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St. Louis City SC looks to score again with a deep Major League Soccer playoff run

"STL Santos," the Spanish-speaking St. Louis City SC supporter group, marches to CityPark before City takes on Minnesota United SC on Saturday, April 1, 2023, in Downtown West.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
"STL Santos," the Spanish-speaking St. Louis City SC supporter group, marches to CityPark before the team takes on Minnesota United SC last April in Downtown West.

It’s playoff time for the expansion St. Louis City SC soccer team. It will open the postseason Sunday night at CityPark against Kansas City.

It’s a record-setting first year for the local club. City SC is the first Major League expansion squad to win its regular season conference title. The team also sold out every home match at the 22,500-seat stadium in Downtown West.

General Manager Diego Gigliani and Chief Experience Officer Matt Sebek reflected on the successful year with St. Louis Public Radio’s Wayne Pratt.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Wayne Pratt: How surprised are either of you by the season's success?

Matt Sebek: We're surprised certainly on and off the field. I think St. Louis is a city that's been ready for Major League Soccer for quite some time. And I think going into it, we knew that it would be embraced with open arms. But, I think it's been everything we expected and more.

Diego Gigliani: I wanted to make sure that Matt spoke first because, at the end of the day, Matt's been really around here for many, many years as has been and has been a key part of the creation of what everyone sees today.

I only arrived 3 or 4 months ago. I didn't come here expecting a first year of so much success. Obviously, a very welcome surprise. But with any success, there also comes some new challenges. So we're excited about how the first year is, coming to a close, very, very proud of what's been done already, but super excited about the energy this creates for the future.

Pratt: So what are some of the unexpected challenges you just didn't anticipate and all of a sudden there they were?

Gigliani: I think the biggest challenge now is one of expectation management. No one really expected this amount of success in the first year. That bar has all of a sudden been raised for everyone. Sustaining success is a really challenging thing to do in any sports league. So, you know, now our goal becomes, how do we continue to plan for a year, two year, five, year 10 and try to replicate a lot of the success of this first year?

St. Louis City GM Diego Gigliani is photographed on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis City General Manager Diego Gigliani on Tuesday at St. Louis Public Radio's headquarters in Grand Center.

Pratt: Matt, I want to go back to before the season started. You did some media tours at the stadium. I was on one of those. You were like a kid in a candy store showing this place off. Showing the technology. Did that all turn out the way you expected?

Sebek: Yeah, I mean, we're seeing some incredible validation, you know, even a year into this. We tried to really develop a formula that prepared us for the future and that was, you know, an investment in technology and really, I'd say variety. So we have the walkout markets. Through the use of cameras and sensors, you walk into a market. You grab what you want. You leave. You don't wait in any line at all. We have a pretty heavy investment in our mobile app and mobile order ahead.

Listen: City SC looks to score again with a deep MLS playoff run

Pratt: And what is next?

Sebek: I think you see us investing into, you know, local food partners, local music, art architecture because all of those things help build a formula of pride.

Gigliani: And I would also add, going back to that comment around expectation management, I think it's clear that we will have seasons that we will lose. We will lose more matches than what we've lost this season. Find me any team in any sports that has been able to be consistently successful all the time.

What really makes me excited is before even kicking a ball. It was clear how excited the city was to receive a new sports team and specifically a new soccer team with, you know, 50,000 season card deposits in 24 hours. Breaking records across the country.

One of the things that people were telling me all the time was the fans love their sports teams here. They love them in good times and in bad. They're very, very loyal fans.

So, I'm fully hopeful that will continue helping the team perform because that connection between sports team and fans really does help drive success on the pitch. And of course, success on the pitch helps drive more and more of a virtuous circle.

Matt Sebek, chief experience officer for St. Louis City SC, speaks about mobile food ordering on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, during a media walkthrough of CITYPARK in Downtown West.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Matt Sebek, chief experience officer for St. Louis City SC, speaks about mobile food ordering in Nov. 2022 during a media walkthrough of CityPark in Downtown West.

Pratt: Matt, I want to turn back to you. you've been through a lot getting this organized and seeing it through the first season. What are some memories, some experiences, that when you think back just make you go, wow?

Sebek: If you look at the match day experience at CityPark, one thing that was a bit surprising to us is how early fans show up. You can get in and get out of a soccer match in a couple of hours. Our fans want to make a half-day or a whole day out of it. So that's been really surprising to see.

And I think it again speaks to the validation of bringing in local food partners. People want to get dinner at CityPark. They want to get there early to enjoy music. They want to be there for a couple of hours before the actual match begins. So that's been really, really fun to see. It’s just not only have our fans embraced it, but they want more out of it. They want to arrive early and stay late. So that's been really pretty amazing.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.