City SC’s Inaugural Season Ends in a 2-1 Defeat to Sporting Kansas City

St. Louis played well throughout the season, but performances dipped at the worst possible point

Nov 6, 2023 at 2:42 pm
click to enlarge St. Louis beat Kansas City in the regular season, but saw a different outcome in the post-season. - COURTESY CITY SC
COURTESY CITY SC
St. Louis beat Kansas City in the regular season, but saw a different outcome in the post-season.

This story was produced in partnership with the River City Journalism Fund.

St. Louis City SC turned heads after a record-breaking five consecutive wins began its inaugural Major League Soccer season. MLS experts claimed City SC was “lucky” and that its good luck would eventually run out. But the St. Louis team continued to defy expectations by setting the record for the most victories by an expansion team, with 17– ultimately finishing atop the Western Conference and qualifying for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. 

But City SC’s fairytale season came to a brutal end on Sunday night with a 2-1 defeat to its biggest rival, Sporting Kansas City. 

“It's been a year where we've been challenged, and we've managed to come out on top and we've grown one step further. We've had so many highs and a few lows that we’ve grown from. Unfortunately, we just couldn't recover from this little moment that we were in,” head coach Bradley Carnell said at a post-match press conference. 

Ineffective First Half

Kansas City upset City SC in the first playoff game by relying on direct long balls to its strikers in order to create dangerous opportunities. City SC attempted to replicate this strategy in the first half on Sunday, but to no avail. Both 6’5” Samuel Adeniran and 6’3” João Klauss are strong strikers who win more than 50 percent of their aerial duels. But their aerial abilities are only effective when City SC has enough numbers going forward to win the “second ball” — the flick or rebound following the header. 

City SC failed to provide Adeniran and Klauss enough support offensively, which led to Kansas City’s defenders being able to easily win the second balls and end City SC’s attack. City SC refused to change its offensive approach in the first half and suffered because of it. 

Home-field advantage motivated Kansas City to utilize its traditional possession-based playstyle. Kansas City demonstrated its ability to dissect a defense with intricate passes and smart movements in its opening goal.

Kansas City’s Nemanja Radoja received a throw-in from the right side of the pitch at the halfway line. Radoja passed the ball back to Andreu Fontàs, who immediately passed it forward to Gadi Kinda. Kinda dribbled up the left-side of the pitch as Logan Ndenbe sprinted ahead of him. 

Kinda passed the ball to Ndenbe as Dániel Sallói ran to provide support. Sallói’s movement forced City SC’s center-back Joshua Yaro to follow him to prevent Kansas City from outnumbering City SC’s Akil Watts. But Yaro’s movement left his center-back partner Tim Parker isolated in the penalty areas against Kansas City’s Alan Pulido. 

Ndenbe proceeded to pass the ball back to Kinda, who passed it to Sallói. Pulido moved toward the edge of the box and received a pass from Sallói. Parker was forced to track Pulido’s run and this opened a gap in City SC’s penalty area. 

City SC’s Njabulo Blom was caught ball-watching as Ndenbe ran into the vacated space in City SC’s penalty area to receive a pass from Pulido. Ndenbe scored to put Kansas City 1-0 up just before half-time. 

Second-Half Rally

Carnell knew City SC’s offensive approach had to change in the second half. City SC scrapped the long-ball approach as Adeniran came off for Célio Pompeu. Pompeu’s dribbling ability and wide play stretched Kansas City’s defense and created more space for City SC to exploit. But City SC failed to capatilze on any of its opportunities and Kansas City took advantage. 

Kansas City cleared away a City SC corner-kick but the clearance fell to Eduard Löwen. Löwen crossed the ball back into the box, but Kansas City once again cleared it away. After a few contested duels between the two teams, Kansas City’s Johnny Russell managed to control a loose ball near midfield and dribbled forward. 

Kansas City’s counter-attack left City SC scrambling back to defend. City SC’s defenders were out of position and this left multiple gaps for Kansas City to exploit. Kinda ran through one of these open spaces and received a pass from Russell. Kinda crossed the ball to a wide-open Sallói, who scored to double Kansas City’s lead in the 73rd minute. 

A goal in the 86th minute gave City SC life in the dying moments of the match. Löwen crossed the ball into Kansas City’s penalty area off a free kick. Kansas City headed the cross out of the box to Blom. Blom immediately passed the ball wide to Pompeu. Pompeu dribbled past Sallói before kicking the ball toward the backpost. “It was a shot, but I didn’t mean to put it in the corner. I tried to create chaos in the box. God blessed me and it was a good goal,” Pompeu said.

Multiple stoppages throughout the second half led to 14 minutes of added time. This could have been enough time for City SC to score an equalizer, but it didn’t happen. Kansas City held on to its 2-1 lead, ending City SC’s inaugural MLS season. 

A Solid Foundation

City SC’s form had dipped as it lost the final two regular season matches by a combined score of 5-0. The team couldn’t find a way out of the slump and carried the poor performances into the playoffs.

It was a heartbreaking end to a magical season, but Carnell believes City SC learned many valuable lessons in its season-ending defeat to Kansas City. 

 "We will find ways to control games more, we will find ways to become a lot more ruthless. We will find ways to install our signature and dominate in moments like this, big playoff moments, big moments for our club, big moments for our fans, and big moments for us as a group.”

City SC proved throughout the regular season that it was capable of going blow for blow against some of the league’s best teams. City SC demonstrated that it wasn’t just a good expansion team, but rather a good MLS team. Much of the team’s success this season came down to the fact that teams across MLS underestimated City SC’s abilities. 

But now City SC is respected across MLS, and the team won’t be taken lightly going forward. “We're excited about what the future brings. And we know we're going to have a target on our back,” Carnell says. 

Despite the disappointing end to the season, Pompeu wants City SC supporters to focus on all the highlights. “I hope they will be happy to remember the good things. The records that we broke as an expansion team. I just want them to be happy about this season.” 

Julian Trejo, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, is a native of Arkansas, and a former goalkeeper for several state championship teams. His work is supported by the River City Journalism Fund.



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