By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 19, 2020) US Soccer Players – It’s a little easier now to talk about Major League Soccer’s St Louis expansion team, set to enter the league in 2023. The club has a name now, St Louis City Soccer Club, which means we can put away the awkward hashtags and placeholders. The club also has a badge and a set of colors. Fans in St Louis have something tangible to rally around as the team does the difficult work of building to its debut.
MLS decided to push back the introduction of both St Louis and the Sacramento expansion team to 2023 because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease’s impact hit several different areas for the two clubs, including building a roster of sponsors and partners and the construction of soccer stadiums. With 2020 effectively a lost year on so many fronts, it makes sense to give every incoming expansion team time. That also includes Charlotte, who was rushing towards a 2021 start and will now debut in 2022.
More time before the club’s first game gives St Louis a chance to “burn-in” its branding. The modern world is full of critics, quick to tear down a name, logo, or color scheme at the first opportunity. St Louis City absorbed a blast of negative response in some corners of the always-on internet. What matters more is how soccer fans and potential soccer fans in the St Louis region respond to the club’s identity.
If St Louis City does a good enough job reaching out into the community, connecting with the rich soccer culture in St Louis, and finding ways to make its brand “cool”, it won’t matter what anyone on Twitter or in the comments said last week. Finding the right tone for the audience is part of good marketing. It wouldn’t be fair to St Louis to judge the club on the standard set by LAFC or Atlanta.
With two-and-a-half years in front of the club before it plays a game, the investor/operators of St Louis City could have waited to build the soccer side of the operation. St Louis won’t play a game until after the next World Cup, an event that seems incomprehensibly far away, especially as we live through the time of COVID.
St Louis doesn’t need to sign players for at least two years. Making a shortlist now for the club’s first head coaching hire seems pointless with so much likely to change. How can a club born from nothing form an identity with so much time on the clock?
Despite the leeway available, St Louis City made its first significant soccer hire on Monday when the club announced Lutz Pfannenstiel as sporting director. Pfannenstiel arrives fresh from a stint as the sporting director of Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany, where he oversaw two seasons for the club at the top division level. Fortuna finished 17th out of 18 teams in the Bundesliga last season.
Pfannenstiel is the latest European to take the top soccer role at an MLS club. Charlotte FC named Croatian scout and agent Zoran Krneta as its first sporting director in December 2019, six months before the club even announced its name. That same month, the Chicago Fire hired former FC Basel sporting director Georg Heitz for the club’s top role.
Pfannenstiel won’t be alone among Germans in top soccer posts in MLS, either. Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has a similar background to Pfannenstiel’s and is thriving.
Tanner’s example appears informative for St Louis. With a network of contacts in Europe but a willingness to work within the confines of the American game, Tanner has proven an excellent hire for the Union. Tanner’s technical experience, particularly as it pertains to Philadelphia’s academy system and relationship with area youth clubs, is paying dividends for a club leaning heavily on its development arm.
Once upon a time, Major League Soccer conventional wisdom held that a foreign executive would struggle with the arcane roster rule structures that govern team building. For years, MLS teams either avoided foreign hires for the “chief soccer operator” position or fell flat with one at the helm. It’s probably worth pointing out that few of those MLS jobs were all that attractive to a higher caliber of executive. Maybe imports weren’t right for them, but maybe it was the wrong import taking them in the first place.
Pfannansteil’s move to St Louis might also point to the kind of club St Louis wants to be from its earliest days. Rather than hire a pure MLS roster-builder, an executive with a deep understanding of MLS and how it works, St Louis City brought in a name with experience working in clubs with well-established development structures. What Pfannenstiel lacks in allocation money know-how, he makes up for with his understanding of how a fully-formed club is supposed to work.
Calling the St Louis opportunity “unique,” he reportedly turned down the chance to explore offers in several European countries. While MLS still lags behind much of Europe for prestige and quality, the rising level of play and increasing financial clout of the league is intriguing to a certain type of soccer mind.
The idea of building something from scratch or close to it appeals because there are so few opportunities of that kind. The combination of an American lifestyle and Major League Soccer’s growing reputation is changing the top job at clubs across the league.
What was once the sole purview of former MLS players is, like head coaching positions in MLS, opening up to a wider pool of talent. While that means fewer jobs will be open for Americans, it also means a richer set of skills brought to bear on the problem of creating a top-to-bottom club in the mold of famed European clubs.
Pfannenstiel mentioned specifically a desire to overturn the pay-to-play model that remains intractable across the country. His focus will be in the St Louis area, one rich in soccer talent. No city in the country has as deep a soccer history as St Louis. It would be a sizeable misstep for the new MLS club in town to miss out on a chance to leverage local culture.
Like with the logo, Pfannenstiel will be doing the “burn-in” of the new club’s presence in St Louis. With more than two years left, he’ll have plenty of time to bring his experience to bear in the strange, but exciting world of MLS.
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