St. Louis City SC made history in becoming the first Major League Soccer expansion team to win a conference title in its inaugural season, making fans optimistic and anxious going into their first playoff game.
“Truthfully, I’m very scared because we’re not just going against any team. … Winning against Kansas City is such a loaded conversation,” said Michelle Yates, a 34-year-old fan from Granite City, before the game. “The hope for [a win] to actually be what happens here, not just once, but at least twice throughout this whole series. That’s the scary part.”
Fans’ fears materialized early and often on Sunday, as City entered halftime down 3-1. The second half brought no relief, with Sporting Kansas City adding another goal during a nonstop deluge at CityPark in Downtown West.
“We’ve punched teams like this in the face a few times, and now we know what it feels like,” said St. Louis City SC head coach Bradley Carnell. “Part of being a champion is knowing how to lose. … It's one and done, and we move on to the next one.”
Despite the loss, fans said they are excited to be in the playoffs during the team’s inaugural season.
“There's no way when this season started we thought we would be where we are today,” said Dan Magoc, a 59-year-old City fan from south St. Louis County, at a pregame celebration at Schlafly Tap Room, near CityPark. “I don’t want to say anything here is icing on the cake, but I think we still have a lot to prove. We got here, but that’s the first step.”
City made history earlier this month when the team took Major League Soccer's Western Conference title and also qualified for the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup. The team broke the record for most victories by an expansion club at the end of September after defeating Sporting KC 4-1 and reaching 17 wins.
“I yelled at the top of my lungs. I was super excited because at the beginning of the season, I thought [we would end up] maybe mid-table somewhere around there for us to be top when everybody doubted us. … [That] was huge,” said Josh Blease, 32, of St. Peters, on the moment he learned St. Louis won the conference. “For us to be first in the West … I don’t want to say it was a dream come true, because that’s a cliche — but it was a dream come true.”
“I mean, it's easy to say this expansion team is new. They don't have the pace of play. They don't know what they're doing. We proved them wrong,” Blease said, reminiscing of the polls. “I never saw us as an underdog at all. I saw us as a team that had something to prove.”
Magoc expressed similar sentiments and said the team’s perseverance is indicative of the region's people. “I think the team reflects St. Louis. We're a hardworking, team-oriented city,” he said. “I think that's why we've embraced them so much. They are St Louis. I really believe it.”
St. Louis City SC will take on Sporting Kansas City at 4 p.m. Sunday in Kansas City in an attempt to keep playoff hopes alive.
See more photographs by photojournalists Tristen Rouse and Brian Munoz below.