COMMERCE CITY, Colo. - St. Louis City SC got their first win in quite some time Wednesday night, but players and interim head coach John Hackworth preached that Sunday night’s game against the Colorado Rapids would be a bit of a different task than the last place San Jose Earthquakes a few nights ago.

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Hackworth, after the win on Wednesday in his first game at the helm of City, noted that the team would have to “survive” and try to get a result against the surging Rapids on the road. Colorado scored early and often, an inexperienced City team were caught chasing shadows in a 4-1 defeat.

Defender Michael Wentzel, who signed a first team deal before Wednesday’s home game, made his first start since earning that contract. Josh Yaro was expected to start, but only came on as a substitute for Wentzel late in the game.

Eduard Löwen came out of the game Wednesday with what was explained by him as “feeling a bit of a twinge” and subsequently wasn’t in the squad for Sunday night. This meant that Njabulo Blom stepped into the vacant central midfield spot alongside Chris Durkin.

Jayden Reid once again started for City after also earning a first team contract. Hackworth specifically asked sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel to sign Reid to address the team’s woes at left back. It seems Anthony Markanich, who has filled that spot for the majority of his time since his arrival last season, has lost that job.

With Tomas Totland healthy, but having played a lot of minutes and having ran an awful lot this season, Akil Watts got a start at right back.

Before many fans had even filed into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Colorado had taken the lead. A quick breakout caught an over-committed City flat-footed. Defenders pushing forward to join the City attack were soon chasing maroon and blue shirts running the other direction.

Running at Roman Bürki’s goal, star Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett squared a pass to Kevin Cabral who tucked home an easy goal with his right foot. Only six minutes into the game, but City were already well aware of the threat Colorado posed with the ball in transition.

“You can't have three defenders all doing different things when you're being counter attacked,” said interim head coach John Hackworth following the match. “That allows for a lot of time and space and a numerical advantage for your opponent. And that is definitely concerning.”

Optimistically, it seemed the first goal was the wake-up call City needed to step into gear when they equalized just five minutes later. Newly-anointed first-teamer Jayden Reid made a darting run down the left wing and lofted a cross to the leaping Johnny Klein, who was crashing into the 18-yard box, and Klein’s header found the top right corner beyond Colorado keeper Zack Steffen.

It’s Johnny Klein’s first career MLS goal, and perhaps surprisingly, a header from the diminutive SLU product. City were back in business with the score level, a goal that saw them recapture momentum for a chunk of the first half.

“It's a good personal moment for me, my family was in the crowdm and it’s a moment I'll never forget,” said Johnny Klein postgame. “I think I could have had more, another goal, or an assist, I thought that I could impact the game more.”

City dictated possession with a bit of renewed wind in their sails following the Klein goal, but really couldn’t generate another solid chance in the first half. A Nökkvi Thorisson shot in the 22nd minute was probably the team’s best chance for another, but Zack Steffen made a sharp save on Thorisson’s close-range effort.

In the 2024 season, more so than 2023, injuries have really dictated the ability City have had to put out winning teams. One could perhaps argue that a City team that has all its pieces this year fares a little closer to last year.

One man that has been a constant presence in both seasons has been Roman Bürki, the team captain and goalkeeper, who has been the rock this City team has relied on throughout its fledgling existence.

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Around the half hour mark, Bürki made a move to attempt to save an Omir Fernandez shot that rattled the bar of the City goal. After that play, it was clear that Bürki was struggling, walking slowly, making very deliberate motions in his box.

Not before long, Bürki attempts a goal kick and seemingly plants his left foot strangely and is seen limping before taking a seat on the turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. He immediately called for a substitution, took his captain’s armband off, and walked off the field, to be replaced by Ben Lundt for the second game in a row.

Prior to his dismissal, former City head coach Bradley Carnell said he had left Bürki off the team in Vancouver because he was dealing with a slight issue, “nothing too major” said the then-City head coach.

“I think he just has a back spasm, It happened on the first kick of the game,” said John Hackworth postgame on the potential injury “(Bürki) told us on the side ‘Hey I did something to my back.’ We had him looked at,and just from what the medical staff told me at halftime, I don't think it's a pulled muscle or anything. I just think it was a back spasm that couldn't be relieved and, and so therefore, he really couldn't move much. And he tried but he couldn't go.”

Perhaps City not having their captain and quarterback shouting orders across the field took some of that aforementioned wind out of their sails, but the game took a noticeable shift after his departure, and minutes later, Colorado were back in front.

Calamitous City defending in the 35th minute. The back line was pressing high to try to win possession back in the Rapids half of the field, which didn’t pay off. Not for the first time in 2024, a long ball over the top of the City backline took the defense out of the play.

Kevin Cabral receives the over-the-top pass in plenty of space on the right wing, and finds the man who assisted him earlier, Cole Bassett, jogging to the top of the City 18-yard box unmarked. Bassett had plenty of time to calculate his shot, and beat Ben Lundt to his right.

Colorado took a 2-1 lead into the second half, and St. Louis City was tasked with finding a way back into a game that was starting to slip away. That chance did not come, and City didn’t pose a threat to Zack Steffen in the Rapids goal in the second half.

City’s lone shot on target in the second 45 was a Tomas Totland free kick in the 93rd minute, one that was comfortably saved. Their only real threat at goal in the half was a Sam Adeniran shot in the 64th minute, Adeniran made a run that beat the Rapids’ back four, but Adeniran’s shot sailed over the goal by about 15 feet.

Colorado found their third goal in the 81st minute, an easy one for Jonathan Lewis, and a goal that felt like a dagger with City failing to challenge the Rapids net. Colorado reset the play after an errant corner kick, and Calvin Harris chipped a cross to a side of the 18-yard box where no City shirts were occupying, and Lewis volleyed the cross into the roof of Ben Lundt’s goal.

Again, it was a product of the City defense being just out of position enough for a good team like Colorado to exploit. Late sub Tomas Totland was defending on the left side during the corner, and hadn’t made his way back to the right side of the field that Lewis and a couple others in maroon were occupying.

“We had chances to tie, we had chances to maybe go win it, and you just can't give that third away,” said City goalscorer Johnny Klein. “It really, really closes the game out.”

For good measure, Colorado added a fourth in the 90th minute, one that Ben Lundt will wish he had back. Darren Yapi hit a shot from a tight angle to the right of the City goal, and the 6-foot-6-inch Ben Lundt couldn’t close his five-hole quick enough.

4-1 was the final, and it’s a result that John Hackworth will want to put in the rearview mirror quickly. If Wednesday was a much-needed reprieve from defeat, Sunday was an inevitable harsh return.

“This was definitely a tough game and games like this, you can learn a lot from,” said defender Jayden Reid after the loss. “You know, I feel like if everybody gives ten percent more, we'll be in a better spot. But tonight, just wasn't good enough from us on the backline. But there's always room for improvement. We're going to go back to the drawing board and get ready for Vancouver.”

It might be tough for those in the City locker room to maintain belief during this tough stretch, where the playoffs are starting to seem more and more improbable. But Johnny Klein pointed to the team competing against good teams as room for optimism:

“We go back home (to play) against Vancouver (next game). A team that we were up 2-0 on the road against. We know we're capable of beating them,” said Klein. “We're just going to keep fighting and just keep trying to turn this thing in the right direction. And 80 minutes on the road with a really, really good (Colorado) team, things could have gone a little bit differently, but we're just going to keep fighting, that's for sure.”

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