St. Louis City SC's Hosei Kijima, the team's 2024 MLS SuperDraft first-round pick, made his debut and went on to score the game winner Tuesday night at CITY PARK. (Photo credited to MLSSoccer.com)

ST. LOUIS - St. Louis City SC kicked off their 2024 at CITY PARK on Tuesday evening, hosting the Houston Dynamo in the opening round of the Concacaf Champions Cup.

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While not a complete sellout, more than 20,000 soccer fans made their way to Downtown West for the curtain-raiser of the City season. They were treated to a second half barnburner, and a 2-1 win for St. Louis City.

It was more of a second half barnburner because it didn’t really seem as if the home team was at the races in the early going. Chances were few and far between, a glancing header that went wide off of Joao Klauss’s forehead in the early going was City’s best chance at goal for some time.

It was the visiting Houston Dynamo that looked to be in the ascendancy in the first half, creating a number of chances and generally asking questions of City’s rather lackadaisical marking in the final third.

Dynamo striker Ibrahim Aliyu had the ball in the net for what was thought to be the first goal of the contest in the 26th minute, but after a lengthy VAR check, Houston’s Coco Carrasquilla was deemed to be offsides in the process of the build-up, and the goal was wiped off the scoreboard.

The roar for the VAR review was the biggest cheer from the City faithful in the first half. Without any real clear-cut scoring chances, City were second best against a Houston team that saw starting designated player striker Sebas Ferreira leave the game early with a hamstring issue.

“It’s his hamstring,” said Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen following the game. “It doesn’t look good.”

Yet another injury concern for Houston when they’ve had plenty to go around. Star midfielder Hector Herrera is expected to miss “months” and winger Nelson Quinones is missing the season, and now Sebas Ferreira’s status is seemingly in jeopardy.

City came out for the second half with far more energy than they opened the game with, and instantly were creating chances they couldn’t in the opening 45 minutes. In the 61st minute, their pressure would pay off.

City won a foul in a dangerous position, about 30 yards away from Dynamo goalkeeper Steve Clark’s goal, in front of the boisterous supporters’ section on the north end of CITY PARK.

Indiana Vassilev whipped in a dangerous cross, and who else but Tim Parker was crashing into the six-yard box to get a head on the ball and power it into the goal.

Tim Parker scored the first goal in City history, in Austin last season, he also scored City’s first MLS playoff goal, and has now scored the first Concacaf Champions Cup goal in City history. A man synonymous with “firsts” in a City shirt.

“He's primed for big moments, right,” St. Louis City head coach Bradley Carnell said following the match. “The start of our [2023] season, he scored in the playoffs, and now he scores in our debut in the Concacaf tournament. He's a seasoned pro, he's experienced, and he's a gamer. He loves to play with power and intensity, and anytime he can get up the field, he puts his body about. He's hard to play against in the back line, and going up we know he’s a real dangerous threat.”

City only got to celebrate for about 10 minutes, before Houston’s Sebastian Kowalczyk leveled the score on a counter-attack where City left far too much space for the Dynamo to run into. Ibrahim Aliyu broke through a few City defenders and found himself in acres of space running down the right wing. His pass found Kowalczyk who made no mistake from short range.

Eduard Löwen, who only joined the City camp in preseason last week after traveling back to Germany to get a green card, came on as a late sub for Chris Durkin, who looked solid in his City debut. There were doubts if Löwen would feature this week, having missed a fair bit of preseason.

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“We've had a bit of a staggered or stuttered preseason in terms of Joakim Nilsson not being available all the time and traveling back home to get his [green card] paperwork sorted out, same with the Edu Löwen,” Carnell told media postgame.

“We weren't able to go into full minutes and weren't able to put [Nilsson and Löwen] in contention for starting. But it just shows that we have a lot of determination, a lot of hungry guys who want minutes, and I think that helps our overall product.”

One last roll of the dice for Bradley Carnell was taking off Aziel Jackson for Hosei Kijima. Kijima was City’s top pick in last December’s MLS SuperDraft. Hosei Kijima had a busy Tuesday before he arrived at CITY PARK. Kijima officially put pen to paper on a deal with the City first team, as had been announced Tuesday afternoon.

That alone would be a banner day for the former Wake Forest standout, to turn his first round selection in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft into an MLS contract after just one preseason. That was before his number came up on the substitution board in the 86th minute.

Kijima had signed his first MLS contract and been handed his competitive City debut in the span of about nine hours. What happened four minutes later is what dreams are made of.

In the 90th minute, City were trying to find a way through the Dynamo defense. Célio Pompeu received a pass deep on the left wing, adjacent to the Houston box. Pompeu made a run towards the end line, and crossed a low and hard pass into the box.

A Houston defender was able to gather that low cross, but ran into Hosei Kijima, who dispossessed the Dynamo man from about 10 yards away from goal. Kijima pounced on the loose ball with a first-time shot that eluded a collapsing Houston defense and the outstretched arms of Houston’s goalkeeper Steve Clark.

A few minutes of stoppage time played out, and referee Adonai Escobedo blew his whistle for the final time. City had stolen a win in their first-ever continental clash.

“To be dealt some adversity and show some vulnerability going down a goal,” said City head coach Bradley Carnell. “[The goal] gets called back, but we had to come back. It shows some grit.”

In five minutes Hosei Kijima went from debutant draft pick to Concacaf Champions Cup match winner. If you were to script his debut for a film, it wouldn’t have been any better.

“It was incredible, it’s what you dream about,” Kijima said postgame. “I was able to find myself in position, and I knew if I shot it that the net was open.

“I worked 15 years for that. Just about to walk onto the field. I just have gratitude for the folks that gave me a chance.”

One postgame worry for St. Louis City was Indiana Vassilev wearing a brace on his wrist, but Vassilev himself didn’t seem too concerned.

“I broke my nose in the opener last year, so it feels right,” he said.

City now take a 2-1 aggregate advantage to Houston next Tuesday, where they will face a Dynamo team that looks to be without Sebas Ferreira, and is struggling for depth in attack.

Before Tuesday’s second leg of Champions Cup play, City opens the MLS calendar at CITY PARK on Saturday evening, hosting Real Salt Lake.

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