St. Louis City SC goalkeeper Roman Bürki makes an outstretched save in last season's meeting with the Vancouver Whitecaps at CITY PARK. (Photo by Brad Piros)

VANCOUVER, Canada - Winless in their last eight, St. Louis City SC has been struggling to find the right mix during the heat of the MLS season. Injuries and roster moves have left the team shorthanded, relying on depth from their CITY2 reserves.

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Saturday night’s trip to Vancouver to take on the Whitecaps was no different. Johnny Klein made his first MLS start, and fellow CITY2’ers Brendan McSorley, Tyson Pearce, and Caden Glover filled out a short City bench.

A well-rotated City team got off to an ideal start, but City’s defensive woes caught up to them throughout the match. A perhaps fortuitous Brian White hat trick propelled Vancouver to a 4-3 victory.

Nökkvi Thórisson got the start at the striker position after an injury to Joao Klauss in training during the previous week. With the pending transfer/trade of Sam Adeniran, City is operating light in attack until Cedric Teuchert can join the team in the next month.

A real rarity in the starting eleven: No Roman Bürki, who was saved from an evening of diving on the BC Place turf.

“(Bürki) has been going through some management in terms of his knee,” said St. Louis City head coach Bradley Carnell after the game. “Nothing critical, nothing major. We knew this game was coming up and we knew this was the right moment to give him a slight pause with this schedule coming up over the next couple of weeks. This was a planned load management issue.”

Ben Lundt manned the City goal, with a backline of Akil Watts, Anthony Markanich, Jake Nerwinski, and Tomas Totland in front of him.

If that sounds like an unusual defensive lineup, that’s because both center-back positions were manned by a left-back and right-back respectively. Tim Parker has been dealing with a groin injury “that he’s been feeling over the last couple of days” and only made the substitutes bench. Josh Yaro was also hurt in training with a concussion and didn’t make the squad.

The makeshift City team opened the scoring in just six minutes. City won an early corner, one that was only partially cleared, bouncing off Chris Durkin’s back to Njabulo Blom outside of the box. Blom, not one for finesse in goalscoring, smashed a first-time shot off the clearance that deflected off of Vancouver’s Levante Johnson and into the Whitecaps goal.

City scored first, which has been a bit of a rarity in 2024. Coming into Saturday’s match, City had won three games where they found the first goal.

They found the second when an Eduard Löwen shot struck the arm of Whitecap defender Javain Brown in the box. Löwen, who missed his last penalty, smashing off the crossbar in City’s 3-0 loss to Colorado at CITY PARK on June 19, didn’t make the same mistake this time.

Löwen passed the ball into the low corner to the left of Vancouver keeper Yohei Takaoka, and City were up 2-0. It was the first time in five games that City had scored multiple goals, the last being their 3-3 thriller in South Florida against Inter Miami on June 1.

A dream start for the visiting City, who were dispatched 3-0 on this same BC Place turf by the Whitecaps last season. They just had to defend that two goal lead for the next 78 minutes, plus any additional stoppage time.

Vancouver woke up a bit late, but eventually started to take advantage of the shuffled City backline, playing long passes and challenging Markanich and Nerwinski in particular, who were forced to be square pegs in round holes due to City’s injury list.

“We played (the defensive line) deeper than usual,” Carnell explained postgame. “Deeper pick-up points than usual.”

Just as City had opened the scoring on a big deflection, Brian White would find the first goal for the Whitecaps in the 37th minute. A long ball over the top from Sebastian Berhalter created a bad touch from a tracking back Anthony Markanich.

That bad touch put the ball into the path of Vancouver’s slumping striker Brian White. White would settle the ball to take a shot that would deflect off City defender Jake Nerwinski and leave Ben Lundt helpless to the ball bouncing in his net.

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City had the lead, but Vancouver had captured momentum heading into the halftime break. Vancouver had a plan to exploit City’s defense, and it was becoming more and more apparent that they weren’t done scoring.

Not even ten minutes into the second half, another lofted through ball wreaked havoc on the City defense, making it somewhat obvious players were not in their comfortable positions. Jake Nerwinski tried to defend the bouncing through ball, but headed the ball right onto Tomas Totland, covering in defense.

Totland’s touch played the ball behind Brian White running towards the City goal. In a moment of ingenuity, White just stretched his leg out behind him and flicked his heel towards the ball, and caught enough of it to loop a shot over a befuddled Ben Lundt.

There was nothing the 6-foot-6' shot stopper could do to stop what was a miraculous, if not a bit lucky, backheel flick from Brian White, who didn’t look at all like a striker lacking confidence in the middle of a goal scoring drought.

If momentum was on Vancouver’s side before their second goal, they would take full control of the game with a third just minutes later in the 61st minute. An extended spell of possession for the Whitecaps, ended with a cross swung in from Ryan Raposo on the right wing, and Brian White took advantage of some sloppy marking and nodded home the cross beyond the leap of Ben Lundt.

City’s two-goal lead had evaporated, and most of their energy on the BC Place turf had as well. Hosei Kijima was brought in for some fresh legs, but it didn’t feel as if City really had enough in the tank for a late equalizer.

“We should never walk away here with anything less than a point,” admitted Carnell. “Some really good moments from us, some really good performances from us individually. Just thought we let ourselves down a few times and that's what we're left with.”

A 90th minute Fafa Picault goal for Vancouver put a bow on proceedings for the hosts, who will forget their rocky start after storming back to take all three points. The goal became crucial moments later, when Nökkvi Thorisson scored his first goal for City this season with a nice finish off an Indiana Vassilev pass in the 93rd minute.

4-3 might be a more competitive scoreline than the game truly was. Vancouver largely dominated large chunks of gametime, and had a clear strategy to exploit City’s not-so-ideal backline.

The Apple TV/TSN Canada commentary said it best as the game was closing out. City and Carnell are operating with a bit of a skeleton crew and the summer reinforcements cannot come soon enough.

“We knew we were short staffed, and we knew we were dealt a hand,” said Carnell. “We can draw some positives out of that, but still be critical as a group of the way we conceded some of these goals and the way we looked (defensively)”

Those comments become even more apparent with news coming after the game that Joao Klauss’s injury in training is an MCL injury in his knee that will require around six weeks of recovery.

Sure, Klauss has struggled for goals this season, but City and Bradley Carnell’s philosophy starts with defending from the front, and Klauss’s abilities off the ball are often overlooked when he is struggling for goals. Klauss defends like crazy for a guy with the No. 9 shirt, and it’s part of City’s DNA.

Cedric Teuchert, the recently announced striker/attacking midfielder signing, formerly of German 2. Bundesliga’s Hannover 96, isn’t eligible for MLS play until July 18, and that would be the earliest date possible, four weeks from now.

“We have to get Cedric Teuchert going on Monday, he is allowed to start working with us from Monday,” Carnell said. “Without putting too much on him now, we need to give him a good program to get him going. And by the 18th of July that he can start performing. Hopefully we have a couple of new guys coming over as well. We have to just bridge this gap right now.”

Now winless in nine, a bottom-dweller clash with the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday in St. Louis becomes a massively important game, a “must win” as Bradley Carnell said Saturday night.

The Quakes come in having fired head coach Luchi Gonzales in the week before Saturday’s 3-0 loss in the California Clasico to the LA Galaxy, and sit dead last in the MLS Western Conference, two places behind City, but eight points behind.

Wednesday won’t be pretty, but it sure is important as City slips away from the playoff places. City are now nine points adrift from the play-in game, and every point from here on out matters.

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