Soccer newsletter: New MLS team in St. Louis makes history regardless of success
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll look at efforts within MLS to make the league more diverse, at what Milan Iloski has left to prove with the Orange County Soccer Club (spoiler alert: the answer is nothing) and how the Galaxy appear to be slow walking into their season opener.
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But we start in St. Louis, where for the seventh time in as many seasons an expansion franchise will begin play in MLS. And Carolyn Kindle, the team’s co-owner and president, is so new to soccer she picked a metaphor from another sport to describe her mood less than a week before St. Louis City SC plays the first game in franchise history Saturday in Austin.
“The hardest mile of a marathon is the last one,” Kindle said. “So just trying to make sure we’ve got everything ready to go for that first match can be stressful.
“But it’s a good stress. Being a perfectionist, we want everything to go out as perfect as possible.”
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Regardless of how the first game comes out, the team will make history just by taking the field since St. Louis, under Kindle, is the only team in MLS with a woman as founding owner and president. The local nine-person ownership group includes tech entrepreneur Jim Kavanaugh and Andy Taylor, the chief executive of Enterprise car rental, as well as seven women from the prominent Taylor family, making it the only majority-female ownership group in MLS.
“We really didn’t even notice it until we started putting down all of the owners’ names on a piece of paper,” Kindle said. “And it was like, wow, you know, there’s a lot of Taylor women.”
But the idea never was to make a point about gender equality. It was to make a difference.
“We’re approaching this as a business,” said Kindle, who has become the face of the franchise. “So while we are passionate about the sport of soccer, we also come from two families that have very successful multibillion-dollar business here in St. Louis. What is most important to us is to run it like a business.
“I can’t specifically say that as a female ownership group there’s more pressure to win. I think bringing something that hopefully will have a multi-decade history in the region is what’s important.”
Which isn’t to say there haven’t been a few hiccups along the way. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, hit seven months after St. Louis City paid a $200-million expansion fee to become the league’s 29th team. That forced the team to push its first season back a year.
Even that proved fortuitous, however, because the delay allowed work to be completed on Citypark, the club’s 22,500-seat stadium in the city’s Downtown West neighborhood. With a price tag of $458 million, the privately funded stadium, which opened in mid-November with a friendly between St. Louis City 2 and Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, is the most expensive facility in MLS history. Adjacent to the stadium is the team’s training center and office complex, which cost ownership millions more.
The stadium, designed by St. Louis-based HOK and Snow-Kreilich Architects of Minneapolis, has a grass field, safe-standing supporter section, 60 suites or pitch boxes and seats as close as 15 feet to the touchline. No seat is farther than 120 feet from the field.
Many of those features were suggested by MLS rivals, whose stadiums Kindle visited.
“People were very, very transparent. ‘You absolutely need to make sure you have that; I would not do that,”” she said. “From Day One, MLS has really embraced us. I feel like I have a lot of support.”
All that was just business though, and Kindle, who remains president of Enterprise Holdings Foundation, the car rental company’s charitable arm, is comfortable in that world. Soccer is another matter, which is why Kindle has weekly meetings with sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel.
“It’s been so much fun learning about the game. We talked a lot about strategy,” she said of the tutoring sessions with Pfannenstiel, who played for 25 teams in 13 countries during a peripatetic career in which he made history as the only person to play professionally for clubs in all six FIFA confederations. At one point he played with LAFC co-president John Thorrington at Huddersfield Town in England’s Football League Second Division.
Pfannenstiel, who was a goalkeeper, has built his first team down the spine. Rather than construct his roster around big-name goal scorers, he made Bosnian national team defender Selmir Pidro the first signing and Switzerland’s Roman Burki the league’s only millionaire goalkeeper when he signed him to a contract worth $1.632 million last year, despite the fact the team didn’t play any games.
“When you look at the brand-new facility downtown, that’s a sign we want to build a strong team,” said Burki, who was named the team’s captain. “The owners, they did spend a lot of money on us, on the stadium or [training] facility, and that’s one more reason to give everything we have to work hard to make them proud.”
Burki spent the previous seven years with Borussia Dortmund, an iconic and successful German club with a 113-year history. There he inherited a culture. In St. Louis, he’s part of creating one.
“A new team, built out of nothing. That’s a little bit of history now that we are able to write,” he said. “And I hope that we make a lot of people, fans, the city, proud.”
That’s what Kindle hopes as well. St. Louis has a long, proud soccer history dating to 1882, but it hasn’t had a first-tier men’s pro team since the NASL Stars moved to Anaheim and became the California Surf in 1978. MLS went through 31 teams in 30 cities before eventually granting St. Louis the rights to a team which, according to Kindle, makes the timing just right.
“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “When you pull this ownership group together and you have such a unique offering — it was majority female ownership, privately funded. And just some of the nuances here in the St. Louis region, that made it really sort of the perfect storm.
“I also think the city was ready to embrace the professional soccer team. The support that we’ve been given has been absolutely incredible and we still haven’t even played our first match.”
MLS strengthens efforts to become more diverse
MLS teams fielded players from 82 countries last season, making it the most diverse pro sports league in the U.S. Approximately 57% of its players were Black or Hispanic, more than 17% greater than the percentage in Major League Baseball.
But the coaching and front-office staffs? Not so diverse. Only three of the league’s 29 coaches are Black.
So the league decided to do something about that. Fifteen months ago it enhanced its hiring and recruitment policies, which required teams to interview at least two candidates from underrepresented communities, one of whom had to be Black, for each open sporting position. Clubs also had to submit details of vacant sporting positions to the league’s Diversity Policy Portal, allowing MLS to create a database that includes more than 300 qualified candidates from underrepresented communities.
The results of those changes have far exceeded expectations. In the first year, 51% of MLS sporting positions were filled by applicants from underrepresented communities. A record six teams have female presidents.
MLS now is doubling down on initiatives to support the diversity hiring policy, announcing Tuesday the creation of MLS Advance, an invitation-only professional development and networking series for sporting-role candidates inside and outside the league’s ecosystem. Through the program, MLS said it will be able to build a diverse global database of candidates for sporting jobs, create an opportunity for job candidates to network and create relationships with MLS decision-makers and provide year-round professional development programming and support.
“Our goal is to be more equitable,” said Tunde Oguntimein, an MLS vice president. “That’s why we focused on having one of those finalist candidates be Black. Then we also had to define what underrepresented means. Obviously there’s Black, Hispanic, but LGBTQ+ in that. Women are in that underrepresented group. And Canadian First Nations.”
The man overseeing the new initiatives is Sola Winley, who is finishing his second year as the league’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Before joining MLS, Winley worked with the NFL, at A&E Networks and ran his own consulting and advisory companies that focused on executive coaching, diversity and inclusion strategies. He came to MLS less than a year after George Floyd died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, touching off a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide.
That summer more than 170 MLS coaches, players and staff created Black Players for Change (BPC) to push MLS commissioner Don Garber to expand minority representation and opportunity.
“They, along with other stakeholders, were part of the driving force behind Sola being here and behind the commitments we made as a league,” Oguntimein said. “Obviously, the murder of George Floyd was big worldwide and that made organizations look at themselves more closely and see where they need to improve in terms of racial equity, specifically for the Black community. The commissioner spent a lot of time with BPC, hearing their feedback on their experiences, things they would like to see changed. He also spent a lot of time with this internal staff at the league office. And then based off of those conversations, made a bunch of commitments that we’ve been working on ever since.
“MLS Advance falls under the soccer upward mobility commitment that we made in terms of just making our sport, our league more inclusive and diverse on the sporting field and off the field.”
The numbers show the league has both made progress in that, yet it remains far short of equal representation, especially in terms of the Black, female and LBGTQ+ employees.
“We’re trying to make progress every day,” Winley said. “But it implies that there’s a destination. And there’s not. The work and human evolution is continuous. So we attempt, every day, to make progress on that.
“Our job is to make Major League Soccer more inclusive and more representative. That’s the work that we’re doing, and so we’re focused on that.”
Iloski focused on getting better with OCSC
Milan Iloski led the USL Championship with 22 goals for the Orange County Soccer Club last season, breaking the team record and missing the league mark by three. At 23 going on 24, there’s little left from him to prove for himself, his club or in the second-division league.
“I mean, yeah, it seems like that,” said Iloski, the youngest 20-goal scorer in league history.
The team thought the same thing. But when it couldn’t get what it wanted in return for Iloski, OCSC, which had a contract option, choose to keep him, meaning Iloski will be back on the field when the team opens the season March 11 at the Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine.
And if Iloski is disappointed by that, he’s doing a great job of hiding it.
“You could be playing at worse places than Orange County Soccer Club, so I’m happy to be back,” said Iloski, who grew up 70 miles south of Irvine in Escondido and played college soccer 50 miles north at UCLA. “I always want to show I’m consistent. I want to show I can have a similar season to last year, and hopefully even a better one.”
Generally all Iloski has needed to prove himself is an opportunity. In college, he scored 23 times in 46 games, including a conference-leading 17 goals as a junior. He left after that season to turn pro with Real Salt Lake, but played just two minutes in two MLS seasons before being let go in 2021.
In Orange County, where he was reunited with his brother Brian, he got the chance to play again and made a career-high 31 appearances en route to a Golden Boot.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to go back to MLS, at the very least,” Iloski said.
That’s why he was hoping for a winter transfer.
“For any athlete, if you have success at one level you want to see if there’s anything that you can do to challenge yourself further,” he said. “For me that was the main desire. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be part of the club. I’ve always loved the staff and players, and the fans have been incredible to me since the first day.”
Returning to OCSC brings its own set of challenges, though. After winning the league championship in 2021, Orange County fell to the bottom of the 13-team Western Conference table last season with a 7-14-13 record. Owner James Keston and Oliver Wyss, the team’s president of soccer operations, have tried to fix that this winter by bringing in eight new players, including three who played in first-division leagues in Europe. Gone are veteran defender Michael Orozco, a former U.S. international, and forward Cubo Torres, a former Mexican national team player.
“I’m just excited for a fresh start,” Iloski said. “We have a great roster and a lot of great additions to the coaching staff I’m excited about. So yeah, I think we’ll have a great season. I want to win and if that results in me moving on to a higher level, then that’s great. And if not, I could have a great season with a lot of people that I care about and get to win some games.
“It’s not the worst thing I get to come back here. I get to play another, hopefully, 35 games if I can stay healthy. I have no doubt I’ll be able to score goals and I have no doubt that our team is going to bounce back and we’re going to win some games.”
Galaxy not ready for prime time
If you start counting from the final whistle of the team’s playoff loss last Oct. 20, the Galaxy have had 4½ months to get ready for their opening game this season. And openers don’t get much bigger than Saturday’s clash with LAFC, the Galaxy’s local rival and the defending league champion. The game, the marque matchup on the first weekend of MLS’ new broadcast package with Apple TV, will be played in front of an expected crowd of about 80,000 at the Rose Bowl, the stadium the Galaxy called home for their first seven MLS seasons.
Yet Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said last week his team won’t be ready.
“We’re not a complete group yet,” he said. “We’re trying to work through the process and not get too starry-eyed by the fact that we have one big game at the beginning of the season. It’s still a 34-game season and Game 1 has the same amount of points as Game 2, 5, 20 and 33.
“So we want to make sure we work through this process and build our team for the long haul and build a team that can compete for a championship.”
Despite the incomplete roster, the Galaxy fared well in the preseason, beating Toronto 2-1 last Saturday to finish 3-3-1. Former USMNT midfielder Tyler Boyd, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition so far, officially signed a one-year contract Monday. He’ll be expected to, at least temporarily, fill the void left by the departures of Kévin Cabral, who was traded to Colorado, and Samuel Grandsir, who left the team and returned to France for personal reasons.
The Galaxy reportedly are working on signing at least one more midfielder and appear close to landing a replacement for right back Julián Araujo, a two-time MLS All-Star who moved to Barcelona on a transfer last week. Vanney confirmed the team is talking with Fluminense’s Lucas Calegari regarding a loan deal with an option to buy. The negotiations were said to be advanced, with the 20-year-old Calegari expected to join the team on a U22 initiative signing, but it’s unlikely the Brazilian will be available for Saturday’s opener.
“We’re very close to closing some of these holes,” the coach said. “We’re in negotiations for all of them. It’s just working through the process. So we’re hoping within days that we’ll start to put names into these places and start to give some clarity and to what that might look like.”
The fact that Vanney is working through that process 18 weeks after the end of last season and four days before the start of the next one isn’t a good omen. Getting the players signed, working through the immigration details and getting them comfortable with the way the Galaxy play could take another couple of weeks.
And time isn’t a luxury the Galaxy have. Among the penalties leveled against the team for violating MLS salary rules in the 2019 acquisition of Cristian Pavón is a ban on transfer signings during the summer window. Last year Vanney added midfielder Gaston Brugman and Riqui Puig and defender Martín Cáceres during that window, fueling a late-season surge that carried the team to the playoffs.
So while Vanney isn’t putting any undue importance on the opener, he acknowledged a slow start would be hard to overcome.
“Every point matters,” he said. “There’s no giving away points. That’s not the objective.
“We certainly have a couple of pieces that we want to bring in that will push our level higher. The team will make a little evolution from where it was last year, but we have the capacity to be every bit as good or possibly better.”
There’s a lot of work to be done to make that happen.
And finally there’s this …
Mallory Swanson (nee Pugh) scored the only goals as the U.S. women’s national team opened the SheBelieves Cup with a 2-0 win over Canada and a 1-0 victory over Japan. The U.S. will play Brazil in its final game of the three-match tournament Wednesday. The three goals gave Swanson six scores this year and at least one in each of her last five games. ... John Henry, head of Fenway Sports Group, has ruled out selling EPL club Liverpool although he is searching for new investors. Last fall reports said the club was up for sale and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley had been retained to help with that process.
Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.
In case you missed it
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“I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to develop within this institution, from the academy to the first team, with the biggest club in MLS. Los Angeles Galaxy will always be part of my story and it has been an honor to share these experiences with all of you.”
Former Galaxy defender Julián Araujo, in his goodbye message to the team and its fans after joining Spanish club Barcelona last week.
Until next time...
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All about the beautiful game
Go inside the L.A. pro soccer scene and beyond in Kevin Baxter's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.