CITY Storylines: Away to Austin FC What To Watch For 

St. Louis CITY SC gathers ahead of their latest win vs NYCFC. Photo courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC
St. Louis CITY SC gathers ahead of their latest win vs NYCFC. Photo courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC

by Matt Baker

Stories drive interest. Stories drive narratives and how we end up feeling about teams, players and overall moments of a game. Beginning this week, I'll offer 5 (or so) storylines that impact the upcoming St. Louis CITY SC match. This week, we start where it all started for CITY SC: Austin, Texas.

Storyline 1

St. Louis returns to Austin for the 1st time since their debut MLS match that shocked the world

Tim Parker scores the first ever CITY goal at Austin FC in 2023. Photo courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC.
Tim Parker scores the first ever CITY goal at Austin FC in 2023. Photo courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC.

February 25th, 2023: St. Louis CITY SC debuted in MLS after years of build up, years or anticipation, and carrying with them the decades of history that is soccer in St. Louis. On this fateful day, hundreds of St. Louisans made the trek down South to support their club, and thousands more tuned into the inaugural week of MLS Season Pass to see what many assumed would be a route. Austin had just come off a 2nd place Western Conference finish and a Western Conference Final playoff appearance, and with it, came lofty expectations for 2023. St. Louis by all accounts nationally, was destined for the gutter. They were the designated team that was built around principle, locker room culture, and DPs by transfer fee only. 

But what unfolded at Q2 Stadium that night shocked the American soccer landscape. On the backs of a Tim Parker pregnancy announcing header to take the lead, a Kipp Keller to Jared Stroud back pass goal, and a Klauss game winner in the 86th minute, St. Louis started what would be their cinderella season and Austin FC would begin their spiral. The two sides met in St. Louis in a post-Leagues Cup match in August, where St. Louis CITY SC gave Austin even more of a drubbing, 6-3. St. Louis would go on to finish the regular season in 1st place in the Western Conference. Austin FC finished 12th in the West and far underperformed their expectations.

So this weekend, the roles are reversed. St. Louis, expected to regress slightly, is now largely expected to finish in a playoff position and a top 4 finish would surprise no one. Austin in contrast, is largely expected to finish in the bottom 3 of the MLS Western Conference and miss the playoffs. The reversal in expectations of each team is stark and notable as each look to find momentum early in this 2024 season. 

Both clubs have been hit by the injury bug with superstar midfielder and leading goal scorer Sebastian Driussi having missed both of Austin's first two games and St. Louis having to use two early season call ups to CITY2 defender Michael Wentzel to shore up their backline. As they look to clash for the first time this season, head coach Bradley Carnell said pre-match that "we don't care about what the outside expectations are... Austin is a good team, they have some difference makers, but we're not too worried about what's in their ranks." 

This will be the first of two meetings in a 5 week period and St. Louis will look to replicate that shocking start by playing within themselves and continue building off of the performance we saw against New York City FC.

Storyline 2

The 1st MLS regular season away match in 2024 for St. Louis CITY SC

CITY's Confluence Kit. Photo Courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC
CITY's Confluence Kit. Photo Courtesy of St. Louis CITY SC

Winning away in MLS is hard. Between 2015 and 2021, away teams in MLS won just 24% of the time, compared to 31% of the time in the best European leagues. In 2023, St. Louis CITY SC was tied with the 3rd most away wins in the Western Conference. By all accounts, they were an above average away team in MLS. It is worth noting that 3 of those 6 wins came during their 5 game winning streak to start the year. However, while every MLS team struggled away, St. Louis CITY SC did find some surprising away wins in 2023 too, notably against San Jose, where they were missing both Klauss and Löwen and was a match that saw the starting debuts of Sam Adeniran, AZ Jackson, Akil Watts and Josh Yaro.

But as head coach Bradley Carnell said this week, "That's history. We don't really talk about that much, we haven't really reflected back on that."

So the question becomes, what type of away team will St. Louis CITY SC be in 2024? You could argue that they couldn't face a better opponent than Austin to start it off. Austin hasn't won in their 2 matches yet and lost their only home match 2-1 against Minnesota United to start their year. They look to be without their perennial MVP candidate in Sebastian Driussi for a 3rd straight game as he is dealing with a hamstring injury and indications from Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff are that he may be out another couple of weeks. 

The aggressiveness and chance taking that we see out of St. Louis CITY SC early has the potential to set the tone, and the overall lack of aggression shown by Austin FC this season may also enable St. Louis to take more chances and dictate the pace of play to their advantage. 

And for Austin in particular, head coach Bradley Carnell said clearly, "We're further along than where we were and now it's business. We're just going there to get three points."

Storyline 3

What will the CITY SC attack look like

Photo Courtesy of Jason Patrylo Photography
Photo Courtesy of Jason Patrylo Photography

Joao Klauss or Sam Adeniran? Or Joao Klauss AND Sam Adeniran? The discourse over CITY's attackers has taken quite an interesting turn as the season began. Bradley Carnell has made no bones about starting his Best XI on any given week, but last week, that Starting XI did not include a seemingly healthy Klauss. There is no question that Klauss can be an elite level goal scorer in MLS. He was keeping pace in the golden boot race before going down to injury last year but to start 2024, he's taken a deeper role in the attack as it has been Sam Adeniran who has been the out and out #9 striker who pushes those opposing backlines. 

No matter how they line up or their roles on the field, we know from the back half of 2023 that Adeniran and Klauss can excel together. Against LA Galaxy where they both scored a goal or against Sporting KC, where Klauss netted two and Sam one. It was a limited sample size, but nobody should write off Sam and Klauss excelling together. But if not, then the NYCFC game also provided us with evidence that the St. Louis CITY SC attack is not isolated to Adeniran and Klauss. The on the ball skill of Célio Pompeu can lead to goals and Nökkvi Thórisson howed in preseason that he is more than capable. So who will continue to step up and will it be Austin that we see another new CITY goalscorer for 2024?

Storyline 4

Can CITY SC's ball progression remain as strong as we saw vs New York City FC?

Photo Courtesy of Jason Patrylo Photography
Photo Courtesy of Jason Patrylo Photography

Edu Löwen kicked off 2024 in earnest with his performance against NYCFC last week. It was his first 90' match of the season and it was his first time playing alongside Chris Durkin to start a match. Löwen led the team in touches, passes, and recoveries, all pointing to his role in progressing the ball upfield, a role in which Löwen says he is very comfortable with. 

"I try to lay the emphasis a little more on my defensive performance because I love to have the ball," Lowen says, "I don't have to think about that but defensively it's always something that I push myself in."

The partnership between Edu Löwen and Chris Durkin was also notable in their more established roles and the defensive aggressiveness that Durkin brought to the field at the #6 position. Durkin himself with 60 touches, 8 recoveries and 6 duels won, in a role that Löwen says freed him up, by design.

"Both (Blom and he) are more oriented defensively. Chris told me before the game that he's trying to give me as much freedom as he can. It was really good to play next to him," Lowen said. "The way he was pushing me and we were pushing each other to go back and forth, go all 90 minutes, I enjoyed playing next to him."

Löwen may have led the team in touches, but Tim Parker with his 57 touches and 86% pass completion percentage in over 50 attempted passes began many drives for CITY. The successful passing to progress the ball saw many highlights on both sides of the field with Markanich and Totland and many seamless passes through Pompeu and Vassilev as well. All of this led to a team that generated 16 total shots.

In addition to whether CITY can carry that performance into Austin, you have to look at Austin themselves. A team that over the course of two games have given up a total xG of 4.2, and who have only 18 of 44 successful tackles. The efficiency has not been there for Austin to start the year, but 15 blocks and 33 Tackles+Interceptions in their most recent game against Seattle lone will tell you that they are getting stronger defensively, even if it is at the expense of any offensive firepower. Will we see a bunkered Austin team at home? Or will their desire to take chances at home leave them more exposed and offer openings that CITY was able to take advantage of against NYCFC?

Storyline 5

Will Austin FC finally find ways to score - with or without Sebatian Driussi?

Photo Courtesy of Austin FC
Photo Courtesy of Austin FC

In 85 games with Austin FC, Sebastian Driussi has scored 43 goals. In 2023 alone, Driussi accounted for a quarter of all Austin FC goals. Driussi has not played in 2024 due to a hamstring injury, and it appears he will likely miss the St. Louis CITY SC game too. In two games this year, Austin has scored one goal - by defender Guiherme in the waning minutes of their first game, after spreading Minnesota thin and finding a pass to the back post. Beyond that, Austin has 11 shots, 3 on target, and a 1.1 xG so far in 2024.

If not Driussi, then where could their attack come from? Austin has intentionally signed two goalscorers to complement the creativity and finishing that Driussi brings to the table: Diego Rubio and Gyasi Zardes. 

Diego Rubio, brought on due to being a "proven goalscorer" as described by new Austin FC Sporting Director Rodolfo Borrell, is an MLS veteran. He has served with Sporting KC for 3 seasons and with the Colorado Rapids for 5, in addition to his 12 appearances for the Chilean Men's National team. Rubio has 55 goals and 35 assists in 171 MLS appearances. 

Gyasi Zardes, no stranger to the USMNT fanbase, joined Austin FC as a free agent ahead of the 2023 season. As far as prolific goalscorers, he has the pedigree with 103 total goals across all MLS competitions with the LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and now Austin FC. Though, his last goal for Austin was on July 15, 2023 and he has just 6 goals in his last 37 appearances.

So there you have it. 5 storylines to watch that could help bring home not just 3 points in this game, but help set the tone for the rest of 2024. St. Louis CITY SC can use this game to start their first winning streak of 2024, while Austin FC could use this game to right their ship that seems destined for the bottom of the Western Conference.