Three from Three: Analyzing St. Louis City’s Perfect MLS Start
As Canadian defender Kyle Hiebert watched his guided header eventually cross the goalline at the far post to give St. Louis City the lead in Portland, his attention immediately turned to the provider of the cross, Eduard Löwen.
Löwen has been a regular provider of crosses, passes and opportunities for teammates in a St. Louis City team driven by a game plan that prioritizes collective togetherness, characterized by pressing off the ball and swift attacking. Much of the team’s character on the ball, in the moments where there are periods of possession, is driven by Löwen, or at least facilitated by him.
The 26-year-old German is a player that St. Louis City has already turned to regularly in its first steps in Major League Soccer. The club has made a remarkable start in the league, winning all three of its opening games, with the only other expansion side to have achieved this being the 2009 Seattle Sounders.
Even more impressively, this is a team that’s also fallen behind at some point in each of these games but managed to come back to win on every occasion. Last season’s MLS record for points won from losing positions was held by CF Montréal (24) – St. Louis City is already 38% of the way to equaling that tally in 2023 (nine).
Progression and Pressing
Löwen leads St. Louis City in a number of passing metrics, which won’t be a surprise to fans who’ve eagerly watched their new side in the opening games of the season.
His responsibility on set pieces and ability to switch play means his play can be expansive as well as intricate. He has made the most progressive passes in the team (16) for a total progressive pass distance of 271 meters – only goalkeeper Roman Burki has a higher total pass distance (2,315) and upfield pass distance (1,927) than Löwen (1,833 and 869). Burki’s upfield passing distance comes as a result of being the deepest player and launching long passes from his area, Löwen’s because he is the most progressive, and most expansive passer.
Löwen sits amid a midfield and a collective that borrows heavily from the German school of pressing and counter-attacking. St. Louis City has already been compared to the New York Red Bulls, and the team style metrics put St. Louis alongside the east coast side for direct attacking speed and low numbers of passes per sequence.
On top of this, a low number of opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) can be an indicator of high pressing, and St. Louis is in the mix among familiar names such as the Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union, allowing fewer PPDA (9.5) than most as the early season numbers begin to settle. The club is also tied for second in the league for high turnovers resulting in a shot (eight), behind only Atlanta and level with Cincinnati, while it’s one of only two sides to score twice from high turnovers alongside LAFC in MLS 2023.
St. Louis City’s South African coach, Bradley Carnell, is himself from the German school of pressing, counter-pressing and counter-attacking, having spent the majority of his playing career in Germany and the early part of his coaching career as an assistant with the New York Red Bulls. He believes the team can improve further in this area of the game.
“I thought the gegenpressing [counter-pressing] wasn’t very on today,” Carnell told Transfermarkt’s Manuel Veth after the home opener against Charlotte. “I thought the pressing was good, but when we lost the ball, I thought that gegenpressing was not very good at all.
“So, moments to fix there for sure. I would like a little bit more on the first turnover – to be a little bit more aggressive against the ball. But credit to the boys for their recovery runs, the willingness to get back in the game to get our control and get the shape. Then we pressed again and had many great moments. So I thought the pressing was fantastic, I thought the gegenpressing – just OK.”
St. Louis City’s German sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel cites Hoffenheim – where he worked in scouting and international relations between 2011 and 2018 – as one of the main influences on playing style and mentality. Pfannenstiel is also focused on building on the existing soccer culture in St. Louis and believes the players from the local area will be an ideal fit for the style of football the team wants to play.
“We are in the Midwest and the Midwestern mentality is hard-working down to earth,” he told The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio ahead of the 2023 season. ”You fight, you grind, you always do your best you leave your heart and soul on that field until the 95th minute. Same as the [NHL team St. Louis] Blues, similar to [MLB team] the Cardinals, we do want to have that blue-collar approach, we want to have that hard-working approach, and that fits perfectly from that idea we created in Hoffenheim, an idea I learned and grew up with in football [and fits] very much to what St. Louis stands for and what [owners] the Taylor family stands for.”
The unique blank canvas offered by an MLS expansion team appealed to Pfannenstiel, who described it as “the most interesting job in the world in professional football,” also mentioning Manchester City, Hamburg and Leipzig as influences on the structure of the club and training facilities.
New players to a team that utilizes such a style of play can take time to adapt, and with a whole new roster to work with, it’s impressive that there is a clear identity to the team already, but the acquisition of a number of players from the German leagues, including Löwen, will have helped. Some players have mentioned the possibility of two training sessions a day, such is their eagerness to hit the ground running, but with the schedule and travel involved for MLS sides, Carnell believes one intense session is enough, commenting: “Given how intensely we trained, it soon became apparent to the guys they didn’t need two sessions!”
A Versatile Midfield Mainstay
For all this urgency in defense and attack, St. Louis still needs someone to provide composure and creativity – to make the right pass forward amid the frenzy as the team breaks. The responsibility for this aspect of the play falls on the considerable shoulders of Löwen.
The 6-foot-2 midfielder, signed from Hertha Berlin, has the build of a center-back but the skill set of a playmaker. He sometimes played in defense during the early part of his career, and you could see him doing a job as a ball-playing center-back, but moving into midfield he offers a somewhat unique playmaking outlet for his side.
Löwen finished the games against Austin and Charlotte having had more touches, or more accurately ‘involvements,’ in the game than any of his teammates. He was up there again in the 2-1 win at Portland despite playing a more advanced role that could potentially lead to fewer involvements or actions throughout the 90 minutes.
Pfannenstiel has known Löwen since the player was a 16-year-old at 1. FC Nürnberg in Germany, and has tried to sign him for previous clubs, finally getting him in St. Louis. Coach Carnell has described Löwen as a “bit of a baller” and believes he can operate in each midfield position – No. 6, No. 8, and No. 10. For the first two games of the season, he played as part of a midfield two in front of the defense, but even when operating in that role the German will naturally break from that double pivot to support the attack.
So far in 2023, he’s been the lead ball carrier for the side with 34 overall and 23 of those progressive, while Löwen is tied at the top of St. Louis City’s rankings for open-play sequence involvements leading to shots (14) alongside João Klauss, of which nine have seen his only involvement in the move being in the build-up and not the chance creation or shot itself.
This versatility and importance to the team will mean he is a regular when available. He is one of six players to have played every minute of the three games so far along with the back four (left-back John Nelson was subbed towards the very end of the Portland game) and goalkeeper Roman Burki.
Löwen is one of two Designated Players in the St. Louis squad, the other being Brazilian striker Klauss. As his name hints, Klauss is of partly German descent, hailing from the state of Santa Catarina in the southeast of Brazil where there is a substantial European presence.
Klauss has bulldozed his way into MLS, causing problems for opposition defenses all the while he is on the pitch, fitting the team’s pressing style but also contributing in attack. He already has two goals and an assist to his name and leads the team for shots with nine. Eight of those shots have been from inside the box and five of them have been on target. He’ll be a menace to the opposition, even if he doesn’t get his name on the scoresheet.
As seen in the opening games, Carnell is likely to stick with a familiar defense and linchpin in midfield but rotate the pressing machine. The quickness of right winger Rasmus Alm – a shrewd signing from Swedish side Elfsborg – has looked like it could be a key part of their game on and off the ball, while American Jared Stroud, once of the Red Bulls, has performed a harrying role on the left side and has two goals to his name already.
Promising South African midfielder Njabulo Blom could have an important role to play in the middle of the park in support of Löwen as the season progresses and boasts the highest average pass success rate in the team so far this season, thanks mostly to his 94% accuracy in his first appearance versus Austin.
St. Louis is one of only two teams to register perfect records at the start of this 2023 MLS season. It’s not really a surprise the other is last season’s Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winner Los Angeles FC, who have only played twice due to their opener versus the LA Galaxy being postponed due to bad weather.
Though St. Louis City’s early form might appear to many to have come out of the blue, especially with its expansion status, it might not have been as much of a surprise to those involved in the organization. Even if the Sounders’ 2009 record isn’t broken and a fourth win in four doesn’t arrive, St. Louis has shown there exists a style, identity, character and platform from which to build one of the more enterprising MLS teams.
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