A Closer Look At St. Louis CITY SC’s Decision To Fire Bradley Carnell

Bradley Carnell will always occupy a special place in St. Louis CITY SC history. The club’s first head coach played a foundational role in CITY’s early success, leading it to the top of the Western Conference while quickly ingratiating himself to the St. Louis region during an unforgettable inaugural season in 2023.

But the good will earned during that initial campaign has run dry.

CITY announced Carnell’s dismissal on Monday morning—two days after the club blew an early lead and lost, 4-3, at Vancouver to extend its winless stretch to nine consecutive games. It’s been a trying season for the club, and injuries and player absences tell only part of the story. Poor results, stagnant development, and stale messaging led CITY officials to oust Carnell nearly five months to the day that the club proudly announced a contract extension for the coach. With CITY nine points behind the Seattle Sounders in its chase for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, there’s a sense of urgency to get this season turned around.

As CITY faces a must-win home match against San Jose on Wednesday night—and with four games before the summer transfer window opens—sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel recognizes that his club is quickly running out of time to realize one of its main objectives: postseason soccer.

“We had a goal to make the playoffs at the end of the season,” Pfannenstiel said. “Right now, it looks like that goal is in danger. Unfortunately, it’s part of professional sports—professional soccer—that you have to make this decision, and we felt this was the right time to make the decision.”

During Monday’s press conference, Pfannenstiel and CITY president and general manager Diego Gigliani outlined the factors that led them to sack Carnell. Lousy results were obviously part of the equation, and both men lamented how CITY leads MLS with 10 draws. Several of those ties could have gone St. Louis’ way, and while a rash of injuries has prevented the club form operating at full strength for virtually the entire season, Carnell’s attempts to devise creative solutions and steer CITY in a positive direction fell flat. In his final match as coach on Saturday, Carnell was left with a roster that forced him to field a back four that did not include a single traditional center back. The formation was an unmitigated failure and contributed to another frustrating result in a season full of them.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the performances,” Pfannenstiel said. “We didn’t win enough games this season. We didn’t pick up enough points.”

Pfannenstiel and Gigliani both stressed that the decision to oust Carnell was one that they did not take lightly, especially given Carnell’s impact on the club’s foundation after his hiring in January 2022. But dating to the start of last summer’s Leagues Cup break, CITY has logged only eight wins to go along with 16 losses and 13 draws—dismal production no matter the circumstances.

One of the biggest issues from Carnell’s tenure was the lack of development for the team’s key depth pieces. For example, St. Louis needed players such as Aziel Jackson and Sam Adeniran to continue the growth that earned both international attention in 2023. Jackson and Adeniran, however, struggled to pick up where they left off—each of them becoming lightning rods for scrutiny. Jackson seemingly lost effectiveness on the ball, and he was recently traded to Columbus so that he could attempt a fresh start. Carnell’s efforts to build Adeniran into a more complete forward didn’t work, resulting in the striker twice being dropped from the roster.

CITY’s interim coach, John Hackworth, led the team through training on Monday, welcoming Adeniran back into the fold. With an MCL strain sidelining João Klauss for at least the next six weeks, CITY is desperate for a spark in its attack. That means Adeniran, who continues to be involved in transfer and trade discussions, could be part of CITY’s roster on Wednesday. Pfannenstiel says he’s leaving the decision to play Adeniran up to Hackworth.

Hackworth will have to deal with many of the same selection issues that plagued Carnell’s tenure this season. That said, Pfannenstiel and Gigliani are hoping that a new instructional voice could be part of the solution for turning all of those draws into wins. Gigliani knows how hard this turnaround will be on the players, staff, and employees that interacted with Carnell daily. He opened Monday’s press conference by thanking the Carnell family for their impact on the club before expressing his hope that fresh ideas will move the needle in the right direction.

“Everyone is professional,” Gigliani said. “They know they have a responsibility and a job to do. We are taking this decision now because we look to the future. We’ve got 14 games to go, and we want everyone to be able to close this chapter and move on and look forward to our game in two days.”

As Hackworth takes over ahead of Wednesday’s match in San Jose, the club doesn’t have time to mourn. CITY must hit the ground running before new additions Cedric Teuchert, Jake Girdwood-Reich, and Marcel Hartel, whose rumored transfer to CITY has still not been made official, can take the pitch beginning on July 18.

Pfannenstiel says CITY will take its time in finding the best replacement for Carnell, leaving open the possibility that Hackworth, who guided CITY2 to the MLS Next Pro Championship in 2022, will remain in the interim role through the end of the season. In the meantime, CITY isn’t punting on what’s left of 2024.

The club hopes Monday’s move is part of a reorganization that gets it back on track to realize its goal of playoff soccer this year and beyond.

“We are hopefully at the end of a pretty difficult string of matches,” Gigliani said. “Nine games in a row with no wins, [and] three points out of a possible 27 points in the last nine games is bad form. I think this feels like the moment where the decision had to be taken. At the same point, we are encouraged by the thought that we have 14 games to go. This isn’t poor form with five games to go. This is poor form with 14 games. That’s more than 40 percent of the league still pending. That’s why we felt this was the right moment.”

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