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MLS Echoes: St. Louis City and the Best Expansion Seasons in MLS History
Or, alternatively, counting the few ways in which St. Louis has not already had the best expansion season in MLS history
The idea of this “Echoes” series is to put current events in MLS and American Soccer more broadly into historical context, to provide a sort of richness to the soccer-viewing experience akin to the experience of densely layered disappointment that engulfs me after Minnesota Vikings playoff games. Many new people have come to soccer in the US in the recent past, be it due to the creation of a new local expansion team, a favorite foreign player signing on our soil, or perhaps they’ve been charmed by the efforts of an eccentric blogger who burns through legal pad paper every week. This is where I’ll take the chance to play teacher and to compare what’s happening now with what’s happened over the past twenty-eight seasons. As with every title I’ve ever come up with for any series I’ve ever done (here on Score Secondary or otherwise), I’m not overwhelmingly happy with “MLS Echoes” as a name for this series, but I haven’t thought of one better yet. In the case that I do, I will change it from that point on and update you about it.
We have become used to successful expansion teams in MLS. There’s no guarantee nor expectation that an expansion team immediately comes in and finishes near the top of the league by any means (it took Cincinnati three seasons to finish outside of the exact bottom of the league, for example) but we’re not shocked to see a new MLS team come in and play respectably. I don’t even think we’re that shocked to see good expansion teams in American pro sports in general anymore, now that we’ve seen the Vegas Golden Knights and San Diego Wave make playoff runs in their first seasons, anything is possible. It seems like American leagues have taken steps to ensure that they don’t repeat the lengthy spells of ineptitude that introduced teams like the expansion Cleveland Browns, the Charlotte Bobcats, and every team placed in the Tampa Bay area to the world.
With all of that said, what St. Louis City SC has done this year is genuinely unique by a few metrics. St. Louis will finish this year atop the Western Conference. They’ve already had the best expansion season in league history by one metric, breaking the 2018 LAFC team’s record for the most wins by an expansion team with 17. They’re in a good position to tie the record for the highest ever league finish in an expansion season, too - At time of writing, with a match to go, they’re in third place in MLS, which would match the 1998 Chicago Fire. All of this being as it is, there are a scant few firsts and records that this phenomenal St. Louis team will be unable to claim in 2023.
Today’s prompt is: St. Louis will not be the first expansion team…
To Make the Playoffs:
1998 Chicago Fire, 1998 Miami Fusion FC, 2009 Seattle Sounders FC, 2017 Atlanta United FC, 2018 Los Angeles FC, 2020 Nashville SC, 2020 Inter Miami CF
There have been twenty-two expansion seasons in MLS history, and seven (eight including the upcoming St. Louis appearance) culminated in a playoff appearance in that first season. That is more than a third of the time, a far higher rate than in other American major leagues – The NFL hasn’t seen it happen since the NFL/AFL merger, the NBA hasn’t seen it happen since the 1967 Chicago Bulls, and it hasn’t happened in the post-integration era of Major League Baseball. There are plenty of reasons for MLS expansion teams’ atypical rate of success, probably most significant being that expansion MLS teams can bring prospective talent into the league from overseas. Atlanta, LAFC, and Nashville each signed future league MVPs (Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, Hany Mukhtar) from outside of MLS prior to the beginning of their first season, which is nearly impossible to do with the relatively closed-off player pools of other major American leagues (or at least it hasn’t been done yet). St. Louis did this themselves by bringing in high-caliber players from overseas in Joao Klauss, Roman Burki, and Eduard Lowen, and they’ll join seven other expansion teams as playoff qualifiers in their first year.
Making it to the playoffs is one thing – It’s far more rare to win once you’re there.
To Advance in the Playoffs:
1998 Chicago Fire, 2020 Nashville SC
More astounding to me than the regular season success of expansion teams is the ineptitude that’s stricken so many upon getting there. The playoffs are a different beast than the regular season, and teams unaccustomed to their pressure and intensity get caught on their back feet more often than not! Many of those who have succumbed to first round exits came in very strongly, too. Some even hosted their first round matches, but they couldn’t keep the regular season success rolling into the first round.
This was not the case for the two Miami teams, both of whom snuck into the playoffs at the bottom of the bracket – the Fusion were the fourth of four Eastern Conference teams in 1998 and predictably lost to the DC United juggernaut, and Inter was the tenth of ten teams to qualify for the Eastern playoffs in 2020 (the Eastern playoff field was expanded in 2020 as the conferences were re-shuffled to reduce travel during COVID-19, which ended up giving the East two more teams than the West), and they couldn’t make it out of the play-in round.
The 2009 Seattle Sounders came into the playoffs placed third in the West and fourth in the league overall, matching up with a Houston Dynamo team that they had beaten once and drawn once during the regular season.
The first leg in Seattle went scoreless, a match in which Seattle’s best chance suffered a goal-line clearance from the Dynamo’s Brian Mullan, who went on to become a pariah to Sounders fans for a much different reason only a few months later, and the second leg went into extra time before Houston’s Brian Ching scored the match-winner in the 95’ off of an impressive half-turn volley. Ching made something of a habit out of scoring critical late-match playoff goals in Houston, doing so with such frequency that this one might not even crack his top three critical late-match postseason goals.1
The most surprising first-round exits befell the MLS 3.0 vanguards of Atlanta and Los Angeles. The 2017 Atlanta United team finished fourth in the East, hosting Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew in the first knockout round. Atlanta, who had scored 70 goals in 2017, the second-most of anyone, were shut out over 120 minutes by a Crew team that was only a week out from learning that their owner intended to move the franchise to Austin. Columbus couldn’t score either, leaving the match to finish on penalties. Zack Steffen made eight saves over the course of the match, then saved three in the deciding shootout to knock Atlanta out at home.
LAFC set a (now broken) record for expansion team success in 2018 with 16 wins and finished third in the West. They matched up with Real Salt Lake, a team that had found itself watching Decision Day from home due to the league’s uneven number of participants that season, who had only snuck into the playoffs when the Galaxy lost a two-goal lead at home to Houston in the second half of their final match. The match that followed was fascinating – There was a controversial LAFC goal that came shortly after Nick Rimando was hit in the head by detritus from a cup thrown out of the 3252, RSL’s Damir Kreilach scored off of an amazing crane kick volley from outside of the box, and the match winner came off of a Walker Zimmerman own goal.
The two outliers here were both in unique situations for their first playoff rounds – The 1998 Fire joined Miami as the league’s first expansion team, and they were able to beat a Colorado Rapids team attempting to repeat Cinderella run to the 1997 Cup in a three-match series. They did so with only two goals, both of them from Lubos Kubik penalty kicks. The first match, a 1-1 draw at Soldier Field, went to an NASL-style run-up shootout after 90 minutes had finished.2 Kubik scored the lone goal in game 2 in Denver, which sent the Fire on their merry way (details of this merry way will follow shortly).
Nashville had the good fortune of meeting the aforementioned 2020 Inter Miami team in the Eastern Conference’s play-in round, and then graciously saved us (and I mean us both, me because I would’ve had to write it and you because you would’ve had to have skimmed past it) the trouble of trying to determine whether to include them on this list on a technicality because of the discrepancy between a win in an ad hoc 7/10 play-in round as it relates to a win in the playoffs themselves by going on the road to defeat #2 seeded Toronto FC and MVP Alejandro Pozuelo on the hallowed ground of Rentschler Field of Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Connecticut. The match-winner came off of a late rebound by Daniel Rios following a truly impressive Hany Mukhtar run between three very gassed TFC defenders to get a shot off. The expansion Yotes’ miracle run finally came to a halt in added extra time in Columbus during the next round – Pedro Santos’ 99th minute winner robbed us of getting to see Nashville, the 7th-seed, hosting New England, the 8th-seed, in the Eastern Conference Final.
St. Louis has the opportunity to join a very exclusive club if they can win their first-round series against whomever accidentally finds themselves winning the 8/9 play-in round in the West – I’m guessing San Jose, but I’ve been constantly wrong about them this year. They’ll have the opportunity to join a club about as exclusive but even more prestigious if they can win out from there:
To Win Hardware:
1998 Chicago Fire, 2009 Seattle Sounders FC
To step into the writer’s studio for a moment,3 I really was hoping to make a big thing out of putting the 2007 Toronto FC team into this category due to a Canadian Championship win. I’d be like “It’s been a great season, but if they don’t at least win the Western Conference playoff bracket (which gets you a trophy), St. Louis can’t even sniff, let alone touch the heights to which Danny Dichio’s 2007 TFC team soared, like so many giveaway free seat cushions thrown into the Ontario sky.” I checked, though, and the Canadian Championship wasn’t first hosted until 2008, and a still-USL Montreal Impact team won the 2008 tournament anyway. So, no, there are simply two excellent teams left here, both of whom I’ve already covered to some extent in this piece.
Prior to their playoff exit in Houston, the 2009 Sounders had already won a trophy: The U.S. Open Cup. In September, they traveled out to RFK Stadium and defeated DC United, with Roger Levesque providing what would prove to be the match and tournament-winner in the 86th. The 2009 Open Cup win was the first of three straight that Seattle racked up to begin their history in MLS.
Then, finally, the gold standard among expansion teams: The 1998 Chicago Fire. The ‘98 Fire were champions of the US Open Cup and MLS Cup. It might be a bit odd to consider them an expansion franchise, founded so early on in the league’s history, but they started from scratch in 1998, entering into a relatively top-heavy league, and they beat a few of its best en route to winning the double. They beat the Columbus Crew, of Brian McBride and Stern John, with an Added Extra Time goal in the USOC final, beat the (retroactively awarded) Supporters Shield champions in the LA Galaxy, whose points-per-match average of 2.13 stood as the best in MLS history until it was broken by the 2021 Revolution, to win the West and make the league final, then finally beat DC United, who had a claim to the title of “Best Team in the Western Hemisphere” after defeating Brazil’s Vasco da Gama in the 1998 Copa Interamericana final, to win the MLS Cup.
I see some similarities between the ‘98 Fire and this St. Louis team: The Fire supplemented lesser-known but productive European attacking talent – Chicago had Piotr Nowak and Roman Kosecki, St. Louis has Lowen and Klauss – with otherwise unsung domestic players. Chicago had acquired Zach Thornton and Diego Gutierrez in the expansion draft, found CJ Brown and Ante Razov toiling in USISL D-3, traded with the Galaxy for Chris Armas, and leveraged Bob Bradley’s familiarity with Jesse Marsch dating back to their Princeton days to bring together a truly excellent team.
Much has, rightfully, been made of St. Louis’s penchant for finding players cast off by other MLS clubs: Orlando couldn’t get production out of Nicholas Gioacchini, Minnesota didn’t prioritize holding on to Aziel Jackson despite him making Next Pro Best XI in 2022, and Seattle couldn’t find first team minutes for Samuel Adeniran, but they’ve all found roles in which they’ve thrived in St. Louis this season. They’re atop a Western Conference in what seems like constant flux, but they’ll likely have to get through perennial contenders like Seattle and LAFC, proven knockout tournament winners like Houston and Vancouver, or the unknowable chaotic enigma that is the 2023 Portland Timbers – and then beat whomever progresses to the Cup final out of a loaded Eastern Conference – if they’re going to repeat what Chicago did 25 years ago. Regardless, no expansion team has ever set themselves up better in the regular season than St. Louis has in 2023.
Footnote: There’s not going to be another place for me to bring this up, but there was an astounding number of participants in that shootout who went on to quite successful post-playing careers. Three of them – Chicago’s Josh Wolff and Frank Klopas, Colorado’s Peter Vermes – are active MLS head coaches, two of them – Chicago’s Tom Soehn and Jesse Marsch – are former MLS head coaches (Soehn is currently with the USL Championship’s Birmingham Legion, Marsch is probably going to get another job in Europe somewhere soon), two of them – Chicago’s Zach Thornton and Colorado’s Wolde Harris – are current MLS assistants, and, just last summer, the Rapids’ Chris Henderson signed Lionel Messi to join the Inter Miami team on which he serves as Chief Soccer Officer.
Spiritually my writer’s studio will always be the Dunkin Donuts on 6th Street in Lawrence, Kansas, though it is not currently