There’s a magnetic whiteboard on the wall behind Bradley Carnell’s office desk. It’s designed to look like a soccer field. The St. Louis City SC coach has 11 magnetic circles symbolizing the 11 City players on the field — their names written underneath in marker. I want to think that as the clock struck midnight, and 2022 became 2023, the magnets magically started moving around. The year is finally here. This year, City will actually play a game.
“It’s exciting, for sure,” Carnell said from his office on Friday. “And I think the thing that’s even more exciting for me is knowing we have a footprint — so it’s not just a blank canvas anymore. So many people might think it’s a fresh start, new team. But for everybody involved here within the staff and the organization, this is a project that’s been building behind the scenes for a whole year.”
And when he talks about building for a whole year, it’s not simply the 2023 roster. It’s the culture. It’s the standards. It’s the program. It’s the City 2 developmental team, which went 15-3-6 in its first year and lost in the league title game.
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And all of this is infused with Carnell’s style of play.
He is a fascinating selection as the club’s first coach because he’s a disciple of the godfather.
That being the godfather of gegenpressing.
Perhaps you’ve heard about City’s style? The plan is to constantly press, not unlike the Mizzou Tigers basketball team under current coach Dennis Gates — or even former coach Mike Anderson, whose constant pressure was dubbed “40 minutes of hell.” And as a defender for VfB Stuttgart around the turn-of-the-century, Carnell played for the famed coach Ralf Rangnick.
“He is the godfather of the pressing system,” said the South African Carnell, 45. “And some of the German coaches, some of the best in the world, have always had this Ralf Rangnick little pillar underneath him. So he’s branched and connected and nurtured a lot of coaches. … I had an eye on Dortmund with Jürgen Klopp (from 2008-15). Those were like kind of my role models, I was like watching them with the high energy, the pressing. …
“You can’t be a pressing coach if you don’t live the way like a pressing coach. It has to be in your DNA. It has to be your character. It has to be your lifestyle. So I played this way as a player, I played for the coach who sort of implemented this system.”
The cool thing about having a new team in town is we, as followers or supporters, get to evolve with the team itself. We will learn about gegenpressing — or, more simply, pressing — and come to understand the strategy and intricacies in real time, as City plays out its opening season (the first game is Feb. 25 at Austin and the second game is the first home game, March 4 against Charlotte).
But from a basic standpoint — as soon as the other team gets the ball, even if it’s in the other team’s defensive zone, City will swarm and try to win back possession. There’s no passive defense as the other team brings the ball up the field.
“We try to induce mistakes, force mistakes as soon as you lose the ball,” said Carnell, who was previously an assistant with the New York Red Bulls of MLS. “We’re not going to wait and just wait until they make a mistake for us to then gain possession of the ball. We want to create mistakes. It’s very proactive. It’s very ‘on the front foot.’ We always tell our players to be on the balls of your feet, not on your heels of your feet. …
“It’s like hunting, wolfpack, swarming — it’s just a lot of energy.”
There is risk and reward. The concept, as Carnell explained it, is to minimize the distance you need to go with the ball to score.
For example, if the other team gets a shot and the goalie saves it, that goalie’s team has to go the entire length of the field to create its own shot. On the contrary, if the team gets possession by pressing and stealing the ball, say, 35 yards from the opposition’s goal, then the team only needs to go, if you will, 35 yards to get to the goal. You’re already close. You’ve reduced your chances of losing the ball by bringing it up the entire length of the field.
Of course, all of this leads to the question — what if the opponent beats your press? Will the opponent have numbers and an advantage?
“It’s a really good question,” Carnell said. “If you have the ball, we’re going hunt straight away and swarm you so that you don’t get time to put up your head and find (an open teammate). But if you do, now we have to recover. So we have recovery runs, philosophy and terminology. … We get back into position to recover, and then — you get pressing again. It’s relentless. It’s tough. It’s really tough.”
It’s a fearless style of play — and in a first year of existence, against established MLS powerhouses, there might be some growing pains. But the plan is the plan. And it’s an exciting one for which to be on board. And, as Carnell said, exciting for the fans to watch.
“With a style of play, if you can entertain the fans and get results? That’s the pinnacle … ” Carnell said. “We want to be this edge-of-seat-type of experience where the fans don’t really have time to get their hot dogs — ‘Things are happening so quickly, let’s make sure we don’t miss a moment.’”
The year is finally here. This year, City will actually play a game. Carnell is ready to press on.