Saint Louis F.C. Season In Review
Photo Credit: Will Bramlett, STLFC
It’s very difficult to sum up a season in sports in so many words when you consider the unexplainable so often happens. Most seasons are long, the twists and turns are many, and teams usually finish in a completely unexpected way.
When it comes to Saint Louis Football Club, the most accurate summary of the club’s season came from head coach Anthony Pulis after his side lost to Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1-0 in the second to last game of the season, which was the club’s fourth loss in five games.
“It’s been an emotional roller-coaster of a season. I’ve never experienced anything like it, with the streaks that we’ve had,” said Pulis.
Whether you choose to remember the good times or the bad, this certainly was the most memorable season in STLFC history. New faces and old ones combined for an exhilarating U.S. Open Cup run while also sharing in the disappointment of missing the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
When we look back on this season over time, we will see that there were five distinctive periods of success and failure that defined this STLFC team in 2019:
A Hot Start (March 9th-May 18th)
STLFC may not have come into this USL season with much buzz, but they certainly caught people’s attention with a 2-1 come from behind win on opening day vs. Indy Eleven, who many had predicted to be a top team in the Eastern Conference.
The win would be the first of four STLFC would earn in their first five matches, which included tough road shutouts vs. Nashville SC and Atlanta United 2. Five different players contributed goals in those matches.
After the club’s first loss of the season, a 3-2 home defeat vs. Birmingham Legion FC, STLFC would follow up with a 3-1 home win vs. Swope Park Rangers and three 0-0 shutouts on the road vs. Pittsburgh, Charleston Battery, and archrivals Louisville City FC.
Overall, the club began the season with an unbeaten road record in five matches and were able to keep clean sheets in six of their first 10 matches, establishing themselves as one of the best defenses in the USL. Captain and center-back Sam Fink and winger Russell Cicerone led the team with three goals apiece.
Open Cup Glory (May 15th-July 10th)
STLFC supporters will be quick to point out that the club have had past success in the U.S. Open Cup dating back many decades ago, but were any of those campaigns filled with as much drama as this season’s?
The club’s historic run nearly didn’t get off the ground as they had to sweat out a penalty shootout vs. the Des Moines Menace of USL League Two. The match featured three red cards, two of which came in either period of extra time. In the end, STLFC academy product Patrick Schulte came up huge by saving three penalty shots which earned his team the victory.
STLFC would have a much smoother match vs. Forward Madison FC of USL League One, who they were able to beat 3-1 at home after scoring twice in the opening six minutes. The club then learned that they would be hosting a familiar foe in the next round: the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, who had dispatched STLFC in the same tournament a few seasons ago.
The match was played at Lindenwood University due to flooding at Worldwide Technology Soccer Park. Both clubs were represented well by their respective supporters’ groups, but STLFC got goals from Austin Martz and Guy Abend in a four-minute span in the first half. STLFC would only concede once off a penalty kick as they beat the Fire 2-1, their first win over MLS opposition in the club’s history.
Lightning would strike twice for STLFC in this competition when they hosted FC Cincinnati of MLS, a team they had never beaten when they played in the USL. In an intense, defensive affair, the captain Fink was the one that rose the highest in stoppage time to head home a Lewis Hilton corner kick to seal the 1-0 victory for STLFC and advance to the quarterfinals.
STLFC would find themselves on the road this time, face-to-face with the reigning MLS champions Atlanta United. Facing a starting 11 chock full of MLS regulars, STLFC managed to keep the score at 0-0 into halftime. However, Atlanta’s talent would be too much to overcome as they were able to win the match 2-0 and end STLFC’s magical cup run.
League Form Drops Off (June 8th-August 24th)
While everyone was enjoying the success of STLFC in the Open Cup, trouble was beginning to brew when it came to their form in the USL. Not only were the number of fixtures beginning to pile up, but so to the names on the injury report.
Joaquin Rivas and Audi Jepson both suffered injuries that proved to be season-ending. Bradley Kamdem-Fewo, Guy Abend, and Albert Dikwa each missed significant time. Austin Martz retired from football to focus on his family. Even new signing Matthew Thomas only made it through a handful of appearances before he was lost to a season-ending injury.
These are the reasons that can best explain why STLFC began to drop points at a rapid rate. The club would go seven straight league matches without a victory, conceding two or more goals in every match, before the bleeding was stopped with a 3-0 win vs. Bethlehem Steel FC on July 27th.
Offensive reinforcements were acquired in the form of midfielders Colin Fernandez and Masta Kacher, as well as striker Tyler Blackwood, but they weren’t able to make an immediate impact. The club would go the whole month of August without a victory, never scoring more than one goal in any match.
As the club prepared for three home matches in the first week of September, they had seen themselves fall from hosting a playoff game as a top seed to fighting for their playoff survival.
The Streak (September 1st-September 18th)
STLFC had shown no signs of a revival heading into the month of September, but as coach Herb Brooks once said, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
The club began the week by winning a 3-2 shootout vs. Hartford Athletic with longtime striker Kyle Greig scoring twice. STLFC followed up that result with consecutive 1-0 shutouts vs. playoff teams Ottawa Fury FC and Nashville , with the latter coming in front of a sellout crowd and on the night when the Stanley Cup paid a visit to WWT Soccer Park.
After nearly a week off, STLFC would continue their fine form on the road in a 2-0 vs. Birmingham, who they were going up against at the time for playoff positioning.
STLFC would then set a club record the following week by winning their fifth straight match, a 2-0 victory at home vs. the then first place New York Red Bulls II.
The catalyst for the streak had to be Tyler Blackwood, who caught fire by scoring four goals across those five matches.
STLFC had seemingly reclaimed their playoff status, with an eye towards improving their seed in the hopes of hosting their first ever playoff match.
Playoff Contenders No More (September 21st-October 19th)
The energy and support for STLFC was at an all-time high coming off of the club’s victory vs. New York. No one thought or knew that it would be the club’s last victory of the season.
STLFC’s winning streak ended a few days after that impressive win in a 1-0 loss on the road vs. Memphis 901 FC. The club finished the month of September by dropping points at home in a 1-1 draw vs. an Atlanta team that had already been eliminated from the playoffs.
As Birmingham and Charleston began to crawl back into the playoff picture, STLFC lost out on three points and the “Kings’ Cup” in a 1-0 loss at home vs. Louisville.
Things began to snowball for STLFC midweek when they blew two separate leads on the road vs. Loudoun United FC, who would win the match by a score of 4-3.
After another 1-0 home defeat vs. first place Pittsburgh , STLFC found themselves needing a win on the final day to keep their playoff hopes alive. Unfortunately, they would lose another 1-0 decision, this time on the road vs. North Carolina FC.
Down the stretch, STLFC lost their last four matches, dropped points in their last six, and were on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline four separate times. They finished one point behind Birmingham for the final playoff spot, who finished with a -16 goal difference compared to STLFC’s -1 goal difference.
While it was ultimately a disappointing end to this season for STLFC, I would like to highlight the positive performances of some players who were a big part of the successful stretches of the club this season:
Offensive Player of the Year: Tyler Blackwood
During the point of the season when STLFC struggled to score goals, Blackwood was brought in due to his track record of scoring and playing in big games with Sacramento Republic FC. While it took him awhile to get going, Blackwood erupted for four goals during the club’s five match winning streak, and finished the season tied for the team lead with seven. His ability to finish at the back post was on full display during the club’s victories vs. Ottawa, Birmingham, and New York late in the season. Blackwood could finally be the striker STLFC have been looking for, someone who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net.
Honorable Mention: Russell Cicerone, Lewis Hilton
Defensive Player of the Year: Phanuel Kavita
The obvious choice here is Sam Fink, considering that he not only played excellent defense most of the season, but he tied for the team lead with seven goals and arguably scored one of the club’s biggest goals ever vs. Cincinnati. However, it’s too difficult to ignore the accomplishments of his back-line partner in Kavita, who played every league minute for STLFC this season, one of only two players league wide to accomplish the feat. While he never scored after his goal on opening day, Kavita was a constant threat during set pieces, while also defending them successfully more times than not at the other end. Kavita routinely made the highlight reel with spectacular tackles, blocks, and clearances and will be an important foundational piece for future success for STLFC.
Honorable Mention: Sam Fink, Tomas Gomez