquakes (No. 8) in Wednesday’s Wild Card triumph – surviving penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw. Conversely, St. Louis lost their last two games after wrapping up the West’s No. 1 seed, a 2024 Concacaf Champions League spot and several expansion-season records.
“Come Sunday night and for the rest of the time that we have, we’re going to have to give an energy and a feeling – not only to one another, but to everyone surrounding us – that it’s kind of do-or-die in playoffs.”
St. Louis, who have defied all expectations as MLS’ 29th club, aren’t going to change the foundation that’s got them here.
“We can spin it whichever way we like, but we feel a hunger and a desire and a confidence in the group that’s never bordered on arrogance or anything like that,” Carnell said. “We’ve just been very disciplined and been very strongly opinionated about what we believe in.”
But in the playoffs, the stakes are raised. And adding an MLS Cup on Dec. 9 would elevate this project to another stratosphere.
“Now, it’s crunch time and we have to deliver,” Pfannenstiel said. “We worked since January, every day out there on this field really hard and we had 34 games where we did reasonably well.
“We don’t want to throw it away in one or two bad performances in the playoffs. So we still will want to try and approach every single game as Matchday 35, Matchday 36 and hopefully a few more to come. That’s how we’re looking at it.”