Saint Louis FC was a surprising winner over Eastern Conference favorite Indy Eleven last weekend. Are they suddenly more of a threat to Nashville than anyone expected? I went to Phill Grooms of STL Soccer Report and The USL Show for the details.
For Club and Country: Indy’s only offense seemed to come on the counter. Is defense expected to be a strength of Saint Louis this year, or was that a surprising performance (third option: more about Indy’s offense not being up to speed yet)?
Phill Grooms: Yes, defense will be a strength. I’d argue that it’s a strength that is a must-have for St. Louis because Pulis’ system relies on it so much that I think the attack suffers. The defense was strong last year as well, but was also responsible for point losses due to 1 or 2 lapses in concentration—especially early in the season. This phenomenon mostly disappeared in the second half of last season, and if St. Louis can maintain that solidity, they’ll be a shoe-in for the playoffs. Add to that some bite in the attack, and I, with plenty of bias, will declare this is a top 5 team in the East.
FCAC: Russell Cicerone seemed to be the engine Saturday. Is he expected to be a key to the offense, or was that a pleasant surprise?
PG: Well, a bit of each I think. I’m not sure I see him scoring regularly, but you’re not wrong about the engine. When Russell signed I asked my friends at Cincy Soccer Talk about him. Their first response was how much they loved his work ethic. Surely this is what Pulis saw in him too. You’ll see that St. Louis thrives on pressuring the ball and Cicerone provides exactly that on the wing—and he can maintain it for 90 minutes. Obviously we’ve also now seen that he can finish a ball that falls to him, so he also can’t be ignored in the final third.
FCAC: Is there anyone that you expected to see make major contributions in the opener that didn’t? Who are the unsung heroes who might not make a box score?
PG: Well, Joaquin Rivas is the new player I’m most excited about. I credit some of Cicerone’s goal against Indy to him because they gave him some space with the ball at his dominant left foot and he picked out a dangerous pass. Yes, it bounced around a bit, but still, the play ended with the ball in the back of the net. Even more than his ability to pick out a pass is his ability to score seemingly anywhere inside 40 yards from goal. Joaquin is not one that can be ignored and his name is not yet infamous, so he’s still eligible for this category—but perhaps not for long. As far as not making the box score, I would like to nominate Lewis Hilton—whose engine is as good or better than Cicerone’s. That said, Lewis hits a hell of a free kick so he might score as well. In the end, I’ll just say that St. Louisans are eternally proud of our back line. That includes whichever centerback ends up being the odd man out on any given game day.
FCAC: Did the season opener change your expectations for the rest of the year?
PG: It did not. As I said before, if this team picks up where they left off at the end of last year, they’ll be one of the tougher outs in the league. Add to that an improved attack and teams may start bunkering on us, which would be a very strange feeling.
FCAC: Nashville has relied on a heavy press in the preseason and opener. How comfortable are Saint Louis’s defenders with the ball at their feet?
PG: Great question. It’s not one I’ve thought a lot about. Surprisingly, our captain Sam Fink had a bit of trouble playing out of the back last year, but improved. I mentioned our odd centerback out earlier. Last week that was Sean Reynolds, a surprise benching. He had a knock in preseason, but he’s also smaller than the other two. That said, I could see him starting this game, even over our captain, because he is our best passer at the position. Risky at times, but the best. But if Sam starts, and Gary Smith has done his homework, look for your boys to target him.
FCAC: What are your predictions for the game (including a final score)?
PG: I took a risk with my last prediction, but I think I’ll go slightly conservative here (the benefits of taking time to think and edit when not podcasting). I predict a 1-1 draw with at least one goal coming from a free kick or corner. For bonus points I’ll say Lewis Hilton gets one and Big Bird gets the other—and in the final minutes of play at that.
Many thanks to Phill for his help check out his work on STL Soccer Report and listen to his work on the league as a whole on The USL Show.