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ARLIA: With Playoff Fate in the Balance, There’s No Rest for Saint Louis

By JOHN ARLIA -, 08/30/19, 3:16PM EDT


Sunday’s must-win against Hartford kicks off three-game homestand ahead of Birmingham clash

Saint Louis FC must put its poor run of form behind it and come together over its final 11 games if it wants to return to the USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Saint Louis FC

The seventh day is supposed to be a day of rest.

But on this Sunday, that can’t be the case for Saint Louis FC as it gears up for a must-win match against 17th-place Hartford Athletic at West Community Stadium.

Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ squad has won just one of its last 15 games in league play (1-8-6) and has subsequently slipped out of the Eastern Conference playoff places into 11th position.

After accumulating 17 points over its first eight games of the season – a run that featured impressive wins over Indy Eleven and at Nashville SC as well as draws against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – it’s safe to say that Saint Louis has lost its way.

Part of the reasoning for that can be attributed to the club’s run to the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which brought glorious moments but also a crowded fixture list. New Mexico United, which sat atop the Western Conference standings earlier this season and is now fighting to stay above the playoff line, would likely point to the same cause.

It doesn’t matter now.

What does matter is how Saint Louis (and New Mexico to a similar extent) responds to adversity.

I understand it’s probably hard to find inspiration when you’ve won just once in league play since April 27, all the while watching threats to your second consecutive postseason appearance leapfrog you in the standings like Birmingham Legion FC has over its eight-game unbeaten run.

Saint Louis FC captain Sam Fink celebrates scoring the winning goal late in a 1-0 Round of 16 victory over MLS side FC Cincinnati. | Photo courtesy Saint Louis FC

But if I were to offer any glimmer of hope to Pulis, Saint Louis and its fans, I’d point to last season.

The club that had consistently come up just a few results short – STLFC missed the postseason by eight points in 2015 and 2017 and just six points in 2016 – finally overcame its biggest obstacle in 2018. And it’s not like last year’s squad had the start that, say, this season’s Phoenix Rising FC has had and then cruised into the postseason.

STLFC earned its place down the stretch.

The club fought tooth and nail over the final two months, earning a massive 4-3 road victory over fellow postseason contender the Swope Park Rangers on September 15 and a 2-0 home win over San Antonio FC the following Saturday to edge ahead of their closest rivals to the final two playoff positions.

Well, a similar opportunity is about to present itself for STLFC this season, and it starts on Sunday.

Saint Louis, which suffered a 2-1 defeat in Hartford back in June, will have to turn the tables on the expansion side in the opener of a three-game homestand that spans just seven days. From there, contests with likely playoff-bound Ottawa Fury FC (Wednesday) and Nashville SC (Saturday) await.

And while a minimum of six points is likely required (ideally seven) to consider this stretch a success with STLFC sitting four points behind the 10th-place Charleston Battery and seven points behind ninth-place Legion FC – with two games in hand on the latter – there’s reason to believe that return isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Hartford Athletic claimed a 2-1 victory over Saint Louis FC in the first ever meeting between the two clubs on June 8. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic

A big key to that will be home-field advantage – STLFC went 10-2-5 on its home turf last season and has lost just once in 10 home contests this season (4-1-5) – while another factor is a confidence boost that could potentially come from taking care of Hartford on Sunday.

As we’ve seen with Saint Louis lately, that won’t necessarily be straightforward, but it will be essential. If Pulis’ side can get that victory and pick up a few points against Ottawa and Nashville, that will set the stage for a massive -- and potentially spooky -- playoff six-pointer against Birmingham Legion on Friday, September 13th.

While Saint Louis may not be favored to go to Birmingham and take three points from that game, Pulis will have confidence that his side has enough experience in road games of that magnitude to win them like it did against Swope Park at the same stage of last season.

And with four of its final seven games at home after that, Saint Louis could put itself in position to climb out of this hole and back into the postseason.

It can happen. Saint Louis just needs another staple of the seventh day: faith.

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