Bradley Carnell creating a winning identity at St. Louis City with unique approach

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 15: Bradley Carnell Head Coach St. Louis City SC applauds the fans at the end of the game during a game between Inter Miami CF and St. Louis City SC at CITYPARK on July 15, 2023 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ ISI Photos /Getty Images)

St. Louis City SC head coach Bradley Carnell has implemented a unique approach to building the team’s success and fostered a thriving environment despite initial doubts by outsiders. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ ISI Photos /Getty Images)

Bradley Carnell has always been up for a challenge.

As a boy in South Africa he had dreams of being a goalie, except there was a glaring problem — he was too short. He tried though, eventually being persuaded to play left back.

The eager Carnell turned professional at 16 years old and enjoyed a playing career that spanned over 18 years, taking him from Johannesburg to Germany.

“As a player, you always look for a bit of balance in life. So to get away from the pressures in Germany, I loved racing cars and motor bikes,” Carnell told Yahoo Sports. “I did all my racing licenses in Germany. I like living on the edge a little bit, but behind a helmet or steering wheel. Just doing things that are pretty crazy. I like to push myself in certain ways.”

Now he’s still following that same thrill just in a much different way. He isn’t racing cars, although his eyes light up at the thought of it before he remembers his wife probably wouldn’t approve.

What he’s after now is a unique challenge that has landed him in a much quieter and peaceful life in St. Louis. And he’s loving it.

Carnell was appointed the first head coach of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion team St. Louis City SC on Jan. 5, 2022. Against suggestions from people telling him not to take the job, he did.

“They said the expansion job is one of the most difficult in any American sport, so good luck. I was like OK,” Carnell explained. “Then I met the ownership group, spoke to Lutz [Pfannenstiel, sporting director] about vision, passion and what we stand for. There was just too many similarities and synergy there for I think either party. Looking in hindsight, everything just panned out.”

Since he made that decision, City has become the best story in MLS this year behind Lionel Messi joining the league. They got off to a historic 5-0-0 start and later became the fastest expansion side to 25 points. They currently sit atop the Western Conference with 41 points and are the second-highest scoring team in MLS behind only Columbus.

You can go down the list and pull stats to quantify how tremendous the start in MLS has been for St. Louis. But the real story is at the core of how City was able to organically build from the ground up and is now reaping the benefits.

The staff used MLS Next Pro side St. Louis City2 as a test run in the 2022 season to formulate what 2023 would eventually look like for the inaugural MLS squad. To their advantage, City2 put together a great campaign and fell just short of the Cup in the final. But Carnell and Co. were mapping out the blueprint throughout those months as preparation and a preview of what was to come.

“When the lights are off, no one is watching,” said Carnell about the motto they followed. “We tried things, we were allowed to make mistakes, but ultimately we learned and grew as coaches and a club.”

They used that practice to forge ahead to the preseason where something instantly clicked. In their very first scrimmage against the Philadelphia Union, which played in MLS Cup just months prior, Carnell saw the vision come to fruition. There was a certain type of edge to his team and a will to compete. Despite the game ending in a 2-2 draw, that’s all he wanted to see in order to keep building.

ST. LOUIS, MO - JUNE 11: Nicholas Gioacchini #11 of St. Louis City SC with the ball during a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and St. Louis City SC at CITYPARK on June 11, 2023 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Nicholas Gioacchini leads St. Louis City SC in scoring with eights goals so far in the team’s inaugural season. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

City’s balanced approach making waves in MLS and St. Louis

It was always about creating an identity similar to the pressing, against-the-ball flow deployed by the New York Red Bulls.

That was where Carnell got his start in MLS as an assistant coach, getting to learn from peers he deeply admires such as Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas. Carnell took those lessons, along with the challenge of stepping up as an interim head coach for 14 games in New York and leading the Red Bulls to the playoffs, and added it to his recipe.

So maybe people were shocked when St. Louis got off to that blazing start, but Carnell surely wasn’t. He knew exactly what they were cooking up all along when the lights were off, despite some media members predicting they would only win four games all season.

That still gets a laugh out of him.

St. Louis has been playing with house money, but they aren’t going to “put on their sunglasses and bucket hats” and cruise the rest of the way. Carnell and Co. are constantly coming up with mechanisms and metrics to keep the flame burning and incentivize the team in different ways. Being in first place is of course nice, only if you look at it that way.

“After matchday 17, we threw those first 17 games away. We said we were back at zero,” Carnell told Yahoo Sports. “Those 29 points we earned? I don’t care, they’re gone. It’s a new season right now and we’re third or fourth on the table with Real Salt Lake on top.”

It’s a unique and even-keeled approach that has reverberated throughout the franchise. That’s why despite losing star designated players like João Klauss and Eduard Löwen for some time due to injuries, the team didn’t miss a beat.

Nicholas Gioacchini, Aziel Jackson, Akil Watts and Indiana Vassilev have all stepped up. Kyle Hiebert, who was a City2 success story, has become a crucial part of the defense. Even homegrown teenager Miguel Perez has enjoyed unforgettable moments.

Goalkeeper Roman Bürki and defender Tim Parker, who were overlooked in prior clubs, have excelled tremendously and were both rightfully named MLS All-Stars. Parker scored the first goal in St. Louis City history. Bürki has seven clean sheets this season and has been arguably the best keeper in the league.

“We have principles that we want to bring on the field every week and we are doing really well working at that,” Bürki said. “It’s a very good feeling to be on this team. Honestly, it has been a surprise to me how well it has worked out.”

The amount of different lineups St. Louis has already rolled out this year illustrates the buy-in. If you look around MLS, many teams are reliant on some big-name stars earning copious amounts of money. Some for the better, some for the worse (looking at you, Toronto).

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 15: St. Louis City players celebrate a goal with Bradley Carnell Head Coach St. Louis City SC during a game between Inter Miami CF and St. Louis City SC at CITYPARK on July 15, 2023 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ ISI Photos /Getty Images)
St. Louis City players celebrate a goal with Bradley Carnell Head Coach St. Louis City SC during a game between Inter Miami CF and St. Louis City SC at CITYPARK on July 15, 2023 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Bill Barrett/ ISI Photos /Getty Images)

‘What is success in Years 1, 2 and 3?’

City doesn’t believe it needs to navigate in that manner because they’ve honed in on their way, and it’s working. They’ve already made CITYPARK one of the better home-field advantages in the league along the way.

“St. Louis has literally checked every box,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told Yahoo Sports. “The team is very successful on the field, the brand is so fan-friendly, their facilities are unbelievable.”

But Carnell’s humbleness always brings him back to focus.

When asked about being in a Supporters’ Shield race or early Coach of the Year conversation, he puts it all into perspective.

“I don’t put us into that bracket. Listen, there’s traditional top teams around the league — Seattle who always seem to peak at the right time, LAFC you have to take them into consideration. There’s a pool of teams that were not even there,” Carnell told Yahoo Sports. “For us it’s about a long-term plan. What is success in Years 1, 2 and 3?

“Short-term it’s about getting infrastructure, academy, style of play — check those boxes. Mid-term, be competitive — we’re checking that box as well. Now, long-term, can we be really successful? The goal is to be compared, one day, in years to come, to those great teams.”

It’s part of his mentality of leaving the jersey in a better place. The journey, he says, is not his, it’s the players’ path to do something special.

From South Africa, to New York, to St. Louis he has learned and changed a bit, but not too much. There are still traditions that live on like a cappuccino and chocolate croissant on gameday mornings, something he used to do back with the Red Bulls. There is still some superstition of outfit choices that coincide with winning streaks.

And that urge to embrace a challenge still exists. The lights are on and everybody is now watching.

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