Going International To Build A CITY
St. Louis CITY SC is still about one year away from taking the field in MLS competition, but the work to build out our first year roster is well underway. Sporting Director Lutz Pfannestiel and staff have completed 4 official STL CITY SC signings with another player publicly rumored, and a tease by Lutz, head coach Brandley Carnell and Manuel Veth of Transfermarkt who says specifically that more and more exciting players are coming soon. A common thread in 4 of these 5 names so far is that they are international players. MLS has a myriad of confusing, complicated, and oftentimes restrictive roster rules (all in the name of "structured growth"), including a restriction on the number of international slots a team has to sign players abroad. STL CITY SC, as all teams do to start out, has 8 international roster slots to work with. These slots can be traded, so it is possible to acquire more, usually by trading General Allocation Money (GAM), but so far, CITY looks to have 3 international roster slots locked up.
It is possible that a player can be essentially converted from an international player to a domestic player by securing a green card. I wrote previously that STL CITY SC has a good law firm on retainer with numerous immigration experts, so while we watch our roster develop, that will be something to keep in mind long term. An interesting note that just came to light in an article by The Athletic is that Charlotte FC is being afforded until the secondary transfer window this year to convert international players to domestic and provide roster relief. All teams except Charlotte were required to lock their international players in by the start of the season. Rumored as a new ongoing change for expansion teams, it is worth watching if STL CITY SC is afforded the same timetable. In the meantime, fans may see that we have 8 available slots, have already spent 3 of them on our first 4 players, and be concerned with how quickly we're burning through international slots. Looking East, we see the cautionary roster build tale of 2022's Charlotte FC, who traded upwards of $1m in General Allocation Money (GAM) to various teams for multiple additional international roster slots later in their roster build and only months before their first match. At last count, they had 11 slots, and two weeks before their first match their head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez was quoted saying about their roster "We're screwed."
(STL CITY SC did not actually acquire an additional international roster slot)
Loading up on international players and leveraging your slots intelligently requires a deep understanding of how your roster will ultimately be built. Filling all 8 of your international roster slots in available transfer windows the year prior can put you in a bind when it comes to filling out your roster regardless of whether it is through free agency, the expansion draft, or the SuperDraft. The concept of "loading up" on international players this year though, is both not unheard of, and not unsurprising. With the opportunity afforded by CITY2, leveraging these international transfer windows and the Fall - Spring schedule of other leagues to bring players in after their seasons end in May and when they're able to leave in July is one of the most viable ways to sign players outside of MLS. The MLS season has just started, so teams and players within the league are not moving, especially to a club that will not start until next year. Domestic players almost exclusively move after the season ends. There will be a flurry of activity in signing domestic players late this Fall of '22 and next Winter, with the Expansion Draft also potentially bringing in domestic players.
Teams can also have difficulty in year one integrating their international players into new systems, with new teammates, and entirely new cultures locally. However, STL CITY SC have a few big advantages that need to be kept in mind which make them entirely unique compared to previous MLS expansion sides. First, the global network that Lutz has, provides some very targeted opportunities to have scouted players and bring in players that he has known for years. Manuel Veth from Transfermarkt has stated in a recent interview with Flyover Footy that players currently signed would not be here if it weren't for Lutz. Rather than Lutz relying too heavily on his own contacts and relationships as a detriment, I view this as a global soccer leader, appropriately leveraging his scouting network and in some cases his friendships, to get players that a city like St. Louis otherwise would have no chance to land. Second, players signed right now (early 2022), are signing with agreements to arrive this summer. Rather than signing players and needing to loan them out to other teams so they stay in form, STL CITY SC has CITY2, the Division 3 MLS Next Pro team. With all players signed so far set to arrive in July, STL has the most unique opportunity of any MLS team, to bring their players together for half a year ahead of their 2023 training camp opening. Teams signing players early is not new, but every other team needed to loan players until their seasons began, which ultimately gains the team nothing other than being able to say they signed players early. A typical expansion side is not able to bring in their players until training camp, so knowledge of the system, understanding tendencies of their teammates, coaches and more is not able to happen until weeks before the season starts. STL CITY SC, for the first time in MLS expansion history, has a chance to put a chunk of their roster together on the field the year prior to kicking off in competitive professional matches. Of all the excitement surrounding CITY2, seeing whether this team is used as a proper prelude to CITY in 2023 is definitely at the top of the list.
By Matt Baker