Written by Zach Lowy | Co-founder & Lead Writer at BreakingTheLines.com
St. Louis CITY SC will begin its inaugural Major League Soccer season in 2023. The club joins Austin FC (2021) and Charlotte FC (2022) as the league’s latest expansion teams.
MLS was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup with its maiden campaign taking place three years later between ten founding clubs: Columbus Crew, D.C. United, New England Revolution, New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), Tampa Bay Mutiny, Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), Kansas City Wiz (now Sporting Kansas City), Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Clash.
Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion joined the party in 1998 with the team from the Windy City tasting immediate success by winning a domestic double of the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup under manager Bob Bradley. On the other hand, Miami and its Floridian partner in Tampa were forced to shut its doors on January 8, 2002, as MLS was forced to cut its losses with two of its weakest links financially amidst a post-9/11 economic depression.
The two clubs were replaced by Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA in 2005. Chivas, an offshoot of one of Mexico’s most popular teams, set up operations in Los Angeles and only allowed Mexican players on its squad. The team eventually folded in 2014.
After the original San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, MLS finally crossed the border and added a Canadian team with Toronto FC. After years of struggles on and off the pitch, Toronto went on to win a MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019. The Earthquakes returned to San Jose in 2008, whilst Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, New York City FC, Orlando City SC, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, and Los Angeles FC joined the league over the next decade, along with FC Cincinnati, Austin FC, Nashville SC, and Inter Miami CF.
The MLS season kicks off in March and runs through mid-October. The league is made up of two conferences, Eastern and Western, unlike Major League Baseball and the National Football League which also have multiple divisions in each conference. Teams in the Eastern and Western will play a total of 34 league matches in the MLS regular season. The team with the highest points total is awarded the Supporters' Shield. D.C. United and LA Galaxy currently have the most Supporters’ Shields in MLS with four.
Like MLB and the National Basketball Association, the MLS season takes a break midway through the season to host an All-Star Game featuring the game’s biggest attractions. The most recent All-Star squad, played on August 25, 2021, was composed of veteran superstars such as Luis Carlos Almeida de Cunha, commonly known as Nani, and Pedro Gallese as well as young talents Ricardo Pepi and Cade Cowell. The team faced off against Liga MX All-Stars in front of a sold-out crowd at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. After an intense 90 minutes and a penalty shootout, the MLS All-Stars won the match (3-2).
The MLS regular season is followed by a postseason knockout tournament to determine the champion in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Two months after the MLS Cup Final is the MLS SuperDraft, an annual college draft for clubs to select players who have graduated from college or have been signed by MLS. The league’s last-place team (or new expansion team) receives the first pick in the draft, which consists of three rounds.
The top seven teams in each MLS conference earn a spot in the postseason. Round one of this year’s playoffs is set to take place November 20-23, 2021, with the conference semifinals to follow. The higher-ranked team hosts the lower-ranked team in playoff matches.
Last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals saw the Columbus Crew hosting former USMNT manager Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution in Ohio while the Seattle Sounders welcomed Minnesota United to Lumen Field. Both host teams came out on top to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Columbus’s winning goal started at the foot of Argentina-born Armenia playmaker Lucas Zelarayán. The midfielder wriggled his way past former Aston Villa man Carles Gil and fired the ball to his team’s captain Jonathan Mensah, who then put it on a plate for former São Paulo midfielder Jose Artur de Lima Junior to convert into the game’s only goal from the penalty spot.
Minnesota found itself on the verge of pulling off an upset after taking the lead via ex-Boca Juniors man Emmanuel Reynoso and Malian defender Bakaye Dibassy. However, United’s quest to reach its first-ever MLS Cup Final in club history slipped away in the final 20 minutes. Seattle’s persistent, never-say-die mentality under Brian Schmetzer came in huge against Adrian Heath’s side, with St. Louis native Will Bruin coming off the bench for Brazilian veteran João Paulo and scoring the opening goal. After various futile attempts, Seattle’s equalizer came in the 89th minute as a corner kick from Argentine maestro Nicolás Lodeiro deflected into the path of Peruvian striker Raúl Ruidíaz, who tucked it into the near post corner of the box. Lodeiro conjured up his magic once again and delivered a pinpoint set-piece to Sweden international Gustav Svensson, who headed in from close range. Seattle went on to reach their fourth MLS Cup Final in five years, while Minnesota headed home with empty pockets. The MLS Cup Final was then set with Columbus hosting Seattle.
After failing to reach the playoffs in 2019, Columbus Crew finished third in the Eastern Conference with 41 points from 23 matches and advanced to their first MLS Cup Final in five years, when they fell to Portland Timbers in the exact same venue. The 2020 finals would be different.
The Ohioans took the lead over Seattle in the 25th minute as a cross from Zardes met the feet of Zelarayán, who beat Stefan Frei from close range, and they doubled the margin shortly after as Zelarayán pounced on a weak clearance from Shane O’Neill and deftly slid a through ball towards Derrick Etienne, who rolled in the second with aplomb and finesse. Caleb Porter’s side sealed the victory in the 82nd minute as Costa Rican youngster Luis Díaz muscled his way past former Liverpool fullback Brad Smith and teed up a ball to Zelarayán, with the Argentine-Armenian maestro curling his effort into the top left corner to seal the Crew’s first MLS Cup in 12 years.
If Atlanta United’s MLS Cup victory in 2018 is a testament to what expansion teams can achieve with a concrete plan and effective leadership, Columbus’ recent triumph is a testament that MLS clubs can quickly turn around their fortunes with smart decision making. As it prepares to get operations underway in 2023, St. Louis CITY SC has every reason to dream big in its start to life in the nation’s top soccer league.