ST. LOUIS - Saturday is “Decision Day” across Major League Soccer, 14 games played across the Eastern and Western Conferences with playoff implications on the line for many. Some teams are fighting to make their way into the postseason, some teams are fighting for home field advantage, and then there’s St. Louis City.
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Saturday’s match at CITY PARK against the Seattle Sounders gives City a game that ultimately means nothing as far as the MLS season goes. They’ve clinched the conference and will be the top seed, playing the winner of the Western Conference play-in game, no matter Saturday’s results.
So, coming off a long break, not having played at all since a less than stellar loss in Vancouver on October 4, how does City approach Decision Day?
“We’ve had nice memories for 33 matchdays,” said City head coach Bradley Carnell in City’s pre-match presser. “(Matchday) 34 is where it counts, because that gets us momentum going into the playoffs. That’s the type of energy we’ve approached these last couple of days (in practice) since Vancouver.”
It’s a luxury to not have anything at stake on the final day of the MLS regular season. Carnell credits the work the team has done since day one.
“We challenged ourselves early on to win the next game,” said Carnell, of City’s approach to start the season. “And then we get out of the blocks with five (straight wins) and then momentum starts carrying us through the rest of the season.”
“We’ve always found a way. Matchday 34 should pose no difference to our mentality on the day, we just need to stick to what we believe in, and our principles.”
With such a long layoff, thanks in part to the international window, City’s players and staff enjoyed a bit of a break before getting back up to speed in training last week. City played a closed-door scrimmage, two 60-minute matches where different first team groups played against teams comprised of CITY2 and academy players.
“It was good, getting our group involved and trying to take a bit of intensity with us into the weekend,” said Carnell of last weekend’s scrimmages. “We want to end the week of training on a high, and it was great to play against, well, us. We had some guys come up from the u17s, we had Carson Locker (from the City U16s) playing, we had some CITY2 boys playing against us. They put us through our paces and gave us a challenge for 60 minutes.”
A bit of a break, a bit of a reset, and now St. Louis City is full speed ahead for the playoffs. For many City players, it’s an unfamiliar part of the season. Those who were playing abroad before joining City generally haven’t experienced playoffs.
In the majority of soccer leagues around the world, the only “playoffs” are single-round matchups that determine either promotion to the league above or relegation to the league below.
“It’s just a word, ‘playoff’, you know?” said City captain Roman Bürki this week. “For me, I just don’t use the word ‘playoff’ at home. I just think we have another game, and the season isn’t finished yet. It's just ‘Matchday 35’ and that’s it, that’s how I deal with it.”
Before “Matchday 35”, City will have what is a preseason game for the postseason with a tough Seattle Sounders team coming to town. The Sounders possess one of the tougher defenses in MLS, and the Sounders 3-0 win over City back in May is still on the minds of some in the City camp.
“I think we had a decent game until we concede the first goal,” said Bürki of that trip to Seattle back in May. “Everything broke down after (the first goal). And it was on turf (at Lumen Field), (Seattle) is used to playing on turf and we weren’t. But now they have to come here to CITY PARK with our fans, and we know all about the energy our fans give us and how we play at home. It’s going to be a different game.”
A different game, and a chance to establish some positive momentum with a positive result heading into playoff action. On Thursday Roman Burki noted how important it was for City to play their best against Seattle.
“We’re already in the playoffs, but we should take it as a very serious game,” said Bürki. “The opponent we are going to play in the playoffs have another game (Saturday) and on Wednesday will need a result to qualify. They will have two very important games and will be focused already. So, we should make sure that we are focused too, because we have one game less than our opponent in the playoffs.”
While the City squad has been hard at work at their Downtown West training facility, two regulars were called into action during the international break.
Njabulo Blom was called into the South African squad for their friendlies against Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland until 2018) and Cote d’Ivoire. Blom played 90 minutes and was awarded the Man of the Match in Bafana Bafana’s rather dull 0-0 draw with Eswatini. Blom was perfectly fine, but South Africa will have expected much more playing against the Eswatini team ranked 144th in the world by FIFA.
Blom did not feature in a much better game for South Africa, where they drew 1-1 in West Africa against Cote d’Ivoire this past Tuesday.
Another City midfielder that was on international duty was Indiana Vassilev, who joined up with the US Olympic/U-23 team in Phoenix for their games against Mexico and Japan. It’s the first camp for the US team preparing for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
Vassilev, who’s been a bit of a utility player within the City midfield setup, was selected as a forward for this first US camp. Vassilev has played as a “false nine” in the past, and has experience scoring goals from the front, even if he hasn’t had to in St. Louis.
Vassilev didn’t make the field at Phoenix Rising Stadium against Mexico, but did play the first 33 minutes against Japan before being a first half substitute. He didn’t have a ton of time on the ball, if really any at all, in that time, but the US team made plenty of substitutes in both games as the team assesses the talent they’ve assembled.
Vassilev, playing only a half hour and only having to fly back from Phoenix, should be good to go for Saturday. Blom had to fly from Cote d’Ivoire back to Johannesburg, then to Germany before finally flying back to St. Louis, which likely rules him out of too much exertion against Seattle this weekend.
City begins the playoff push Saturday night against Seattle at CITY PARK, with a later-than-usual kickoff of 8 pm. The stream of the game is available for free on Apple TV, with local radio broadcasts available on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.
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