The first-ever St. Louis CITY SC Head Coach is ready to get his hands dirty and get to work
Written by Zach Lowy
It’s 4 a.m. and Bradley Carnell is sending emails. At this early hour, he enjoys the peace and quiet to take care of the day’s business. But more importantly, during the day he’d rather be on the pitch, meeting with coaches, or working with a player one-on-one. “I don’t want to lose valuable time that could be spent developing players,” Carnell explains. “Soccer is so fluid - it changes daily. But that’s what drives me - I’m inspired by practicality.” In other words, Carnell attacks problems the same way he fought for the ball as a left-back: relentlessly and with purpose. And when you are building a soccer club with a clear vision and style from the ground up, that’s exactly what you need. Someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty - and will keep working at it until they find what works. Ironically, it isn’t dogmatic rigidity that will make a soccer club with a distinct playing style like CITY successful - it’s adaptation. Find your opening – and take it.
St. Louis CITY SC Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel knows this better than anyone. Throughout a playing career that saw him play for 25 different clubs in six different continents, and a post-playing career that saw him work as Director of Scouting at TSG Hoffenheim and CEO at Fortuna Düsseldorf, both in the German Bundesliga, Pfannenstiel understands the importance of establishing a sporting culture that can stand the test of time - one that doesn’t just focus on the next three years, but the next twenty years. It’s why, after an exhaustive coaching search that has stretched across 16 months, various continents, and countless coaching applicants, Pfannenstiel appointed Bradley Carnell as St. Louis’s first-ever head coach.
“The way he turned the season around was impressive, he knew what small details he needed to change and adjust,” Pfannenstiel said. “We had a well-prepared checklist which all the qualities our ideal head coach candidate should represent. Bradley Carnell checked a lot of these boxes and that is why we made that decision. Bradley, working in MLS for five years, knows the league and the players like his own backyard. He grew in this league and he showed his potential in the way he turned around NYRBs season last year as an interim head coach. The knowledge of the MLS combined with the full identification and understanding of our playing philosophy are the key factors. But to be honest, knowing Bradley from before as a player, as a coach, and as a person was a massive factor.”
Pfannenstiel added: “Knowing the league is so important, you saw how many big-name foreign coaches came here and simply failed because they do not understand the mechanism or momentum of the MLS. It’s one of the most important decisions in our club’s history, who will be the club’s first head coach. We are here to create a culture, a long-term strategy, not just short-term success. I didn’t come here to be a quick fix and so must be the choice of coach. Every position in the sporting department plays an important part in how we want to work successfully together as a team.”
After five years at New York, Carnell is the latest seedling of Ralf Rangnick’s coaching tree and the latest Red Bull product to receive a high-level managerial position following Jesse Marsch, Marco Rose, Matthias Jaissle, and countless others. However, any suggestions of St. Louis CITY attempting to emulate Red Bull’s worldwide system are shot down by Pfannenstiel with typical German efficiency.
“We will not copy anything from any club, we are St. Louis CITY SC and not a replica of somebody else. Of course, there will be clubs with a similar style of play, but I don’t want to be compared to anybody. It is legit to see what great things other clubs have done and take it as a point of orientation. I grew up and learned my trade in the Hoffenheim system, but one thing I’ve learned from playing football in 20 countries is never ever 'copy and paste', you can get impressions and things you like from other places and mold them in your own style, but in our case, we need to Americanize them or else we will fail.”
Pfannenstiel and Carnell are both in their 40s, both have played in Germany and South Africa, both have worked in sports punditry roles, and both hung up their boots in 2011. More than anything, though, perhaps the most important similarity they share is their long-term belief in St. Louis CITY’s unique style of play.
Carnell spent various years playing under current Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick during his stint at Stuttgart, whilst also learning his trade under Rangnick’s worldwide coaching set-up at Red Bull; Pfannenstiel, on the other hand, worked under Rangnick during their time at Hoffenheim. Apart from English and German, one language that Pfannenstiel and Carnell share is this Rangnick-inspired style of play based on aggressive pressing, winning the ball back high up the pitch, and funneling the ball towards the opposing goal as quickly as possible.
“Our way of playing will be high press, counter-press, intense high-speed football, very entertaining, something other teams will hate to play against, where physicality plays a big role, where everyone working together as one unit is extremely important,” Pfannenstiel said. “We want to chase and hunt like a wolfpack. If we lose the ball, we want to get it back immediately. Transition is a magic word in our game model – what happens when you win or lose possession.”
“Our style of play is very proactive,” Carnell said. “When defending a transition, are we going to drop off and backup or are we going to go win the ball back after turning it over? If there’s a fire in the house and a bucket of water, are we going to run away, or are we going to put out that fire?”
Carnell added: “We want guys who are brave and courageous to engage in 1v1s and support each other in numerical advantages. We’re going to be a team-based on principles and no matter the form or players, we want to have a clear blueprint and identity that no matter who’s on the field, we play by these principles and fundamentals that are so important to us.”
At 44, he recognizes that not every player will buy into a ‘my way or the highway approach,’ and that teaching them the fundamentals and the reasons beforehand is more important. More than anything, he wants players to understand it’s okay to make mistakes.
“Getting the buy-in of these guys and getting them to believe why we are doing these things is massive because our style of play is very intensive and takes a lot of bravery and courage to be on the front foot, to be proactive, to go out of your comfort zone every day. I let players hold the meetings, let them speak up. Players are always afraid to say the wrong thing but it’s okay, it’s alright to fail because we have a clear foundation. If you make a mistake, your teammate is there. Even in the meeting room, your teammates have your back.”
Carnell recognizes that 2022 will be a crucial year in preparing for St. Louis CITY’s debut on the national stage. St. Louis is in the process of not only recruiting and scouting for the first team but also launching five youth sides: the MLS Next Pro team as well as the U-17, U-16, U-15, and U-14 teams.
Alongside Pfannenstiel and Director of Coaching John Hackworth, Carnell will have a crucial role in scouting talent and cultivating a holistic academy pipeline. “Our youngest academy teams will play the same style with the same player profiles and the same philosophy like our professional team! We even want to implement these basics in our community system which will be for the 6-12-year-olds. It’s aligned in one direction, from the grassroots to the pros!” says Pfannenstiel.
“We will go to the youth clubs and different communities in the city, county, and state and try to help educate coaches and preach our style of football. We want to give everybody involved in the game an opportunity to understand our ideas from the youngest possible age,” he explained. “Everything we do in the community is still based on fun, play, and enjoy ourselves. Don’t worry too much about tactics and formations, learn to enjoy playing ball with your friends. But we already can guide in the right direction.”
“We’ll be building these foundations in the first soccer capital of America, and the more people I speak to, the more enthusiastic they are. This city hasn’t been able to have a Major League Soccer team and now we’re the ones to build these foundations and get the community involved,” Carnell said.
“We are here in the Midwest, and we want our football to have an identification with the people who are sitting on the stands, so we want to be very Midwestern from our approach,” states Pfannenstiel. “We want to support the love of the game here in St. Louis. We can encourage a huge number of kids to enjoy playing football, to have an academy constantly creating players who are knocking on the door to become professionals and to create players out of the academy who don’t make it pro but who have a great opportunity to play for a D1 school. I see ourselves in a position where we can nourish our own talent and great soccer culture.”
Both Pfannenstiel and Carnell relish the opportunity of having a tabula rasa, or a clean slate. It provides them with a chance to mold a club based around core principles, a chance to start fresh and build something that’s chasing long-term goals rather than short-term gratification. “In Germany, tradition means you’re fighting against the past,” states Pfannenstiel. “We only have to think about the present and the future. We are starting at level zero so we can build our own squad to have local homegrown talent in our first pro team. Nowhere else will we have an opportunity like that.”
Pfannenstiel and Carnell both do not believe in luck. They prefer a more realistic approach. “You have to take your shot,” Carnell smiled. “That’s why I am here. I knew I was ready, and this was the right time. That is what I want our players to understand as well. It’s everything St. Louis CITY stands for. Find your opportunity - and don’t hesitate to take it."