St. Louis CITY 2024 Preview Glass Half Full… and Half Empty
By Chris Dollenmeyer
With preseason camp underway in Florida and most of City's offseason moves behind them, it's time to look ahead to the club's 2024 season. We'll take a brief look back at last season as well as the arrivals and departures that will impact the team this year. And finally, we'll take a look at what to expect, from both the optimistic angle as well as my trademark pessimistic angle.
First, our look back at what we learned about this team from last season. We saw a team that was aggressive, relatively cohesive, and opportunistic. And despite predictions from nearly everyone in the soccer world that St. Louis City would be a disaster of a club, City went on to finish atop the Western Conference table. The bitter end to our first playoff series, though, left us with a lot of questions. City outperformed nearly all advanced metrics offensively. Can they reproduce the crazy offensive statistics from last season that saw 16 different players score, and the team as a whole produce roughly 10 more goals than their xG (expected goals)? Similarly, Roman Burki outperformed expectations in goal on his way to a MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. Are these statistics and performances repeatable, or should we expect a slide back toward more modest numbers in 2024?
Chris Durkin (trade with DC United)
Tomas Totland (transfer from Hacken)
Nikolas Dyhr (transfer from Midtyjylland)
Hosei Kijima (MLS Superdraft)
Brendan McSorley (MLS Superdraft)
Niko Gioacchini (transfer to Como FC)
Jared Stroud (trade with DC United)
Lucas Bartlett (trade with DC United)
John Nelson (out of contract - signed with LA Galaxy)
Jonathan Bell (out of contract - signed with Seattle)
Miguel Perez (loan to Birmingham Legion)
Selmir Pidro (loan to Ziln)
Isak Jensen (loan to Viborg)
Much like last season, City has brought in a couple of players that are unknowns to most of us in the United States. Totland and Dyer arrive with reputations as effective 2-way players that were wanted by multiple clubs. Both are outside backs, positions the club (and fans) saw the need to upgrade. Durkin has been a staple in the DC United defensive midfield, racking up 42 interceptions and winning 463 duels over the past 2 seasons, leading DCU in both categories. He will give the club options in midfield, where he could start alongside (or instead of) Njabulo Blom.
As you can all see above, the list of departures is quite long, with a few significant names. Obviously the newest name on the outgoing player list is Niko Gioacchini, who racked up 10 goals last season. While it's good business selling a player for $2 million whom the club acquired for free, 10 goals is a lot of production to replace. Jared Stroud accounted for 5 of last seasons' goal total and made life as difficult as possible for opponents. Both his goals and tenacity will need to be replaced. Most of the other outgoing players weren't seeing significant minutes by the end of the season.
Reasons for Optimism
As City SC heads into season number 2, it's easy to see the glass as half full. The spine of the team that Lutz has spoken about since he was hired was better than we could've imagined. Burki, Parker, Lowen, and Klauss provided a solid foundation and made this team tough, fun to watch, and extremely successful. Those pieces all return, along with exciting young attackers Aziel Jackson and Sam Adeniran.
We all watched the club cycle through outside backs–Jake Nerwinski, Selmir Pidro, Anthony Markanich, the ghost of John Nelson, and even 2 players that typically play elsewhere on the field, Kyle Hiebert (center back) and Akil Watts (midfield)–were called on to try to find the right balance of defensive stability and skill in attack. The results were… we have a new left and right back! Ideally, Dyer (left) and Totland (right) lock down the outside back spots and add stability to a defensive unit that allowed the third most shots on frame last season.
There's reason to also be optimistic about the attacking group that will play behind Klauss. Celio Pompeu came into his own in the latter half of the season. AZ is a rising talent we will enjoy as long as he stays in St. Louis. I expect Tomas Ostrak to be pushing for more playing time. It's also reasonable to expect some improvement and increased playing time for Nokkvi Thorisson after a full offseason to adjust Coach Carnell's system and to life in St Louis. And the return to health of Rasmus Alm will be huge.
The center back depth should remain a strength. It seemed apparent that Joakim Nilsson was not quite at full speed after his return from multiple knee surgeries. A full offseason to focus on training and not rehabbing should mean we see the return to form of a player with 14 caps for the Swedish national team. Assuming he cements his spot next to Tim Parker, we will likely see Josh Yaro and Kyle Hiebert as the next pairing, with last season's City 2 captain Michael Wentzel available for depth.
Even if City is not able to replicate their outlandish goal total from last season, there's every reason to believe this is a team that can defend better and still produce enough goals to finish well within the top 6 teams in the Western Conference.
Reasons for Pessimism
Honestly I don't even need to get into roster movement or player performance question marks to be pessimistic. All I need is everyone's (least) favorite statistics and sports analysis term: regression to the mean. When you outperform expectations as wildly as City did in 2023, the odds are usually stacked against that performance happening again. But since I like numbers, here's a few quick stats. City ranked 2nd in goals scored in all of MLS, but 15th in xG. Factor out the penalty kicks (thanks, Niko, we'll miss those) and City's ranking falls to 19th most goals expected. Plus we transferred out 2 players who tallied 15 goals combined. Those are not stats that make me think we'll be looking at an offensive juggernaut in 2024. Signing another forward would be a big plus
Photos courtesy of Jason Patrylo