LAFC No. 10 Carlos Vela (right) asks the referee for a foul in a game played at CITY PARK last season. (Photo by Brad Piros)

ST. LOUIS - Two teams that were near the top of the MLS Western Conference in 2023 square off for the first time in 2024 when St. Louis City SC hosts LAFC Wednesday evening at CITY PARK.

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Both teams are coming off cathartic victories, both teams are hitting their stride right as the grueling summer of Major League Soccer begins, and both teams are the subject of big European stars wanting to make their way stateside.

For two teams separated by more than 1,800 miles of American highways, they have plenty in common.

For City, a 3-1 win on Saturday over their geographically-based rivals from Chicago saw them look like the City of 2023 that took the MLS by storm. They took advantage of a lackluster Fire team that is languishing in the basement of the Eastern Conference and were the better team for about 89 of 90 minutes Saturday night.

The minute they weren’t was the minute they came out of the locker room for the second half. A moment asleep at the wheel gifted Chicago a goal that briefly tied the game.

“I just thought we could have finished the game off earlier on,” City head coach Bradley Carnell analyzed on Monday. “Looking back at it, we had three or four good moments in that first half to really take away the passion, ambition, and the desire to get back in the game for Chicago.”

“But having said that, once again we show we’re a tough team to play against,” Carnell continued. “Even when we concede the equalizer, we come back straight off the bat with positivity, encouragement, and bravery. We finished off our final plays, so I thought overall it was a good day’s work.”

One can take it with the grain of sand that Chicago is one of the more worse-for-wear teams in Major League Soccer at the moment, but Saturday’s win looked more like the rampaging and rambunctious City of 2023.

Even with all the draws, City now sits just three points behind where they were at this time last season. They are now the only team in MLS to only have a single loss on the season.

Bradley Carnell has been consistent in his belief that the team is in a good place for some time.

“I’m glad we got over the line [on Saturday],” said Carnell. “We got three goals in this game, and there've been a few games where we’ve scored three goals. Whether it was the first half or the second half, we’ve started games strong, we’re ending games strong. I think we’re just enjoying where we’re at right now. Not just because there’s three points on the board, or one, we’re enjoying what we’re doing as a group.”

Not part of that matchday group as of yet is City’s midfield master Eduard Löwen, who is on the cusp of a return to the City squad. After Saturday’s match, Bradley Carnell said that Löwen would make a statement to the media regarding his availability and to explain his recent situation on his own terms.

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Löwen has missed considerable time this season with what began as a hamstring injury, but an ongoing personal matter has hindered the midfielder’s recovery, and at times kept him away from the club entirely.

Löwen did not speak during Monday’s press conference, but he has been training on the practice fields just south of CITY PARK. Carnell expressed how important it is just having Edu Löwen around, even if he isn’t match-ready.

“[Löwen]’s training with us, he’s lost a bit of fitness and he’s working his way back,” Carnell explained. “He’s a gem of a human being to be around. He makes us stronger with his presence and his footballing qualities.

“It’s going to be a bit of a way [to go] for him to get back [to 90-minute fitness], I think that’s obvious. We’ll see how he progresses this week to see if he plays a role on Wednesday or if he plays a role on Saturday. I’m confident in one or the other.”

While there’s no new info on the Marco Reus saga for St. Louis City, Wednesday’s visitors LAFC have made waves in the soccer world by officially announcing the signing of legendary French striker Olivier Giroud.

Giroud notably joined Arsenal in 2012, leading the line for six years before a move across London to Chelsea, where the Frenchman was a crucial piece of Chelsea’s 2021 UEFA Champions League winning team.

After the Champions League success, Giroud went to AC Milan and helped the Italian giants to their first Serie A title in more than a decade.

This is all to say, even well beyond the age of 30, Giroud has been one of the biggest and most successful strikers in the world of soccer. At 37, he’ll still have plenty to offer LAFC once he heads for the west coast in July.

Until then, LAFC will need someone to pop in the goals, and recently that man has been Cristian Olivera. Olivera scored twice in LA’s comprehensive 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps.

"It's been a long road for Kike (Olivera) to become more prolific," said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. “He's put a lot of individual work in the training field with coaches, he has the ability to learn and get better. I think that's what you're seeing, so we're very happy with his progression and his production."

Of course, LAFC is not LAFC without Denis Bouanga, who had a casual three-assist evening last Saturday. Since the beginning of last season, Bouanga has had six games with three or more goal contributions. He’s ever-present for the black and gold, playing every minute of every game played for LAFC this season. He hasn’t missed a single second of game time since LA’s 5-1 win over Minnesota United last October, where he was subbed out in the 75th minute after registering a first-half hat trick.

“These types of games against high-profile players, it’s exciting,” noted Carnell on the challenge of playing Bouanga and LAFC. “As a coach, to watch the quality from the sidelines, to see how we’ve grown as players and as a team, I think we can pose a threat and a problem to any opponent if we stick together and play within our principles.”

City will look to keep up the positive momentum with a good result against a strong LAFC team on Wednesday night.

Kickoff is set for just after 7:30 p.m. and the game is streaming on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. Local radio broadcasts can be found on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.

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