With the team’s inaugural game less than three weeks away, St. Louis City SC begins a critical stretch of preseason preparations on Monday when the team relocates to the Palm Springs area of Southern California for 10 days of training, including three exhibition games against other Major League Soccer teams.
When the team comes back to St. Louis on Feb. 15, with one more preseason game to go against Atlanta in St. Louis on Feb. 18, coach Bradley Carnell and his staff might well have figured out what their starting lineup will be for the first game, on Feb. 25.
“It might not look like it to you," Carnell said Sunday, "but I think we’ll have 85 to 90 percent of our structure going into that Atlanta game. You can change the dates and potentially see a good lineup there which we forecast for the 25th. So barring any injuries, or barring any falloff or dropoff or what have you, I think we should see a good solid lineup against Atlanta. But we feel comfortable with every lineup we put out there, every person, we’re trying guys in different positions, everyone’s been excellent in terms of their application, that’s all credit to them, that’s all we’ve been working for.
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“Obviously there will be some discussions, some messaging, some disappointment when we start to file the roster in a certain way, but this year, it won’t take a genius to see there are plenty of games to be played, the Leagues Cup, the Open Cup, there should be a competition for minutes on Day One. But it’s not a sprint to get out of the blocks, it’s for sure a marathon this season. It’s going to be a long season and we’re happy with the group right now.”
City SC will set up shop at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, along with 11 other teams, who are all there under the flag of the Coachella Valley Invitational. City SC will face the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday, Vancouver on Sunday and finally New York City FC on Feb. 15.
With 23 field players making the trip — youngsters Caden Glover and Tyson Pearce, who trained with the team in Florida, are staying in St. Louis while trialist Lucas Bartlett will continue working with the team — it’s unlikely players will be seeing 90 minutes of action at the start as Carnell and his staff continue to take looks at as many players as possible in game situations. With that the case, it’s also possible that many of the players see action is all the games when the team plays three games in eight days, which might not be the case when stretches like this come up in the regular season.
“I don’t foresee (players going the full 90 against Los Angeles),” Carnell said. “I think we still have enough games in the bank to give a lot of minutes and get the whole group going to a certain level, I think we still need potentially a group of guys or most of the guys on similar cadences and minutes, so on the eighth, you’ll see pretty even minutes.”
In a chilly week of training in St. Louis between the Florida camp and the California camp, the team began looking at tactics with and without the ball — there was one whole session devoted to free kicks and corner kicks — and in the games at Coachella will be looking at combinations, lineups, sets and formations.
“I think this week we’ve taken a big step tactically,” Carnell said. "It’s been a little bit of a preparative week which bodes well for the development of the group as a whole.”
The team is close to being back to full strength. Defender Jake Nerwinski, who took a hit in the knee in the team’s scrimmage with Inter Miami on Jan. 28 and didn’t practice with the team in St. Louis, should be ready to go at Coachella, Carnell said, as should goalie Roman Burki. Defender Jonathan Bell, who is coming off hernia surgery, and midfielder Njabulo Blom, who arrived from South Africa, still are getting up to speed and should begin doing more work with the team. Carnell thinks Blom, who had a month off between when he signed with City SC and when he got to America, could play 20-30 minutes on Wednesday.
“It’s an overload on his physical capacity because he hasn’t trained,” Carnell said. “This group is probably eight to 10 training sessions ahead of where he is. Things are really fast, things are demanding and challenging, and then you throw him back into the mix in (St. Louis), with the weather we had there a couple days. All new experiences for him to soak up, and similar to what (Isak) Jensen, (Selmir) Pidro and (Tomas) Ostrak, all these guys that arrived last year in June, July and August. I think it’s a similar process. They need a couple weeks to get going, but we’ve seen really nice things. He’s definitely one to build up with us and we’re excited for him to finally get that fitness in him. It’s clear we need to give him time and it’s clear he does need time to acclimate.”
Bell will be stepping into one of the team’s training camp battles, for the open center back spot alongside Tim Parker created by Joakim Nilsson’s knee surgery that likely will keep him out until May. Josh Yaro and Kyle Hiebert are also in the mix for that position.