This isn’t a season that coach Anthony Pulis and the St. Louis FC soccer team soon will forget.
In an eventful and streaky campaign that wrapped up over the weekend, STLFC finished 11-14-9 in United Soccer League Championship play and missed the playoff by a point.
Adding to the frustration was a franchise-best midseason run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in which the squad knocked off two Major Soccer League squads before losing to eventual tournament champion Atlanta United, of MLS, in the quarterfinals.
“By far, the strangest season I’ve ever been a part of, as a player or as a coach,” Pulis said this week. “Missing the playoffs by one point, it can drive you crazy. You keep looking back over the season and remembering points that we probably should’ve had and didn’t get. It’s an incredibly frustrating feeling, one that I doubt we’ll get over any time soon. It really was an emotional roller coaster.”
After reaching the USL playoffs for the first time in 2018, STLFC entered this season with high hopes of a repeat. The team opened with four wins and a tie, and was 5-1-4 after playing two-time defending league champion Louisville City FC to a scoreless draw on the road on May 18.
From there, however, STLFC struggled in league play. It went through a 1-8-4 stretch that carried it through June, July and August.
Early in that same stretch, however, STLFC went through an unprecedented spree in U.S. Open Cup play that included one-goal wins over MLS squads from Chicago and Cincinnati.
“The run we enjoyed in the Cup had an impact, no question, but it was also something we enjoyed and took a lot of pride in,” Pulis said. “Competing against and finding ways to knock off a pair of MLS teams was special for everyone involved.”
Just when it appeared the team’s USL Championship playoff hopes were dashed, STLFC opened September with a five-game winning streak that included victories over playoff teams Ottawa, Nashville, Birmingham and New York Red Bulls II.
But after using the win streak to propel itself back into the playoff picture, STLFC followed by finishing the season on an 0-5-1 stretch that included five one-goal losses.
In its last three matches, STLFC lost 4-3 at Loudoun United, a non-playoff team, after going up 3-2 in the 67th minute and then dropped 1-0 decisions after surrendering late goals against East Division-leading Pittsburgh and at North Carolina FC.
“What we experienced in those last few games was unbelievable,” Pulis said. “Against Loudoun, we’re up 3-2 and can’t see it through. Even in the late-season tie against Atlanta United 2, we had five or six great chances to put them away and we just didn’t get it done. That was kind of typical for us this season; we created chances and just weren’t able to finish when we had the chance. And in the end, missing on those chances obviously cost us.”
In USL Championship action this season, STLFC went 8-3-6 in games at Soccer Park and was just 3-11-3 on the road.
Leading the way offensively were forward Kyle Greig (seven goals, four assists), defender and Edwardsville’s Sam Fink (seven goals) and midseason acquisition Tyler Blackwood (seven goals, two assists). Russell Cicerone scored five times and added three assists while midfield leader Lewis Hilton and Kadeem Dacres scored four goals each in league play.
Hilton had a team-leading five assists and also led the squad in chances created, 59.
In goal, Webster Groves’ Tomas Gomez (41 saves, five shutouts) and Jake Fenlason (38 saves, seven shutouts) each appeared in 17 games.
Key injuries also limited STLFC. The team’s major offseason signing, midfield leader and El Salvador standout Joaquin Rivas (one goal, one assist), was limited to six games due to injury.
Pulis and STLFC general manager Jeremy Alumbaugh expect changes before next season.
“Way too many ups and downs this season,” Alumbaugh said. “We had some positives — I feel like Russell Cicerone, for one, really stepped it up this season — but we also had some areas that’ll have to be addressed in the offseason. This league just keeps getting more and more competitive and that means changes. We appreciate all this group has done for us and expect to have a core group back to build around. But any time you’re coming off a season like the one we had, you have to expect a certain amount of change.”