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Carnell, Blom add SA flavour to Major League Soccer in the US

Carnell, Blom add SA flavour to Major League Soccer in the US
Célio Pompeu Pinheiro Martins of St Louis City during a game against North Texas SC in July 2022 in Edwardsville, Illinois. (Photo: Bill Barrett / ISI Photos / Getty Images)

The new season, which starts this month in North America, will have a South African touch.

The concept of an expansion team is largely alien to the world of football, but the peculiarities of American sport mean that things are done differently in the United States.

It is testament to the growing appeal of what they call “soccer” that a 20th new club has been allowed to buy its way into the top flight of the US league.

St Louis City are the newest outfit in Major League Soccer (MLS) and will kick off after three and a half years of waiting in the wings – with a distinctly South African ­flavour.

Former Bafana Bafana fullback Bradley Carnell is the coach of the new club and Njabulo Blom recently added to the roster in a transfer from Kaizer Chiefs.

They began the new season away on Sunday, 26 February, at Austin FC, a club co-owned by the actor Matthew McConaughey. They kicked off their existence only two seasons ago and wasted little time in evolving into a major force in MLS.

St Louis City will be looking to do much the same. They are the first majority-­women-owned franchise in US sport, a consortium headed by Carolyn Kindle, an heiress whose family made their money in the car rental business.

They have built a brand-new, soccer-specific stadium near the banks of the Mississippi River, with a capacity of 22,500.

Most of this season’s tickets have already been sold, such is the anticipation in St Louis, described as one of the few major US cities where soccer is most popular. It is the first time since 1977 that a team from St Louis has played in the American top division, but the sport has a rich history in the city, with a league first set up in 1907. 

Bradley Carnell. (Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Building a team

Carnell was hired in January last year and has had 12 months to put together a team, slowly picking his players and expanding the squad in what has been a lengthy build-up.

All of this must have him itching to get out there for the debut match against Austin in Texas, followed by their home debut against Charlotte on 4 March.

“It’s been a lengthy wait, but we’ve enjoyed this process. In our group I’m one of only two who’ve had past MLS experience,” says Carnell, previously assistant and then caretaker coach at New York Red Bulls, who had hired him away from the coaching staff at Orlando Pirates.

“So, we’re just enjoying this process, enjoying how the group has been coming together, the kind of characters that are showing up.

“We’re learning new things every day. It’s not only my journey but this is the players’ journey. We’re just the providers of the tools to help them maybe achieve their dreams and successes. We’re growing together. And we’re a unit…”

Players have been signed slowly over the past year, with more added in recent months, including Blom, who is expected to be the key defensive midfielder.

He had been six months from the end of his contract at Chiefs, with no intention of signing a renewal and planning to walk away transfer-free in June. Therefore, Chiefs earning a $300,000 (about R5.5-million) transfer fee to give up Blom six months early is a windfall for both clubs.

Since arriving in the US, he has been in most of Carnell’s line-ups in their pre­season friendlies, but is some way behind in terms of fitness. St Louis City trained for three weeks in Florida in January and another fortnight in the relative warmth of California leading up to this week’s game.

Njabulo Blom of Kaizer Chiefs during an MTN8 semifinal against AmaZulu at Moses Mabhida Stadium in October 2022 in Durban. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)


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Explosive style

Carnell plans an explosive, high-intensity style for his side, with plenty of pressing of the opponent in a risky strategy that depends as much on application and focus as it does on fitness.

“We want to play a fast-paced game, we want to keep it action-packed. We want to be working in the transition, we want to be working on the front foot, really bringing a lot of energy to the fans, hoping that they sit on the edge of their seats and not really get too comfortable,” he adds.

Carnell says the data from the preseason scrimmages shows the players have a handle on the way the coach wants them to approach the game.

The squad is something of an eclectic ­collection, captained by the former Swiss international goalkeeper, Roman Bürki. He previously made almost 250 appearances for Borussia Dortmund in the German ­Bundesliga.

Other key imports are also drawn from Germany, where Carnell played in the Bundesliga at Stuttgart. Forward João Klauss comes from Hoffenheim and Swedish international centre back Joakim Nilsson was acquired from Arminia Bielefeld.

Unlike any other new coach elsewhere in the world of football, Carnell does not have to worry about relegation. It does not exist in the MLS. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to produce results – to fire up St Louis and start making money for the franchise owners.

“I think the bar is only as high as we want to set it. I think the standard is on us. And what we’ve done over the last year has made us a lot more ambitious.

“It’s been great to see the players come as close as they have in the short amount of time,” Carnell says.

“It doesn’t feel like a new expansion team. Even the players speak about it, they feel that there’s a hunger for more, even though we haven’t even started game one yet. But we just feel this ambition within, which is great.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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