Be careful when you wish Lutz Pfannenstiel, the sporting director for St. Louis City SC, the Major League Soccer expansion team starting play in 2023, good luck. He doesn’t do luck.
“Thank you,” he says, “but … I don’t believe in luck. You can be lucky one game, you can be unlucky in another game, but if look over all the season over a whole period of time, luck should not be the factor in the way you build a football club. It’s more like structure, having a good plan, having a good philosophy. Working hard. And believing in what you’re doing. If everything was based on luck, that won’t work.”
MLS teams have opened camp for their 2021 seasons, but for Pfannenstiel, that’s still a ways away. He watches a lot of soccer games now, games from all over the world, as he thinks about what his team will look like in two years, but he acknowledges that there’s not much he can do now. He doesn’t expect to hire the team’s first coach until sometime in 2022.
“I could now sign a squad in my head for 2023,” he said, “but probably nine of the 11 players would be injured, won’t play any more or whatever, so this is all in theory, but it’s important to have a good overview of the international market, the overview of the MLS market, the university market. We need to be on our toes, we need to watch a lot, we need to be aware of what’s around us and then I think we’re good to go.”
COVID issues have kept Pfannenstiel from going on scouting trips abroad to look at players. Instead, since his hiring in August, he’s been scouring the St. Louis area — “In St. Charles, I know every football pitch,” he said — as he focuses his attention on a more immediate concern: the club’s academy under-17 team that will start play in MLS Next, the successor to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, this fall. He and his staff have been to high school games, club games, pickup games, anywhere they feel there is a chance of finding a player.
“This is historical,” Pfannenstiel said as he watched a scrimmage with invited prospects at the Lou Fusz facility in Earth City, “because you will see some players here who will be some of the first guys who will wear the (City) crest on their chest.
“We know it’s a long process to build something from scratch, to build something from a white piece of paper. It is something really unique.”
There are multiple aspects to the academy team. It is viewed by Pfannesntiel as a stepladder, to both St. Louis City and to the soccer world at large — Pfannenstiel feels that anyone whose goal is to play in MLS and not in Europe is not showing sufficient ambition — but it’s also one of the ways in which the team will interact with the city.
‘Change the future’
While the American youth development system is often criticized for favoring those that can afford to pay the costs of joining soccer clubs and travel teams, City’s academy teams will be different. For one, they’ll be free for the players chosen and, Pfannenstiel envisions, will reflect the city. That’s why he has hired Elvir Kafedzic, who was born in Bosnia and moved to St. Louis, and Charles Renken, who was born in Zambia and moved to Edwardsville, along with longtime local coach Tim Twellman, to help reach out to underserved communities in the region to find talent.
“We need to get the grassroots level, the community level right,” Pfannenstiel said. “This is how you build a long-term foundation. … We can’t change the past, we can’t really change right now the present. We can change the future. We need to make football as accessible as possible. We need to open it for literally everybody out there to be able to play, to create passion, to create the love of the game.
“I have no problem with clubs having the pay-to-play model because they need to pay the coaches, they need to maintain the facilities. (We want) to go away from that current situation that only high-income families are able to provide their kids with the best academy football. We want to really include everybody, be inclusive, to be diverse is a long-term goal. Having said that, we can’t change things overnight, so this is a process where we need to be very well aware that we can not change that within six months or nine months or 12 months. That will take longer. But I am 1 million percent convinced that looking into the future, three, four years from now, maybe two, three, four years from now, that also will change a lot and there will be players from the minority groups that will be in our academy setup.”
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Renken, who was playing for Hoffenheim in Germany when he first met Pfannenstiel, who was then the team’s head of international relations and scouting, “but we’re working very hard to make sure we find talent besides kids that are white. We’re looking at kids that are Bosnian, kids that are Latino, kids that are Asian. Right now, it looks all white, but when the team is put together, it will be one of the most diverse teams in the league. The key is the coaches, the scouting staff, going out there in the community where there are people of color and really doing our work and talking to the coaches locally and talking to our friends, getting our message out so that people know that we have the team. We really have to do the work but we’ll get it done.”
Ultimately, St. Louis City will have four youth teams — at under-17, 16, 15 and 14 — along with the main team and a reserve squad. Pfannenstiel’s plan also is for “satellite hubs” — starting around the city and in the Metro East and then eventually throughout the region — that will work with players from under-6 up to under-13. He wants the club, at every level, to play the same style — “A very quick, aggressive, pressing game,” he said — and wants these hubs to also provide free training for the volunteer parent coaches who do much of the work with younger kids.
“To create the legacy,” he said, “and it’s something on a longer term. That should not be something to last for a few years, that’s something that should have a big impact on the soccer development here over the next 10, 15, 20 years.”
Wish him luck.