Ben Frederickson: St. Louis City SC making waves in MLS with pressure and ‘aggressivity’

Tribune Content Agency

As a still-learning newcomer to writing about Major League Soccer, I can report the number of ways to describe a team’s success or lack thereof is borderline overwhelming.

We can talk about St. Louis City SC’s number of goals scored (32, second-most in MLS), number of goals allowed (14, tied for third-best), goal differential (plus-18, best in MLS by five), or the good old-fashioned spot in the standings, which head coach Bradley Carnell’s team is back atop the West side of (28 points) after Saturday’s 3-0 home win against Houston Dynamo FC.

Those are the standard nuts and bolts.

But a deeper dive into the data includes numbers that examine, for example, how close and far away goals were scored from, or whether they came via a player’s foot or head. Penalties assigned and awarded, and what teams make out of those advantages and disadvantages, is a whole different bucket of numbers. Same for defensive metrics, whether it’s save percentage (City SC captain Roman Bürki’s defense’s 80.3% ranks second) or interceptions or percentage of duels won.

You can track the accuracy of passes, both forward and backward, follow possession percentages and, if you’re feeling really forward-thinking, dig into how what actually happens on the pitch compares to what the numbers suggest should have happened.

It’s a lot, but of all the stats, one is missing, and it has become one of the most important to City SC.

Carnell’s team has to be leading MLS in the annoyance index.

Did you see it Saturday night at CityPark?

“Positive aggression,” sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel said.

“Aggressivity,” Bürki phrased it, in a way that should probably stick.

“We try, always, to put a little pressure on the opponent,” Bürki explained. “Especially here at home. It requires a lot of work, a lot of breath. It’s exhausting. But at the end, when you see the rewards, every player is wanting to do that. We invest a lot. We work.”

What has become a trend, especially in City SC home games, continued Saturday night.

City SC grabbed an early, never-surrendered lead thanks to a foul born of Houston’s frustration. The advantage grew, as did Dynamo dysfunction. A shoving match sparked by Houston before halftime came close to a brawl before Bürki and vice-captain Tim Parker rushed into the scrum to keep teammates’ heads cool.

Houston coach Ben Olsen, like multiple coaches who have stormed the same CityPark visitors’ coaching box this season, gesticulated wildly at officials before the game got out of hand. Finally, he took a seat, exasperated. He was as spent as his players, who were coming off a mid-week road loss to Vancouver Whitecaps FC before they experienced maddening traveling delays.

“We knew they were going to be exhausted,” said Eduard Löwen, who along with Bürki is making a strong case to be named an All-Star. “We knew we had to come out flying. Make sure they know where they’re at. CityPark. We won’t give them anything in this stadium. That’s what we did, from the first minute. Showed them we are here, and we want to win this game with everything.”

Vancouver coach Vanni Sartini and his Whinecaps, I mean Whitecaps, were in a similar state of angst by the end of their 3-1 loss at CityPark on May 27. Before that, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes went nuclear on the officials in his post-game comments. He was apoplectic about a foul call that helped City SC score its first goal. His team lost to City SC 4-0.

People really don’t like losing to the new team on the block, but this is more than that.

Mild-mannered Carnell, who rarely gets his feathers ruffled on the pitch, knows it.

“Before we look at ourselves, I have to look at the fans,” the coach said. “They bring another notch. We have it really good in St. Louis. Our fans have taken this on and run with it. We are so proud of the fans, the energy. And then, it’s the style of play. It’s the edginess, the chippiness. We always play on that knife’s edge of what’s allowed — and that’s allowed. We stick to our guns, our principles. Make sure we are on the front fit. Create a bit of havoc, a bit of chaos. But it needs to be controlled.”

The physical, pressing, in-your-face, grabby and gritty style of play Carnell and Pfannenstiel planned on playing before they went out to find players who could execute it is working perhaps even better than they could have hoped. It’s even more obvious at home, where City SC has won three consecutive games while outscoring opponents 10-1; the stretch has been even more impressive when you remember top scoring threat Klauss remains out with an injury.

CityPark has become a pressure cooker for opponents against a home team that loves to smash the pedal down. Indiana Vassilev uses his never-stopping motor to draw key fouls. Löwen, who could settle for being just a scorer, sprints the length of the pitch to spoil an opponent’s scoring opportunity from behind. Bürki directs his teammates with the intensity of a symphony conductor no matter the size of the lead or the time left in the game.

Add up all the ingredients, some quite spicy, and the product can be as enraging to opponents as it is fun for City SC supporters to cheer.

“I’ve always thought you should hate to play against us,” Pfannenstiel said. “It should be no fun to come to St. Louis. By now, we realized when we go somewhere, it’s also not fun for them, which is very good. To be in somebody’s face all the time, to look for physical contact, but still in a fair way, that’s important. It’s fun, to irritate people, I guess.”

A sold-out crowd can’t travel to every game.

A league-leading level of “aggressivity” can.