We're back! We've got a special edition of Three Questions for you today, as the Orange County Blues prepare to face a brand new opponent, Saint Louis FC, on Saturday (Saint Louis belonged to the Eastern Conference last year, so they never played OC). Since Saint Louis is a fairly new team and this will be the first meeting between the clubs, it's more important than ever to get the lowdown on the opponent. So I drafted in J-Mill, a local Saint Louis fan who has blogged about the team (find him at @GatewayCityGP on Twitter, and he's also a contributor to SB Nation St. Louis Blues site St. Louis Game Time if you're an NHL fan). Many thanks to him for taking the time to answer my questions!
The Goat Parade asks J-Mill
1. Saint Louis FC are in their second season, having appeared to be a success off the field but struggling a bit on it last year. What changes have been made to the team for this season and which players are expected to be the most important contributors this year?
Judging by the first two performances, perhaps not a lot has changed. But I think it's still too early to judge this roster too harshly. On the pitch, Saint Louis' offseason was highlighted by three key additions. The most recent being former Houston Dynamo first round pick AJ Cochran at centerback, and the St. Louisan has been one of the few positives over the first 180 minutes of the year. Also of note was adding Welsh CM Chad Bond from the Tulsa Roughnecks, who will be counted on to be a prolific deep-sitting playmaker, a set piece specialist, and (at least through two matches) wear the armband.
The big fish of the offseason however, was bringing in striker Irvin Herrera from his native El Salvador. The process was a bit hectic, as his club Santa Tecla attempted to block his move, despite an out clause in his contract for a US move. He led the club with 22 goals in the 2015 calendar year as well as a Clausura title. He also scored for El Salvador in World Cup Qualifying, as well as in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto, so for a club that finished 26th out of 28 in scoring last season he was clearly the centerpiece addition of the winter. However, a sudden injury (rumored to be a hamstring pull) during warm ups against Real Monarchs last weekend has kept him out of Saint Louis' first two matches. That the Saints have failed to score a goal thus far is no coincidence. Supposedly, Herrera's injury is not too serious and keeping him out has been an early season precaution. Whether he plays against OC, your guess is as good as mine.
One returning player to watch would be left back Patrick Doody. The Chicago Fire loanee saw significant time in St. Louis last summer, starting 18 out of 21 appearances and sharing the club lead with 4 assists. After he assisted on the Fire's final goal of 2015 against the New York Red Bulls, Saint Louis fans were excited to see what he could do with more MLS minutes. However, with Brandon Vincent overtaking him in the depth chart, Doody once again finds himself manning the left flank for the Saints. STLFC get much of their width in their attack from the fullback position, along with Jamaican international Richard Dixon on the right (although he may start on the bench this weekend in favor of an Eric Gehrig rehab start...and no, we're not happy about that).
If Saint Louis can get anything going moving forward (a big 'if'), expect it to be either through crosses from Doody and/or Dixon, or an occasional beautiful chipped pass from Bond.
2. Saint Louis have a tough start to the season, with four road games to kick off the campaign. Saturday's game will be the third of those, with Saint Louis losing the first two games. Are spirits dropping with the brutal stretch to open the season, or is the team and fans maintaining an even keel despite the early difficulties?
It'd be pretty difficult to characterize STLFC fans as "even keeled" at the moment, mostly because the problems that we've seen through two matches are much of the same issues that plagued the club's inaugural campaign. An offense that wastes attack after attack with easily snuffed out passes in the final third, an inability to establish an effective counterattack, and a defense that, though solid, is just as prone to mental lapses as most USL clubs (save for Rochester) have been the squad's downfall twice already. Questions of whether head coach Dale Schilly, a very accomplished youth coach in the St. Louis Scott Gallagher system, can connect with professionals have been raised once again. Personally, I'm trying my damnedest to hold off judgement until we can see this team with Herrera on the field, but with memories of last year's disappointments still fresh in their minds, supporters are starting to grow tired. Nothing releases tension quite like a win, however.
3. The team appeared to be a big hit last year in finding and growing a local fanbase. Is the momentum of the first season continuing? And is the desire among fans to make the jump to MLS at some point, or is that sentiment coming more from outside the area?
Well that's the $100 Million Question, isn't it? The current news first. Despite the onfield struggles of 2015 - especially at home, where they only won one of their first 11 home games in the league -- the crowds kept filling up WorldWideTechnology Soccer Park, with attendance growing with nearly every match to finish 4th in the USL. This season, with still two weeks to go before the home opener, the St. Louligan corner of sections 8-10 (accounting for well over just 700 by itself) is completely sold out only through season tickets. The club has already well surpassed its overall season ticket sales goals, and could very well be on its way to selling out the 5,500 seat venue for all 15 games. God help us if the team ever starts winning.
As for the MLS talk, that's a tricky subject for many reasons. Unlike USL clubs in Orlando, Sacramento, San Antonio, and now Cincinnati, who all publicly stated from their opening press conferences that MLS was their goal, Saint Louis FC has always publicly pushed that talk to the side, claiming their only focus is to become the best and biggest club in the USL. Then the bomb finally dropped that Kr**nk* was taking his shameful excuse for a football team (Ed. note: He's talking about the Rams) and moving out west, which changed almost everything. Suddenly, instead of a mythical MLS team sharing an NFL venue, the possibility of a downtown soccer specific stadium was potentially on the table. STLFC CEO Jim Kavanaugh has gone on record saying that an SSS would be the only situation that would interest him as a potential MLS owner. However, as wealthy as Kavanaugh is, he is far from $100 million expansion fee rich, so the key thing holding St. Louis' expansion bid back is the same thing that's kept the league away since 1996 -- no clear owner or ownership group.
However, in the aftermath of Kr**nk*'s lying ass moving out, a group was formed to find such an owner or ownership group. That group includes, among others, Kananaugh, St. Louis Cardinals majority owner Bill DeWitt, and St. Louis Blues majority owner Tom Stillman, so if nothing else the city is finally bringing out the Big Guns. It's been a few months since any new info has come out of that group. But if I were the speculate, the most likely scenario that sees St. Louis joining MLS any time soon would be a major investor or investors either buying or buying into Saint Louis FC in order to give them the Orlando City Treatment.
This would be the ideal scenario for many reasons, but the X-Factor in that equation is St. Louis Scott Gallagher. Gallagher, one of the biggest and most accomplished youth clubs in the US, is technically the owner of STLFC (the SLSG board and STLFC front office is virtually one in the same), and any deal that sees STLFC bought up would be wise to include SLSG as well, in order to convert it into an MLS academy. The infrastructure is already in place, the regional reach (even well into southern Illinois) is established, and Saint Louis FC would then be stepping into MLS on day one already with an academy system which has previously produced players such as Tim Ream, Brad Davis, and Taylor Twellman, just to name a few. That's just my 2 cents, however, which unfortunately is not quite enough money to make it happen.
4. (Bonus) Prediction for Saturday's game?
Predictions? This is the lineup you're likely to see from Saint Louis (assuming Herrera can't go):
*Mark Pais has started the first two games, but with the international break over, Ryan Thompson - the Jamaican keeper who kept the USMNT out of the Gold Cup Final last summer - will likely make his debut.
^Could very well be Gehrig, as mentioned earlier.
OC was a surprisingly good team in the west last year, and morale has to be rather low in Schilly's locker room after the 3-0 drubbing by Los Dos midweek. I'm a begrudging optimist, however, so I'll predict the first Saint Louis goal of the season from Schillo Tshuma, who has looked dangerous at times. It won't be enough, though, as I see a 2-1 win for OC.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!