ST. LOUIS - Wednesday night’s matchup between St. Louis City SC and LAFC is undoubtedly the biggest match on the MLS schedule this week. A high-flying City expansion side that leads the Western Conference faces the defending MLS Cup Champions LAFC.
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It’s a matchup that sells itself in that one sentence. Given the upcoming Leagues Cup break, where the MLS season will be paused for a month, position at the top of the Western Conference will essentially set the table for the final stretch of the MLS regular season.
Before all of this, however, St. Louis City SC had to head to Toronto to face a Toronto FC team that is a far cry from their recent successes. Knowing Toronto’s tough times, it would have been easy to have an eye on Wednesday’s matchup in LA and not focus on the task at hand.
But if you’ve picked up on Bradley Carnell and St. Louis City’s mindset at all this season, it’s very level-headed, a very even-keeled approach to each match. It’s a bit of a sports cliche to “take games one at a time”, but it’s been that consistent approach for City that had led to success.
That approach saw City squeak out a 1-0 win in Toronto Saturday night. Satisfied with the starting eleven he fielded in City’s comfortable 2-0 win at home against Colorado on July 1, Bradley Carnell put out the same starters in Toronto, and it paid off in a big way.
Aziel Jackson scored his first-ever MLS goal, and his name has become more and more familiar with the City fanbase as the season has worn on. Jackson, acquired from Minnesota United last year, has risen from the MLS NEXT Pro ranks to be a regular contributor for the big club.
“It was just about believing in myself and being patient,” said Jackson Saturday after City’s 1-0 win. “It’s very hard being a player and wanting to get more minutes and also just staying focused. Waiting for an opportunity to come in and taking advantage of it is important for any player from any level.”
The patience has paid off big-time for Jackson, more commonly known around the club as AZ. There was a time just years ago when Jackson was without a team, hoping to get another chance in the sport.
“There’s been times where I didn’t want to get up for training,” said Jackson on Saturday. “I wasn’t on a team for a while, and got an opportunity in Minnesota and signed there (and played MLS NEXT Pro) thankfully… Learning through the MLS NEXT Pro system, it’s about the game-in-game-out work, being professional, and showing up.”
AZ’s brilliant performance in Toronto capped by his goal earned him MLS Team of the Matchday honors. With the quick midweek turnaround to face LAFC Wednesday, he might not start, but Jackson has earned a regular spot in the team, and it might not be for the reason many fans think.
“He is consistently a good 1-v-1 defender,” said City head coach Bradley Carnell on Saturday. “We score a goal because he goes forward and defends, we transition higher up the field and he empties the tank to stay in the play.”
“AZ’s one of those guys who waits patiently, I wish he would say more,” Carnell added. “I wish he would speak more and challenge me a bit more, but I’m glad he’s getting rewarded now with some good reps.”
One player looking for “good reps” soon is City’s midfield maestro Eduard Löwen. According to Carnell on Tuesday, Löwen is knocking on the door to get back into the City team after dealing with a quad injury for the past three or four weeks.
“Edu (Löwen) had a great day yesterday, a really good day of training load,” Carnell said of City’s star midfielder. “He’s pushing the envelope and he’s raring to go, so he should be ready in some form or fashion.”
Obviously, it would be a huge boost to City to have Löwen back in midfield, especially against a talented team like LAFC. Eduard Löwen vs. Carlos Vela is a top-class midfield duel, even if Vela has lost a step at 34.
It’s an LAFC team that Bradley Carnell has the utmost respect for. “They have a fantastic team, full of game-changers and difference-makers.”
“It’s an exciting prospect, these are the games you get up for every day,” Carnell said Tuesday. “It’s not often you get to compare yourself against such esteemed competition as this.”
Leading the line for that esteemed opposition is Denis Bouanga, whose 12 goals this MLS season trail only Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar. Bouanga is one of the most lethal goal scorers in MLS and has a supporting cast around him that can get him the ball in dangerous areas.
Bouanga, purchased from French team Saint-Etienne for $5 million last August, had an instant impact in helping LAFC lift the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield in 2022. He was a shoo-in choice for next week’s MLS All-Star game.
Bouanga’s great season up top has almost made some in MLS forget just how good Carlos Vela is even at 34. Vela has six goals and four assists, those ten goal involvements trail only Bouanga on LAFC.
Vela creates the chances, Bouanga puts them away. And when Bouanga can’t put them away, there’s a good chance Carlos Vela does.
“(LAFC) has individuals who can change a game and put it on its head,” said Carnell. “For us, we have to be clear in our tactics, and we have to trust our teammates and support our teammates, to defend and attack as a collective. Our preparation is nothing new to us, it’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”
But Carnell noted that he was excited to see what City could do against the defending MLS Cup winners.
“You want to come up against the best players in the league, the best teams in the league,” Carnell added. “For sure, LAFC is the pinnacle of the teams in (MLS) right now, in my opinion, the best team in the country.”
City takes on LAFC in a “Best of the West” clash on Wednesday night, with kickoff set for 9:30 p.m. central time on Apple TV. Local radio broadcasts are available on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.
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