Written by Michael Haffner
In the mid to late 1990s, the city of St. Louis was changing. Bosnian families fled their home country in search of peace. Among the tears shed, new roots were planted. Neighborhoods once abandoned saw new life. Restaurants and cafes began to pop up spanning South City and South County, many of which were centered around the Bevo Mill area. All of this resulted in St. Louis being home to the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe.
Over 20 years later, St. Louis is still defined by its large Bosnian population, along with many other characteristics that the international St. Louis CITY SC first-team players are now discovering. Most notably, the heat and humidity that they feel at practice regularly. It’s the first tolerable summer day in a long time when I sit down outside looking out at the St. Louis CITY SC practice fields. The nearby sights and sounds are all too familiar for those who know St. Louis, but home is far away for 24-year-old Selmir Pidro (pronounced SELL-meer PEE-droh) who joins me at the table. But if he was to be anywhere, there couldn’t be a more welcoming city and team for a Bosnian National soccer player.
Pidro was first learning about football (soccer) back home in Bugojno when Bosnian families in St. Louis were getting acclimated and starting up their own businesses in South St. Louis. Those who grew up in St. Louis will relate to who taught Pidro about the game. “That was my father. And I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to him.” You can’t throw a stone in St. Louis without finding a parent who spent weekday nights at practice and weekends at soccer tournaments. Most didn’t play professionally – they were just fans of the game. It’s an experience Pidro knows all too well.
“My father wasn’t a professional player. He played in a recreational league back home and just loves football so much. He taught me so much about the game because he’s so passionate about it.”
After learning from his dad, he developed as a young player with his hometown club Iskra Bugojno before joining FK Sarajevo’s U17 Youth Academy in 2014. His hard work and aggressive style earned him a spot on the first-team for FK Sarajevo, which led to him getting his first taste of success on the professional level. “In my first season with Sarajevo, we won the National Championship and the National Cup, and that was the first time the club had ever achieved that. That’s definitely one of the high points of my career.”
It’s a young career, but one defined early on by playing at the professional level – even scoring his first goal in his professional career at age 20. But in many ways, there was never another option. He had been training for this since he was a young boy. “It’s always been football. There was never another sport for me.” His sincerity in this statement is felt, even though it’s immediately met with a touch of levity.
“Though I did do a little bit of karate,” he admits with a chuckle.
It seems silly in theory, but perhaps the discipline and finesse that karate demands might have made more of an impact than his laughter implies. When I bring up how perhaps some of those moves in karate and concentration might have influenced his footwork with the ball, he laughs and says, “Maybe.”
Watching him play for FK Sarajevo, you saw a confident defender who carries the ball like a winger. He’s calm and collected, even at times dazzling with how smooth he can move through opponents. “I love it,” he says about carrying the ball and pushing forward. It shows just how committed he is to the style of play that Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel and his coaching staff are pushing. “Lutz and the coaches demand high pressing every game, all the time. He loves creativity in the game. And that’s my kind of game,” Pidro declares with a sly smile.
It’s the type of game that those who have been tracking the success of the CITY2 team in the MLS Next Pro league have clearly seen. Fans have even gotten a sneak peek of Pidro’s playing style over the past couple of weeks. With a show-stopping goal in his first start for the team, it’s safe to say that Pidro has settled in more than fine with his new club. And to think, this is just the beginning of this new chapter in Pidro’s life.
It’s an exciting start to a story in St. Louis that almost never began. As Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel explains, he wasn’t the only one who had an eye on him. While Pidro had been on his radar for many years, there were several big clubs who recently became interested in the Bosnian National. Lutz reveals how he thought he was losing his target to S.S. Lazio, an Italian club out of Rome. But apparently that was just the beginning. “There was another big, financially strong MLS club that made an offer for him,” Lutz explains. In the end though, it was the Bosnian connection that helped solidify Pidro now calling St. Louis home. “Elvir (Kafedžić, MLS Next Pro Assistant Coach) and the huge Bosnian community that absolutely loves soccer had a big impact on him being here.”
Lutz and I talk about Pidro’s potential with the team – his projection for him not just in the MLS, but also beyond. There’s a sense of pride in his voice as he talks about helping foster this great talent Pidro currently has, and what that talent can develop into over time. “If you have a club like Lazio interested in him, then you know he has the qualities to play at the highest European level.”
Lutz describes a player who came here because he wants to be guided and believes in what the club is doing. A player who wants to grow and become the best left-back he can be under this coaching staff. “Lutz understands me as a player,” Pidro explains. “But also, I think of myself ultimately as just a team player. I always want to do what’s best for the team.”
As he continues to develop into the best he can be, he’s modeling his play off of what he says definitively is his favorite player: David Alaba. A couple of days after our conversation in St. Louis, the Real Madrid defender would come on as a late 74th-minute substitute. Alaba jogged out to the field and was motioned to take the free kick outside the box. It was Alaba’s first touch of the game, and he made it count. His left foot curled in a beauty into the top corner just over the wall and off the inside of the post for a match-winning goal. An impact substitution that couldn’t have been planned any better.
“That’s my position,” Pidro explains. “I enjoy seeing his (Alaba’s) movement. He also plays that high pressing style that I like.”
On August 11th, Pidro played his first game wearing the St. Louis CITY SC crest. He was subbed in at the 77th minute. He may not have had a left-footed goal off the bench like his idol, but in just 11 mins, he made his presence known. It would take a couple of weeks later for that goal to happen.
Pidro logged his first start on August 21st – a match that he won’t soon forget. At the 38th minute, a corner kick was punched out by the Quakes keeper. It rolled into an open area outside the box that seemed like it was served on a platter for Pidro. He casually jogged into the space and let his left foot light up the back of the net with a rocket. It was a blink and you missed it goal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after that Pidro’s first goal elation was followed by a forced trip to the locker room. It’s a game that an impassioned Lutz can’t help but comment on when talking about Pidro.
“It (the goal) was an absolute screamer, and then a couple minutes later he gets sent off. It was a foul, but it was a very questionable red card. We looked at the videos, and he was not the last man. No way is that a red. So, I really feel for him with all the ups and downs.”
That being said, it doesn’t sound like it will be something that will affect him moving forward. “He’s an international from Bosnia. So, he comes with certain expectations. He’s not a kid out of college. He’s a top-level left back. And I don’t think anyone at the club is worried that he can’t fulfill those expectations.”
It may not have been the pitch-perfect start that he had dreamed of when he first set foot on the field in St. Louis, but you can’t always prepare for everything. Even when things are expected of you. “Soccer is a really unpredictable game,” Pidro explains. “You never know what tomorrow will bring.”
While his understanding of his position on the field is practically second-nature for Pidro, he admits he’s still discovering his position on the greater St. Louis stage. The day I spoke with him, he had only been living in St. Louis for three weeks. Much of that time spent training, and not just on the field but in the gym as well. “I’ve noticed how important fitness is here compared to other teams I’ve played with. The gym factor is already helping me out tremendously. In Bosnia, you just spend a lot of time with the ball to build up your fitness. Where here, there is a lot of stuff off the ball that we do.”
After training, he comes home to his wife who moved to St. Louis with him. Home is currently a hotel, but they’ll soon be moving to an apartment in South County. His nervousness about discussing his playing style and career immediately break when I bring up a topic that clearly carries greater meaning: family.
“I still talk to my parents every day. My dad is very happy with the move I have made here for my professional career. Of course, it’s a little sad that it’s so far away.”
Thanks to MLS Next Pro Assistant Coach, Elvir Kafedžić, Pidro has been able to get a small taste of home here in St. Louis. They recently visited one of the longest-running Bosnian restaurants and event spaces in St. Louis. “Grbic. A lot of really good food. I remember liking the Cevapi.”
Getting to know more about St. Louis and the greater community is something that’s important to him despite his busy schedule and getting adjusted to his new life at the moment. Though his initial thoughts are that “St. Louis is so beautiful,” he knows there’s so much more to explore. “Down the line, I want to meet as much of the Bosnian community that I can. When everything settles down and I get more situated, connecting with other Bosnian families is a goal of mine.”
Pidro is one of seven international players that St. Louis CITY SC brought in early to get acclimated, not just to the organization and coaches, but to the city as well. Lutz describes this opportunity as “a privilege that the ownership group granted me to bring them over 6-7 months prior to the season starting.” He goes on to emphasize just how rare of an opportunity this situation is. “We are a team that shouldn’t exist yet.”
And yet, throughout the CITY2 season, fans have witnessed this team that “shouldn’t exist” begin to form. Over the past few months, fans have seen these players become a part of something that we have long talked about and read about. The core of our first-team that will kick off next year has now joined the CITY2 team, helping them solidify the team’s spot in the playoffs.
Pidro along with the six other international players that have joined him bring a level of experience and leadership that will help guide our younger first-team players next year. And yet, they are still setting up their roots in St. Louis; moving into their own apartments; finding their way around town; and navigating the fear that comes with sitting down for an interview despite all previous accomplishments. They have embraced St. Louis and are now ready for St. Louis to embrace them.
“I can’t wait to meet the fans who come to the game. I hope they support me. And I promise I will always give 100% every match.”
In Lutz’s eyes, Selmir Pidro already seems like a perfect fit, not just for our team, but for our city. “I hope that Pidro becomes one of the best left backs in the country. Pidro has a winning mentality – a fighting mentality. He represents the St. Louis spirit.”