CITY Steal Champions Cup 1st Leg vs Houston 


by Cole Sutton

It's been 108 days since the Boys in Red were stunned in the first round of the MLS playoffs by Sporting Kansas in their inaugural 2023 season. Because City's first campaign was one for the history books, it's natural that supporters will raise the bar with their expectations. Especially with the enthralling high-energy and attacking football that earned the club a Western Conference title and a number-one seed in their first-ever playoff series.

Winning the West also brings in a new cup competition, the Concacaf Champions Cup. The historic tournament allows City to not just face off against MLS sides, but storied clubs from Mexico, Canada, South America, and the Caribbean. With the US Open Cup's status up in the air for 2024, City now has another golden opportunity to lift their first trophy in franchise history this season. That journey began Tuesday night against the Houston Dynamo at CityPark where the gates at 2100 Market St. welcomed back supporters for the first time this season, over 20,000 strong.

The match began on a troubling note for City, allowing multiple Houston chances within the first 20 minutes of play. The absence of Joakim Nilsson at CB to pair with Tim Parker was greatly missed as Josh Yaro struggled to keep up with the Dynamo attackers. Lots of balls in through the defense causing Parker and fellow wingbacks Anthony Markanich & newcomer Tomas Totland to come to the aid of the central defender more than they would've liked.

Houston was extremely comfortable in possession and was content with slowly building up an attack, taking the chances City gave them when appropriate. With all the momentum in the early stages, it just felt like the Dynamo were poised to find their way onto the scoresheet first.

The breakthrough did happen briefly for the visitors who netted what they thought would be the opening goal in the 25th minute. After one of the longer VAR reviews I've personally witnessed, it was determined that Ibrahim Aliyu's opener would be called back due to an offside in the build-up. The overturned goal was the only true scoring opportunity for either side in the first half, which ended 0-0 after six minutes of added time due to plenty of VAR and injury stoppages.

City came out of the break with what looked like a renowned sense of urgency. Pressing high as they normally do, looking to get out quickly on the counterattack and build the play through the midfield trio of newcomer Chris Durkin, Indiana Vassilev, and USMNT call-up Aziel Jackson.

A free kick in the final third at the 60-minute mark gave the Boys in Red the perfect opportunity to continue their set-piece success from last season. Of course it was Tim Parker who opened City's account for the second straight season with a beautiful heading finish. Parker, who isn't quite known for his attacking ability we'll say, has now scored the first goal for the club in both the MLS regular season & MLS playoffs, along with their first-ever Champions Cup tally Tuesday night. Parker's effort off of a beautiful swinging ball in by Vassilev put City ahead 1-0 with about 30 minutes remaining.

Although the home club was ahead on the scoreboard, the pressure from Houston didn't waiver. Even the immediate substitution of Njabulo Blom or the "Stopper" couldn't save City's clean sheet. St. Louis' lead only lasted a mere 10 minutes before the Dynamo grabbed their equalizer on the counter. It certainly looked like a bad defensive lapse in person as Houston's Sebastian Kowalczyk sat wide open unmarked in the middle of the box. Only one touch was needed for the Dynamo to level the contest, putting all the pressure back on the hosts.

Following the Houston goal, Bradley Carnell emphasized offense bringing on Celio Pompeu and Eduard Löwen. The game stayed deadlocked despite some great chances created by Sam Adeniran and others in front of the City supporters in the North End. The final change of the night from Carnell came in the 86th minute, giving youngster Hosei Kijima his first taste of professional action after signing with the club earlier that morning.

Kijima was the 17th overall pick in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft coming out of Wake Forest where he donned the captain's armband last season. City must have liked what they saw in the young midfielder as they even traded up to acquire Nashville's pick to draft him. After two late corner attempts from St. Louis, Kijima found himself in a scenario that most fans only dream of. The ball deflected off a Houston defender directly to his right foot, and with only a single touch, he buried the biggest goal of his career into the side netting.

Kijima's late chance secured City's first-ever Champions Cup victory and the youngster made sure his impact was felt.

"I was going to do everything I can to help the team win and I think I accomplished that today," Kijima said in a postgame interview.

I'd say his thoughts are pretty accurate! The incredible, storybook goal ensures that the 21-year-old's debut will be one that he, and City supporters, will never forget as they look forward to the second leg on the road in Houston.

 Photos courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC