ST. LOUIS - It’s been a season of the unexpected for St. Louis City SC. A team predicted to dwell in the cellar of the Major League Soccer Western Conference stormed their way to the top spot in the West.
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Just as City’s success was starting to become more expected than unexpected, their fortunes have turned. Since clinching the West, City haven’t won a match, culminating in last weekend’s 4-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City in the first of a best-of-three series to determine who advances in the MLS Playoffs.
Along the way, City had several big victories. Games where City “punched teams in the face” according to head coach Bradley Carnell. As Carnell said following last Sunday’s loss, it was now City getting punched in the face at home by their rivals.
Sporting KC boss Peter Vermes set out a plan for his team that was executed to perfection. There wasn’t a ton of space for City’s fleet of foot attackers to run into, often City players were left passing sideways and backward, which just isn’t their or Bradley Carnell’s game.
As City were feeling out their opponents like a championship boxer in the early rounds, SKC landed the first blow. An immediate response to a goal by City was quickly erased when Sporting put two more past Roman Bürki.
“It’s a real cohesive front that we have to solve,” said Bradley Carnell Friday afternoon, on Sporting KC’s attacking weapons. “This is a good soccer team we’re coming up against. Maybe a lot of people didn’t know that coming into the playoffs, but we for sure knew our opponent.”
Because of their position in the standings, or the fact that Kansas City had to fight to survive just to make the playoffs, perhaps some City fans took SKC for granted. While City was afforded the time and regular season games to take their foot off the gas so to speak, every game was a must-win for Sporting, and they often came up with the results needed.
Sporting was at its worst this season at the very start, going 10 games without a win to open regular season play. Notably, this was when their star Alan Pulido was out injured.
“Alan does a great job of floating in between the lines,” said Carnell of Pulido. “He does a great job of taking defenders into areas where they feel uncomfortable. So we have to be comfortable in those areas, these are some of the things we’ve been speaking about.”
Pulido leads Sporting KC in goals, but as Carnell notes, that’s not his only contribution to the SKC setup under Peter Vermes.
“He’s a savvy soccer player,” Carnell continued on Pulido. “He knows when to ride the tackle, he knows when to take the foul, he knows when to get a shot off, he knows when to bring other players into space.”
After being smacked in the face last week, maybe there are questions rising about City and Bradley Carnell’s usually highly-regarded principles.
“In a moment where we concede consecutively in a short span of time, that’s deflating,” admitted Carnell. “It deflates you as a group, and it deflates your principles. When you work so hard to come back in a game, and then you concede two more back-to-back pretty much, that takes the wind out of your sails, and it's tough to come back from those moments.”
“It’s not something that you can fix automatically, so you have to look at the game. We’ve looked at it, had some good learning this week, and we’ll give it one more shot.”
As you’d expect, it was an optimistic tone from Bradley Carnell in City’s pre-match press conference. In the best of times, and the worst of times, it’s always been about the next game and getting a result for St. Louis City.
“We’ve done it for a whole year, right,” said Bradley Carnell. “We don’t overthink it, we make changes and be brave if we need to. It’s something we’ve preached from day one. We need everybody in camp, everybody’s going to contribute. I think over 34 matchdays you saw every player contribute in some form or fashion.”
When asked if that meant big changes were coming to the lineup for Sunday afternoon’s do-or-die game at Children’s Mercy Park, Carnell kept his cards close to his chest.
“We won’t overthink things.”
It’s a short injury report yet again for City, Rasmus Alm has been out of training and won’t be a part of the matchday squad on the Kansas side of the border.
Nökkvi Thórisson wasn’t included in City’s squad in the 4-1 loss last Sunday, but Carnell explained that was more a tactical call to have an extra defender in the team. Thórisson has been practicing with the team and will likely be in contention for Sunday’s squad.
With their season on the line, St. Louis City heads west on Interstate 70 to Children’s Mercy Park on the outskirts of Kansas City. Kickoff is set for just after 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The game will be streamed on Apple TV, and radio broadcasts are available on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.
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