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Preview: An epitaph for Saint Louis FC

Preview: An epitaph for Saint Louis FC

Saint Louis FC are a fascinating bellwether team of what the USL was, is, and wants to be.

The club was founded in 2014, making them roughly the median age of USL franchises, with half the league being older and half the league being younger. They’ve played five seasons in USL, making the playoffs once back in 2018, while also serving as the league’s geographical swingman – they’ve switched USL conferences four times.

Their founding roughly coincided with two important events that would have important impacts to the future of the club: an overall boom in second-tier soccer in America, and the departure of the St. Louis Rams football team from the city. Fifteen current USL teams were founded in 2013, 2014, and 2015, as a result of MLS partnering with the league for its reserve teams, the overall continued growth of soccer in America, and the rebound of the US economy.

At the same time as Saint Louis FC were starting up, billionaire sports team owner Stan Kroenke was just the latest American franchise owner in a long line of greedy capitalists to put profit over people, devastating local NFL football fans by pulling up stakes for Los Angeles, where a moribund horse racing track could be redeveloped into a now $5 billion dollar stadium/entertainment/hotel/condominium complex, all with the blessing of fellow NFL owners.

When the Rams left town at the conclusion of the 2015 season, Major League Soccer smelled an opportunity to capitalize. Saint Louis had a newly abandoned fan base; it was a major metropolitan area; it was a place with a rich soccer history; and the city had no NBA or NFL teams to compete for the attention of local sports fans. The stage was set, and the ground fertile, for a first-tier soccer club in the Gateway city.

And so a bid for an MLS franchise was prepared and submitted to MLS commissioner Don Garber. And in August 2019, MLS announced that St Louis would get an expansion franchise. Last week, St Louis’ MLS team announced their official name would be St Louis City SC. Originally slated to begin play in 2022, the start date has now been bumped back to 2023 due to Covid.

That all has obvious implications for the Saint Louis USL team, and they aren’t good. Unlike Nashville and Orlando, who effectively ‘went up’ to MLS, Saint Louis is starting a new club fresh. The USL club is now a moribund, lame-duck soccer team, waiting for its inevitable end. And while it might make sense for Saint Louis FC to keep playing in 2021 and 2022, the team has yet to give an indication as to what it will do.  According to Jeff Rueter and the Athletic, they have till the end of next week to inform the league if they intend to play next year.

That kind of makes STL FC dangerous – there may be no tomorrow for the franchise, so they have to give it their all today, everyday. It makes their players dangerous too, in that many of them need to have a good performance every week in the event that the team folds and they’re all out on the bricks looking for a new job.

Is a terminal soccer club going to play football like a pedal-to-the-metal, there-is-no-tomorrow kamikaze soccer club? We will soon see.

This will be the Riverhounds final out-of-group match for the 2020 season – starting next week you’ll find yourself saying “Didn’t we just play Hartford/NYRB/Loudoun last week?” … every week. It might also be the last time the Hounds play Saint Louis FC before they go the way of the dodo, frosted tips, and the Rochester Rhinos. Forever in our hearts, and only to be found in museums.

Personnel and Tactics

Overall, Saint Louis FC sport a relatively veteran USL lineup, as the average age of their roster is around 25 years old. It includes folks like 4th-year USL midfielder Russell Cicerone, 5th-year defender Wal Fall, and 6th-year veteran and team captain, fullback Phanuel Kavita.

One of the most important players on STL FC is also a familiar name to Riverhounds fans: Kyle Morton. Goalkeeper Morton has been on the USL team of the week twice for his clean-sheet performances in week 3 and week 4. (Note: this match features a full-blown goalkeeper switcheroo, as PGH’s GK Tomas Gomez was the starting netminder for Saint Louis last season.) Saint Louis also have former Hound Tobi Adewole on the roster, and while the talented centerback with the easygoing smile is second on the team in both clearances and tackles won, he’s started only 4 of the team’s 7 matches as head coach Steve Trittschuh has searched for the right combination for his Starting XI.

STL’s weakness is probably goal-scoring. Other than a week one drubbing of Miami FC by a score of 4-1, they prefer a binary scoreline, as they have scored zero goals 3 times this year, and one goal 3 times as well. Current team Golden Boot leader Tyler Blackwood has just 3 goals on the year, and in 6 years as a pro striker he’s never had more than 8 goals in a year. I think their best player might be former Ottawa Fury winger Moar Samb, but he’s only played 277 minutes so far for the Fleur De Lis. Huh.

The lineup cards they’ve presented are a mix of 5-3-2 and 4-3-3, but they probably play the more cautious and defensive versions of those formations rather than a swashbuckling and attacking 4-3-3 like Real Madrid or a wide and aggressive 5-3-2 like Atlanta United. That means a crowded midfield, and probably a so-called low-block defensive line that prefers to frustrate opponents. That same setup held the Hounds to a 1-0 defeat against Indy Eleven last week.

Head Coach Steve Trittschuh was formerly the head coach at Colorado Springs Switchbacks before this year. Although I saw them play in person or on TV for years when I lived in Colorado, I don’t know that the team specifically had an identity other than ‘underperforming’. They often had talent; they often held opponents scoreless for 85 minutes, and then promptly collapsed at the death to surrender all three points. Moreover, on multiple occasions I saw them struggle against amateur sides in the US Open Cup. Trittschuh was an MLS player with the 1996-1999 Colorado Rapids, teams that were were mostly forgettable except for having USMNT hero Marcelo Balboa and a really good July 4 fireworks display.

Come to think of it, the Rapids are still forgettable, still have Balboa (as a TV commentator), and still are well known for their July 4 fireworks.

Last Week’s Starting Lineup for STL

Match Information

Date: Saturday, Aug. 22
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA
Television: 22 The Point
Streaming: ESPN+
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvSTL

 

Photograph by Chris Cowger via Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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