St Louis City experienced one of the best ever debut MLS seasons in 2023, clinching a playoff spot atop the Western Conference standings.
Expansion teams have had mixed success in MLS in recent seasons. Atlanta United made the playoffs in their first season and won MLS Cup in their second campaign, while FC Cincinnati slumped to three consecutive finishes near the basement of the Eastern Conference before turning things around last year.
But St Louis have blown those expectations out of the water by qualifying for the postseason in first place in their conference ahead of powerhouses like Seattle Sounders and LAFC, who are the current MLS Cup champions.
But how exactly did Bradley Carnell’s side accomplish this in their first season in the league?
St Louis’ Designated Players have lived up to the bill and been key to their success like nearly every other successful MLS club. However, there’s a twist: St Louis only have two Designated Players on their books, while most clubs have the maximum amount of three.
City’s DPs are Joao Klauss and Eduard Löwen, who’ve proven themselves to the St Louis supporters time and time again this season.
Klauss joined St Louis from Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim, where things didn’t really click for him after a few loan spells. Joining him from the German league also was Löwen, who left Hertha Berlin in search of a new challenge.
Both players have lived up to their price tags. Although he missed 16 games with a knee injury, Klauss scored the joint-most goals on the team, netting 10 and adding four assists in 19 league appearances.
Löwen was no slouch, either, as his 14 assists and six goals propelled the side to the top of the Western Conference table. The 26-year-old’s impressive playmaking numbers sees him tied for fourth place in the assisting charts alongside MVP frontrunner Lucho Acosta.
It’s fair to say that should St Louis continue their fairytale debut season into the postseason, Klauss and Löwen will definitely be amongst those leading the way in Carnell’s squad.
Prior to joining St Louis, Nicholas Gioacchini featured in various setups across France and here and there for Orlando City, but didn’t really have the desired impact at any club. That all changed once he joined CITY.
The former Montepellier player has notched 10 goals and one assist in 2023, making good use of his minutes once Klauss was unavailable during the middle of the campaign due to injury. During the summer, he went on a goalscoring tear, registering five in seven games to keep CITY afloat as not only Klauss but Löwen also missed time through injury late in the summer.
Whether he’s the target man up front by himself or playing alongside Klauss, Gioacchini has showed his quality with St Louis.
St Louis made waves when they signed longtime Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki to be their No. 1, as his time in Germany had come to its conclusion. Bürki joined the Western Conference team as a free agent, but more importantly as a non-Designated Player, allowing the team to have more money to allocate to potential transfers and salaries.
As Bürki departed the Bundesliga giants, there may have been doubts over his abilities due to his rather young age for a goalkeeper and his services no longer being needed. However, the 32-year-old has silenced his doubters in his first campaign in MLS.
Bürki has came up clutch for CITY time and time again, making 123 saves across the regular season, which is second most in the league behind Austin FC’s Brad Stuver (131). He’s also kept a respectable eight clean sheets to go along with his save percentage of 74.5%. When Bürki has been in between the sticks, St Louis have gone on to win 17 games, second most in MLS behind FC Cincinnati’s Roman Celentano (20).
The former Switzerland international will be called upon once again in MLS Cup playoffs, as CITY look poised for a deep run.
From the beginning of the 2023 season, St Louis’ supporters have shown up and shown out for their team.
While the usual suspects lead the league in attendance like Atlanta United, Charlotte FC and Seattle Sounders, who all share stadiums with NFL teams that exceed a capacity of 60,000, St Louis finished the regular season in the top 10 in attendance, setting the bar high for expansion teams.
If you take out the three clubs with the massive stadiums, St Louis come in at seventh place in attendance at CITYPARK. The ground holds a modest 22,500 spectators, and CITY averaged about 22,423 fans on matchdays, which is an incredible stat for a first-year club. St Louis have also welcomed over 381,000 fans to their home ground over the regular season.
The club’s quick success has no doubt helped keep fans coming back for more every week, and they’ll need them to keep showing up as they attempt to hold down the fort as the number one seed in the Western Conference.