ST. LOUIS - There have been numerous “big games” in St. Louis City SC’s short time in existence, but none have felt quite as important as Wednesday night’s clash against LAFC at CITY PARK.

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Really, it’s a game of soccer that sells itself: No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the MLS Western Conference, the defending MLS Champs coming to St. Louis for the first time, the hosts looking for revenge after a 3-0 defeat in downtown LA in July, and a win clinches City’s place in the MLS Playoffs in their inaugural season.

“When we went there, we obviously got beaten 3-0, I think the 3-0 was not the game that we saw, but (LAFC) were there when it really counted,” said St. Louis City Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel in a video posted on the team’s social media pages. “I think (this game) for us, it’s one of our biggest tests of the season. I would even say it’s the biggest game so far in the club’s very young history.”

It’s hard to disagree with Pfannenstiel’s assessment. It’s a true “six-pointer” at the top of the Western Conference, a chance for City to assert themselves by extending their points lead over LAFC to nine, or a chance for LAFC to close the gap to just three points.

LAFC has largely been St. Louis’s closest in-conference competition as far as the standings go, but suffered a post-Leagues Cup losing skid that had many questioning where the MLS Champions of a year prior had gone.

On Saturday, LAFC looked more like their old selves in a 4-2 win over the LA Galaxy in “El Trafico”. Especially encouraging for LAFC was striker Denis Bouanga getting back to his goalscoring ways, netting two for his side in the victory.

Bouanga’s goals were his 13th and 14th of the season after a bit of a dry spell during his team’s three-game slide. Bouanga’s 14 tallies not only leads LAFC, but ties him for the overall lead in the MLS Golden Boot race with Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar and Giorgios Giakoumakis of Atlanta United.

LAFC is loaded with talent all around the pitch, as many City fans found out when LAFC rode out the City storm en route to that 3-0 loss Lutz Pfannenstiel mentioned. While City looked solid for much of the game, LAFC struck with moments of brilliance and ran away with the result late.

One player who starred for LAFC that night was Jose Cifuentes, who has since been sold to Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers. Cifuentes played a tremendous pass to Carlos Vela for their first goal against City in July, and even scored a goal in stoppage time to put the final nail in City’s coffin that night.

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Cifuentes was a very influential figure in midfield for LAFC, and some of their struggles could point to a lack of his presence both on and off the ball. Cifuentes made over 100 appearances for Los Angeles, dating back to 2020.

For the hosts, results may have somewhat faded in recent times, but Bradley Carnell is encouraged by the performances. A good performance from City on Wednesday would see them clinch an MLS Playoff berth.

“I would say even on the road, we’ve controlled terms, not results, but we’ve controlled the terms (of play in the game),” said Carnell. “I think xGs (expected goals) have been really low in the last couple of games against us. We’ve eradicated, eliminated spaces and the time that the opponent needs. We’ve taken that all away.

“If we play the next game in a successful manner and get a result at the end of the 90 minutes, and we’re rewarded with clinching the playoffs, so be it. We’ll let nature take its course, what’s meant to be will be, but we’re playing for three points for sure.”

As City head into this battle for Western Conference supremacy, they will once again be without the services of the energetic Rasmus Alm this weekend, as it seems his groin issue isn’t improving at the rate the team was hopeful for. “Rasmus is just progressing slowly,” noted Carnell at his presser Tuesday.

Otherwise, it’s the full complement at Bradley Carnell’s disposal for Wednesday’s big test against LAFC. That includes all three of City’s potent strikers, Joao Klauss, Niko Gioacchini, and Sam Adeniran.

Despite Klauss’s long-term injury, and Niko Gioacchini’s shorter spells with occasional injuries, City have largely found a way and a man who will get on the scoresheet for them. City’s three strikers have combined for 24 league goals in 29 games.

“All attackers have a flair and an excitement about them, to get in and around the 18-yard area and make clinical and crucial plays,” said Carnell of not just City’s strikers, but all strikers. “Klauss has that knack to be at the right place at the right time… Then he goes out for four months and Niko (Gioacchini) picks up the reins and runs with it.

“So the system (City plays with) is intact, and then (Gioacchini) goes down with a shoulder injury and we get Sam (Adeniran) going. (24) goals from our strikers is a pretty good return, but what’s even more crucial is each guy staying hungry.”

City and their attackers will need that hunger and desire to get all three points Wednesday night against LAFC. The game can be seen on Apple TV kicking off at 7:30 p.m. with local radio broadcasts on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.

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