MLS Footnotes: St. Louis City feeling side effects of league parity
Editor’s Note: MLS Footnotes takes you inside the major talking points around the league and across American soccer.
Roman Bürki got used to winning at Borussia Dortmund, the German powerhouse and perennial UEFA Champions League participant for which he was the starting goalkeeper from 2015-2021.
Bürki also got used to losing: rival Bayern Munich claimed the Bundesliga title in each of his six seasons with BVB, with Dortmund finishing second or third in five of them. Those conflicting experiences have been useful during the 32-year-old former Swiss national teamer’s maiden season with Major League Soccer’s newest club, St. Louis City.
After a record smashing five consecutive victories to begin life in MLS, the expansion darlings have since fallen back to earth. They’ve now won just one of their last seven matches, with red-hot Sporting Kansas City coming to town on Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1/FOX Deportes). Not that Bürki is complaining.
“In Germany, two, maybe three teams have a chance to win the title,” he said in an interview with FOX Sports this week. “Here you can finish ninth and still win the league. Of course some teams are better or have a little bit more playoff experience, but here it’s way more even. That’s something I had to learn.”
Saturday’s contest will provide another lesson. After failing to win any of its first 10 league games in 2023, SKC has gone 2W-0L-1T since, including a win in Seattle and as draw Wednesday at LAFC — two of the toughest away games in MLS. It’s a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in a competition designed to give every team every possible chance to succeed.
“The parity of the league sets up for that,” City coach Bradley Carnell told FOX Sports. “How do teams cope when the weather gets hotter? How did they deal with the travel? Changing time zones, the salary cap — all of that is unique to MLS.
“This is one of the most challenging leagues in the world in my opinion,” he added. “It’s really hard to navigate your way through the season.”
That’s part of the reason St. Louis’s historic start was so surprising, even within its own locker room. Carnell, a former New York Red Bulls assistant, intentionally didn’t set the expectations too high.
“And now all of a sudden, both internal and external expectations have changed,” he said. “We went from not having a chance to being world beaters and automatic playoff qualifiers. As a group, we’ve had to go through this whirlwind of emotions.”
Players and fans in St. Louis will still take it. Supporters in the longtime American soccer hotbed waited decades to finally get an MLS squad, and they’ve been as large a part of the club’s early successes as the results out the gate.
St. Louis set a U.S. Open Cup third round attendance record last month, drawing more than 22,000 fans to sparkling new City Park on a Tuesday night. Tickets for MLS games have been so scarce that a sizable number of supporters made the 10-hour round trip drive to Chicago for last weekend’s 1-0 loss, forcing the Fire to expand its away section for the match at Soldier Field.
“Even lately, when the results weren’t good, they were still pushing us and trying to help us,” Bürki said of the St. Louis faithful. That’s also been a new experience for the veteran.
“They’re a little more forgiving,” he said, “Than the fans in Dortmund.”
1. San Diego gets Team 30
Despite the first full slate of Wednesday MLS games this year, the biggest news of the week came off the field with Thursday’s announcement that San Diego will become the league’s 30th franchise. The as yet unnamed club will begin play in 2025 at 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium, home of the NWSL’s San Diego Wave. Former LAFC president Tom Penn is the new club’s CEO.
While the revelation had been expected, it’s still somewhat awkward. MLS’s most valuable player award is named after league legend Landon Donovan, who happens to be the co-founder and former head coach of the second tier San Diego Loyal. So far, Donovan and the Loyal don’t have anything to do with the expansion side, which is majority owned by Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Mansour.
While the Loyal released a statement last month insisting that the USL Championship side isn’t “going anywhere,” there’s still plenty of time for the two entities to hopefully reach a deal to join forces and get Donovan involved. It would be a shame if it doesn’t happen.
2. Shield race remains wide open
LAFC topped the overall standings for almost the entire season last year. In 2023, there seems to be a new leader every week.
By snapping CF Montreal’s four match MLS winning streak midweek, Cincinnati is back in the driver’s seat for the Supporters Shield. FCC leapfrogged the New England Revolution, which fell 2-1 Wednesday at Inter Miami.
3. Araújo to leave Atlanta United
A couple of weeks back, we wondered when the Five Stripes would sell World Cup winning Argentine midfielder Thiago Almada to one of his many European suitors. Would Atlanta cash in this summer at the expense of their MLS Cup hopes or, preferably from their perspective, wait until after the season?
That question remains unanswered. But this week Atlanta agreed to let another high-profile South American attacker — Brazilian Luiz Araújo — leave next month. Acquired from French club Lille for a reported $10 million in 2021, the 26-year-old winger will transfer for Flamengo in his home country in late June for an undisclosed fee.
The departure of Araújo, who opened the scoring for Atlanta in Wednesday’s 4-0 triumph over the Rapids that ended a three-match losing streak, opens up a designated player spot that Five Stripes VP and technical director Carlos Bocanegra will surely attempt to fill when MLS’s secondary transfer window opens in July.
4. Rivalry weeks
In adding 11 new teams — not counting San Diego — since 2015, MLS has expanded to the point that it’s impossible to pack all the local derbies into a single matchday. So, after a host of rivalry games in Week 13, several more are on tap for Saturday.
The all-Ohio battle between Cincinnati and Columbus is probably the most compelling for neutrals. Yet it’s just one of four with in-state bragging rights on the line. The others are Miami-Orlando City, FC Dallas-Houston Dynamo and LAFC-San Jose Earthquakes.
5. An assist for Gio Reyna
When St. Louis sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel contacted Bürki’s agent to see if the vet might be willing to leave Europe for MLS, Bürki made a beeline for then teammate Gio Reyna, who came through New York City FC’s academy before turning pro with Dortmund.
“He had only good words for this league,” Bürki said of Reyna. Same for current Chicago Fire forward Xherdan Shaqiri, Bürki’s Swiss teammate at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups. Once the deal was complete, another old friend reached out. “Christian Pulisic and I have stayed in contact,” said Bürki, who made his BVB debut a few months before the U.S. men’s national team standout. “He texted to say how happy he was for me when I went to MLS.”
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDougMcIntyre.
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