St Louis City SC's High-Risk, High-Reward Strategy Explained

The play may look chaotic on the field, but there's a method to the madness

Feb 23, 2023 at 11:24 am
click to enlarge Here's how CITY2, the SC CITY's reserve team, deployed its forces in a recent match at CITYPARK. CITY2 players are in the white uniforms.
Courtesy St. Louis City SC
Here's how CITY2, the SC CITY's reserve team, deployed its forces in a recent match at CITYPARK. CITY2 players are in the white uniforms.

Look for a high-risk, high-reward strategy as St. Louis CITY SC launches its inaugural Major League Soccer season Saturday against Austin FC at Q2 Stadium in North Austin, Texas.  Despite being the new boys on the block, CITY Head Coach Bradley Carnell made it clear on The CITY Voice podcast that his team won’t play it safe this season. “I always like risks, you know? I believe in high-risk, high-reward.”

The odds are against Carnell and his group prevailing in the opener, which will be followed the next Saturday by the CITY’s home debut at 7:30 p.m. at CITYPARK in the Downtown West neighborhood. Each of the last three MLS expansion teams dating back to 2019 lost their openers.

Even so, Carnell is promising to bring excitement and panache with a high intensity approach.

That mentality has been reflected in CITY’s recruitment.  “Playing a unique way, like ours, it’s not just the best player. It’s the right player with the right tools,” Carnell said. But finding players who fit CITY’s style hasn’t been easy. CITY Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel knows this all too well. “We have a very unique play(ing) style. We have a very clear profile for all the players in all positions. We are a pressing team. We are a high-intensity team. The number of players which fall exactly into that profile are limited,” Pfannenstiel told the Athletic.

It’s About More Than Ability
CITY’s style of play focuses on “pressing, counter-pressing, and transition moments,” Pfannenstiel told The CITY Voice podcast. Finding players who fit that profile is difficult. “It is very physical, very demanding, you need to be the right character for it as well,” Pfannenstiel said.

CITY’s recruitment valued a player’s character just as highly as it valued his abilities on the pitch. Pfannenstiel wanted to find players who could fit the CITY system. But he also wanted to find players who could fit into CITY’s culture. “It’s not just about football. It also has to do with character building. It also has to do with values,” Pfannenstiel said.

“It’s not just about being the best footballer in the world. If you’re not a good person, if you don’t fit into our core values, then there will be no place for you in St. Louis.”

The CITY Playing Style
For CITY, the attackers provide the first line of defense. “Whenever we lose the ball high up the field, we want to be really aggressive in trying to get it back,” Carnell noted in the team’s podcast. The higher up the field CITY can win the ball, the closer they are to the opposition's goal, and the easier it is for them to get a shot on goal.

Pfannenstiel wants CITY to play on the front-foot throughout a match. “We want to be, as much as possible, in the opponent’s half. We don’t want to pass square and backwards in our own half, we want to be direct and forward. We want to be as relentless and as aggressive as possible.”

Soccer players, just like other professional athletes, are prone to mistakes. But CITY won’t wait for opponents to make errors. The team will aim to force mistakes closer to the opponent's goal. Much like basketball, this is called pressing. It’s a dangerous style of play that must be executed to near perfection. But when it works, the rewards are abundant.

CITY does not claim to be a possession-based team who dominates the ball. Their playstyle is direct and vertical. “We want to play attractive. We want to score. Our main focus will be the press, counter-press, winning the ball as high (up the field) as possible, and being aggressive,” Pfannenstiel explained.

CITY will hope that their aggression and pressing will force their opponents into dangerous turnovers that it can capitalize on quickly. “We’re trying to finish as quick as we can in a 7-10 second rule. Win the ball, vertical play, finish it,” Pfannenstiel told the team podcast.

This play style works because it forces opposition players to panic. Typically when a player receives the ball, he wants to pick up his head and calmly look for options. CITY wants to disrupt this process. That’s why the team will begin its press with a cue – any dangerous moment where the team believes it has a high probability of winning the ball.

A common cue most teams use is when an opposition player is facing his own goal. Whenever the team presses a player in this position, there are three possible outcomes: The player with the ball can pass it backwards, pass it sideways or lose the ball because of the pressure. CITY hopes its pressure will lead to a direct turnover, but forcing opponents to play sideways or backwards aren’t bad alternatives.

When a team plays sideways, usually to a fullback or winger, that could be a cue which initiates another press – another opportunity to win the ball. When the ball is played backwards, the opposition is forced deeper into its own half. By forcing a team deeper into their own half, the probability that an opponent will kick the ball high up the field increases. This usually results in the pressing team gaining possession of the ball, ready to kickstart another attack.

What We Can Learn From CITY2
To understand how CITY will play in the MLS, look no further than how its reserve team, CITY2, played in the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro season. CITY2 ranked dead last for long balls completed across the 24-game regular season. This indicates that CITY2 found itself in the opposition's half when they had possession, usually as a result of pressing their opposition into a turnover. That made the long ball unnecessary.

Notably CITY2 completed the fifth least amount of passes with the worst pass completion percentage in the league. Yet, they still had the fourth most interceptions and scored the third most goals in the league. CITY2 finished first in the Western Conference and made it all the way to the final. How did this happen?

The stats indicate that CITY2 upheld Carnell’s principle of pressing their opponents into mistakes and punishing them. Their aggressiveness led to CITY2 finding itself in dangerous positions close to its opponent’s goal. That’s how the team scored so many goals.

Carnell said that CITY2 lived by the 60-30-10 rule. “Sixty percent of goals will be scored in transition, 30 percent in set-pieces and only 10 percent in possession.” St. Louisans can expect the same from CITY in MLS.

This philosophy creates chaos. But that’s exactly what CITY wants. It’s where they feel most comfortable. “It’s a huge-risk, huge-reward. That’s how we live. We live by being brave, we live on a risky edge, but we enjoy that challenge,” Carnell said.

Origins of CITY’s Philosophy
Carnell earned his stripes in the Red Bull system, known for its aggressive high-pressing style. One of the most prominent and successful adaptations of pressing is called Gegenpressing.

Gegenpressing was first implemented in Germany, Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel’s homeland. The English translation is “counter-pressing.” It’s a philosophy that Pfannenstiel is familiar with from his time at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Fortuna Düsseldorf in Germany. CITY’s pressing style clearly has ties to traditional pressing philosophies across the globe. But Pfannenstiel believes CITY’s pressing philosophy is a unique adaptation of the pressing phenomenon that has influenced global soccer over the last decade. “We are St. Louis CITY. We have our own (style). Yes, you can find different influences, but we create our own style,” he said.

What To Expect From CITY in 2023
CITY finished its first-ever preseason with a record of 1-2-3 (Win-Lose-Draw). The team scored 11 goals but also conceded 11 goals. This suggests CITY’s play style generates lots of action and excitement. It might not have been the perfect preseason, but it's something Carnell hopes to build on throughout the grueling MLS season.

Soccer is notoriously unpredictable, and many things can change over the course of an MLS season. Though the outcomes for season openers have gone against expansion teams, many rebounded with successful seasons.

Matches at CITYPARK will be action-packed and electric. Home-field advantage could play a crucial part in CITY’s success this season with sold-out crowds. Just ask Pfannenstiel. “Any team that comes here, that sees the Arch, they should be scared. They should be worried. They should not enjoy one second on the field playing against us.”

This story incorrectly reported the number of preseason goals CITY conceded. It has been updated.

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