City SC kicks off Season 2 on Tuesday

City SC kicks off Season 2 on Tuesday


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City SC’s game on Tuesday against Houston is its first of the season but not its MLS season opener. It’s a game in an international tournament that’s in the same country.

It may take a second or two to sort it all out, but City SC starts its second season at 7 p.m. Tuesday at CityPark against the Houston Dynamo in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the regional championship for clubs in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Which is, in fact, a big deal, not just to win but to take part in.

Yes, City SC has played in an international competition before — last year’s Leagues Cup, where it faced Club America of Mexico, but City SC played in that because it was part of MLS and everyone else did too. City SC, along with all the other teams taking part, earned its way into the Champions Cup, either through what the team did in domestic league play or through a regional qualifying tournament. (City SC qualified by winning the MLS Western Conference in the regular season in 2023, Houston by winning the U.S. Open Cup.)

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“We know this is a celebration,” said City SC coach Bradley Carnell, “something that we’ve put ourselves into, and it’s a privilege to play in the Champions Cup. Not everyone gets to do that. And we’re focusing on ourselves now, and our next game is our most important game, which means now, we come out of the gates flying against a very good Houston team. But this is our journey.”

Just as when City SC played the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup or the Columbus Crew in the Leagues Cup, this is a match against another MLS team that doesn’t count in the season standings but is part of a separate competition. The Champions Cup determines the best club in the region, and it sends the winner to the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, which is also a real competition, though how much anyone should care about it varies widely. (FIFA wants you to care a lot; the rest of the soccer world, not so much.)

The Champions Cup, which was known as the Champions League previously, has changed its format from time to time and expanded over the years. This year, it has 27 teams. There’s a simple bracket, though maybe not so simple. Each round (except the final) is a two-game, total-goal series, with the team that scores the most over the two games the winner. So when the final whistle blows on Tuesday night, that’s effectively halftime of the series, with the second half coming a week later in Houston. If the teams are tied on goals after the second game, the team that has scored the most away goals wins, which is why it behooves City SC to look to pitch a shutout on Tuesday. If it’s still even, there will be 30 minutes of overtime, and if there still isn’t a winner, it will go to penalty kicks.

City SC-Houston is the only MLS vs. MLS matchup in the first round, and while it’s not exactly exotic, it’s just about as good a first-round matchup as City SC could hope for. Houston was the lowest seeded of the teams City SC could possibly face, and it’s a team City SC didn’t lose to last season (a 3-0 win at home, a 1-1 tie on the road), which if it could be replicated would send City SC on to the round of 16.

It’s also really convenient, especially when you consider that the Champions Cup schedule co-exists with the MLS schedule. The New England Revolution, for instance, play a game in Panama on Wednesday and then start the MLS season on Saturday. That makes City SC dropping down to Houston next Tuesday seem like nothing. What it lacks in mystique, it makes up for in accessibility.

“It’s great to travel, great to seek new experiences,” Carnell said, “but I think this is an experience alone, playing the Champions Cup. And that just gives more incentive to get through to the next round.”

Of course, the winner of this series will face the Columbus Crew, which was given a bye into the round of 16 by virtue of being the MLS Cup winner, so City SC will have to win that series as well before it has the chance of facing a club from outside MLS.

Another benefit of facing an MLS team is that if City SC had drawn a Mexican club, which was the only other option besides an MLS team because of how the teams were seeded, the team would be playing its first game of the season against a really good Mexican club that is already past the halfway point of its season. It’s one of the challenges that has always existed for MLS teams in this tournament: starting its season with big games while clubs in other countries are already in midseason form. By drawing an MLS team, City SC will face a club on the same footing.

City SC has a tough schedule to start the season, with four games in 12 days, and if it gets out of the first round, it will do that all over again. The first game of the second round will be in St. Louis or Houston on March 6, with the second game a week later. Carnell will gladly take any inconvenience success in this tournament might hold.

“It’s all part of the experience,” Carnell said. “We can build momentum here at CityPark and then we only focus on next week after Saturday, so right now, we’re totally zoned in on tomorrow. And then from tomorrow, we’re not thinking about Houston again, we think about Salt Lake, so we have to compartmentalize everything and put our focus on where it’s necessary and needed.”

An in-depth look at the team as it prepares to start its second season.

St. Louis City SC beat writer Tom Timmermann and co-host Beth O’Malley take a look at the weather forecast for the team’s first game, a CONCACAF Champions Cup game versus Houston next Tuesday.

Tom Timmermann

Beth O’Malley


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