ST. LOUIS - It was a sweltering Sunday in St. Louis, but another sellout crowd packed CITY PARK to see St. Louis City SC's return to MLS action.
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Seemingly just as excited to return to the park were City themselves. The heat was no deterrent for the hosts, and they scored six on Western Conference foe Austin FC, winning 6-3.
As the scoreline suggests, it was a wild one in Downtown West Sunday night. For much of the first half, the visitors looked lost, bereft of offensive ideas.
When City got their first look at goal via a 22nd minute set piece, they made no mistake. Eduard Löwen's free kick from about 35 yards swerved into the box and found City co-captain Tim Parker's forehead, and then the back of the Austin FC goal.
When you kind of expected a talented Austin team to rebound, they didn't really have any threat going forward.
They posted an xG (expected goals) number of 0.02 in the first half. That 0.02 came from Austin FC star Sebastian Driussi's early speculative effort, a shot Roman Bürki barely had to move to stop.
City had to wait until first half stoppage time for their second shot on target, but that shot was an inch-perfect finish from Niko Gioacchini on the end of a play that just screamed St. Louis City.
It was Eduard Löwen’s long through ball, beyond the last line of Austin FC’s defense, that Gioacchini ran onto in space down the left wing. When Gio was 1-on-1 with Austin defender Julio Cascante, he marched Cascante backwards into his own box, creating space, and slid a shot into the far corner, beyond the outstretched Brad Stuver in the Austin goal.
I mentioned it was a wild one, but two goals came from really the only goalmouth action of the first half. Eduard Löwen hit a rocket from a good 30 yards out that rang off the goalpost, which nearly sent the CITY PARK crowd into delirium, but that was just about all the attacking action to be had in the opening 45.
The second half is when this game really popped off. It took just five minutes of second half action for City to add a third goal, Gioacchini’s second of the night and 10th of the season.
The play all started with a wonderful chipped pass over the Austin backline by Aziel Jackson, which found the speedy Rasmus Alm in stride. Alm ran into the box and played a precise cross to Niko Gioacchini.
Gio’s first effort was rather miraculously saved by Stuver, flailing in the Austin goal. Gioacchini was first to pounce on the rebound, poking it home while Stuver could only watch from the ground.
A lot was made of playing Austin FC again. Austin was the site of St. Louis City’s first MLS game, and memorable first MLS win. The Austin team on the pitch seemed a far cry from the more organized side we saw way back in February, they were down 3-0, and frankly, could have been down by even more.
With the sweltering heat of Sunday night’s game, heat indexes well above 100 at the 8:55 pm kickoff, fatigue was clearly an issue for both teams. Bradley Carnell noted the tricky nature of playing in such grueling conditions.
“You can see in those conditions, the concentration levels for both teams just becomes a real lottery,” Carnell explained, on how heat affects a soccer game. “A lottery to operate under those levels of fatigue. It was a slog today, and credit to the boys… When you run out of gas, your brain is telling you to do things, but your body can't do it anymore, and you get to feel with the players.”
After City jumped out to the 3-0 lead, the game became frantic, largely due to those lapses of concentration. Sebastian Driussi scored a penalty in the 61st minute to get Austin on the board, and momentarily, it felt like Austin could climb right back into the game.
Enter Sam Adeniran, a fresh-legged Houston native more than familiar with playing in unforgiving heat. It took Adeniran just six minutes on the pitch before scoring a wonderful goal from close range with the outside of his right foot.
“It’s a goal you don’t really practice,” said Adeniran. “Just something you do instinctively. It really got crazy late, but that’s football sometimes.”
“¡Que golazo de Sam Adeniran!” rang the Spanish-language call from Fox Deportes. Adeniran and his fresh legs ran right by the Austin FC defense, which gave Adeniran plenty of time and space in the box.
It was 4-1, surely the game was done and dusted, right? It wouldn’t have been a proper reunion if St. Louis native Will Bruin didn’t score in his first match at CITY PARK, and Bruin put his name on the scoresheet in the 87th minute.
4-2. 87th minute. Could Austin make a game of this yet? Less than thirty seconds later, Tomas Ostrak made sure that wouldn’t happen.
Ostrak, a sub who had come on just seconds prior for Aziel Jackson, made his way into the Austin box and curled a shot beyond Brad Stuver, who spent a lot of his evening picking balls out of his net.
5-2. 88th minute. Make that 5-3 in the 91st minute after Emiliano Rigoni slotted one past a tired City defense and likely also tired Roman Bürki in the City goal.
Four minutes later, Sam Adeniran put the cherry on top that this game needed. Adeniran intercepted a Stuver outlet pass, had plenty of time to look up and place his shot, and bent one around the jumping Stuver for City’s sixth and his second goal of the evening.
The final whistle blew after Adeniran’s shot went in. “Game over, hopefully,” laughed Adeniran, on what he thought after his second goal.
In a week where it was revealed that long-injured striker Joao Klauss is “a week away” from returning to in-game action for St. Louis City, they scored six goals. Five of those goals came from open play, and four of them came from strikers.
So how does Bradley Carnell balance a world where City has three strikers all clamoring for minutes?
“It’s about trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle to be successful against each opponent,” Carnell stated. “So that might be in a certain formation. It might be in certain personnel. But the luxury in having that is now the competition for places.”
The competition doesn’t stop at striker. Joakim Nilsson’s long rehab finally came to an official end with him playing about 15 minutes in the City defense, where he figures to be a prominent piece down the homestretch.
“Joakim (Nilsson) comes into a moment where there’s a bit of chaos, a bit of panic, a bit of defending to do,” said Carnell. “It’s just him getting back on the field and feeling comfortable, finding confidence in what we are doing.”
Icelandic winger Nökkvi Thórisson also made his City debut on Sunday night, relieving Jared Stroud. Neither debutant really had the ability to influence such a disjointed game around them.
“Nökkvi (Thórisson) showed in transition he can be a real threat with some running in behind and some clean touches,” Carnell acknowledged. “He was leading others into play, trying to search for another goal. So we saw some good things that we liked.”
With the win St. Louis City climbs even further atop the MLS Western Conference standings. They hold a seven-point lead over LAFC for the top spot in the West.
City hits the road next weekend to take on a tough opponent in Orlando City, looking to build off the momentum of a wild Sunday night at CITY PARK. It’s been a magical run for City in Major League Soccer so far, and for the first time, they’re approaching a fully fit team.
“We value everybody on our roster,” Carnell assured. “And it's my job to keep those expectations tempered, but also to keep the edginess in the group, to keep on pushing us for the next 10 games.
“This project is far more important than me or any other player. This is the journey for them. I'm accompanying the players on their journey.”
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