You’d hate to think that St. Louis City SC has been washed away. Not after defying the odds, the expectations and all reasonable logic by winning the Western Conference as an MLS expansion team after being dumped near the bottom of the standings in the preseason predictions.
Not after doing everything right – and then some – in a dreamy startup that represented all that’s been so good about St. Louis soccer through the folkloric decades. Not after City SC had upstaged the Cardinals during the St. Louis baseball summer with an aggressive style of play that spun overwhelmed opponents into chaos and confusion. Not after a beautiful rebellion that had the supporters marching in the streets, and the City players marching to unforeseen destinations.
But on a rain-soaked Sunday night at CityPark, the fantasy season was disrupted by a Sporting KC tornado that twisted and whirled across the state, threatening to destroy everything. Upon landing in St. Louis, Kansas City had nary a struggle in deconstructing STL’s high-pressure system and leaving the home team stunned and numbed. The boys in magenta were unable to stop it, change it, and make it all go away.
“I think from the opening whistle, we were knocking on the door,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said after the match.
Knocking on the door?
More like busting it up and kicking it in.
The impressively dapper Vermes – a brilliant coach – put away the expensive suit and donned hooded, all-black raingear on Sunday. It gave him the look of a gravedigger.
KC’s 4-1 demolition was thorough and inexorable. Two nights before Halloween, KC turned City SC into pumpkins and smashed them all over the yard. St. Louis was left to pick up the pieces of a season that’s now on the brink of ruin.
In this best-of-three MLS first-round series, City must triumph on Sunday in the state of Kansas then return to The 314 to do it again. Given KC’s domination in the first match the assignment is enormous. But there is no option. Win two in a row, or crawl into the offseason.
The boys had a brief response Sunday – with Steve Parker scoring a minute after Kansas City’s first goal – but the Kansas City deluge was about to roll in and over the No. 1 seed in the West. It was 3-1 at halftime.
Sporting KC’s three first-half goals were triggered on shots outside the box, making Kansas City the first team in MLS to score more than two from outside the box i a game this season. Whoa. These blasts turned the second half into a dismal scrimmage devoid of suspense.
“We’ve punched teams in the face like this a few times, and now we know what it feels like,” City head coach Bradley Carnell said postgame. “I think part of being a champion is also knowing how to lose, so tonight, we got knocked in the face.”
Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
Making like the MLS version of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Sporting KC had to scramble to make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the conference. The desperate run included a win on penalty kicks to defeat San Jose in Wednesday’s play-in game. And KC has competed with urgency and edge for months, trying to recover from a horrendous 0-7-3 opening to the season.
But from May 7 through Sunday’s beatdown of St. Louis City, the Vermes’ squad turned into one of the best sides in the MLS, churning for a record of 13-8-5 over that time.
While Kansas City was locked into a must-win mindset, City decompressed and moseyed around. Sunday’s humiliating result gave STL a 3-5-3 mark in the last 11 matches. City’s loss was its third in a row. But this 0-3 streak isn’t about narrow losses, the bounce of the ball, and a few bad breaks. In dropping three straight to Vancouver, Seattle and Kansas City, STL has been outscored 9-1 and put only 13 shots on target compared to 21 by opponents.
In the City’s latest and costliest downfall, Vermes stymied Carnell with surprising tactics. The St. Louis high-pressure strategy is predicated NOT having the ball – and lurking opportunistically in traffic to pounce and ambush opponents into making mistakes. That’s how City cultivated so many goals during the regular season – 62 of them, third-most in the MSL and first in the Western Conference.
Instead of coming to St. Louis to get ransacked for a third time this season at CityPark, Vermes had his men cede possession to City. Caught in an uncomfortable trap – in a style of play that negated its strength and worked against them – the home team had 57 percent of the possession time. (Including 60% in the first half.) And that was exactly what Sporting KC wanted.
St. Louis had the ball but didn’t know what to do with it. A traditional build-up process to lead to goal-scoring opportunities was obsolete. And while Kansas City lacked possession, it was full of potency. KC did the timely swooping and took ownership of the ball in the most important area: the attacking third.
Sporting KC was content to let STL City dawdle in no-man’s land but controlled the most critical area of the field. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Touches in the attacking third: KC 141, St. Louis 123.
Touches in the penalty area: KC 29, St. Louis 13.
Kansas City actively disrupted St. Louis attempts to work the ball forward or out of danger; KC had 17 successful take-ons compared to City’s three.
St. Louis City CS simply wasn’t ready to compete and was wholly unprepared for the Vermes surprise. To put it mildly, City had no feel for making adjustments. KC sent attackers forward and flooded the left side all night long, and St. Louis offered little obstruction.
St. Louis City had a fantastic regular season that perplexed the pundits and delighted the roaring, singing denizens of a proud, historically profound American soccer hotbed. This can’t end with a surrender. St. Louis City must rediscover its form and identity and put up a valorous fight.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used in this column were sourced from FBReference.