Saint Louis FC's Russell Cicerone drinks from the St. Louligans' Man of the Match bucket after STLFC's 1-0 victory against Nashville SC on Saturday, the club's third win in a seven-day span. | Photo courtesy Nick Dawes / Saint Louis FC
FENTON, Mo. – It was a sprint disguised as a marathon.
Three games in seven days, and in some way the feeling that Saint Louis FC’s season was on the line.
So when Russell Cicerone’s left-footed finish from just outside the top of the penalty area picked out the bottom-right corner of the net on Saturday night – lifting his side to its third consecutive victory in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 5,284 fans at West Community Stadium – the renewed sense of optimism that this was a side bound for the USL Championship Playoffs flowed throughout the venue.
“Tonight, the performance was fantastic,” said STLFC Head Coach Anthony Pulis. “To perform at that level, to show that amount of energy and enthusiasm and intensity and willingness and urgency over the whole game was immense, and I’m so proud of the guys for what they’ve put in tonight to get another three points.”
The past seven days could certainly have felt like a rebirth for everyone around the club. The remarkable highs of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run that saw Saint Louis defeat both the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati on its home turf were great, but they had become overshadowed by the league form that saw STLFC win only once in the league between the start of May and the end of August. Those were 15 long games that threatened to tarnish the memories the middle of summer.
After earning three victories of escalating levels of difficulty – first against 17th-place Hartford Athletic on September 1, then eighth-place Ottawa Fury FC on September 4 and then second-place Nashville SC on September 7 – the faith can be restored that the playoffs are in sight.
And maybe it was appropriate that Cicerone was the one to seal the final win of the week. The exciting winger had his own struggles throughout Saint Louis’ downturn, recording only one goal in 14 games. His fifth goal of the campaign, showing patience to cut to his left and avoid a chance being blocked at the top of the penalty area, was a brilliant moment that brought STLFC’s fans to their feet.
“I’m really pleased for Russell because he’s been knocking at the door, he’s been getting into some really good positions and hasn’t quite been able to get that finishing touch. Tonight, it was a great finish,” said Pulis. “We created some really good opportunities tonight, Masta Kacher had a couple in the first half, Collin [Fernandez] had the one in the second half, and then you wonder is it one of those nights again where we’re not clinical enough to take that chance to get the three points? Thankfully he comes up with a great bit of magic, fantastic bit of play around the box.”
Saint Louis FC's Russell Cicerone shoots home the winning goal for his side on Saturday night against Nashville SC. | Photo courtesy Nick Dawes / Saint Louis FC
Cicerone was the third player that got to be the hero for the week, following Kyle Greig’s brace that earned a 3-2 win against Hartford last Sunday before Tyler Blackwood’s first goal for STLFC earned the win against Ottawa on Wednesday. That was always the way it was going to need to be, with 17 players starting across the three games and only three – defenders Sam Fink, Phanuel Kavita and Sean Reynolds – starting and going the full 90 minutes in all three.
“Three games in [seven] days at this level, you can’t ask a lot of players to do that, so it was always the plan to rotate,” said Cicerone. “I know I rested Wednesday night, I came in off the bench so I was a little more fresh today. … When some of the main guys came in off the bench it gave us a little bit of a spark, that’s when we got the goal. Everybody in our depth chart can do the job, but with the squad we’ve got right now we’re looking very good.”
Cicerone’s goal brought the topper to what had already been a celebratory night at West Community Stadium. St. Louis Scott Gallagher Academy alumni Tim Ream and Josh Sargent were on hand, in town for the United States Men’s National Team’s contest in the city on Tuesday, as was the Stanley Cup won by the St. Louis Blues earlier this summer. Former U.S. Men’s National Team member Alexi Lalas – set to broadcast the United States’ game with Uruguay for FOX on Tuesday – presented Cicerone the Man of the Match bucket of beer in front of the St. Louligans.
There’s still a long way to go if STLFC is to take home its first silverware in club history – next Friday's clash with ninth-place Birmingham Legion FC at BBVA Field figures to be the biggest of the season for both clubs – and the 11th-place Charleston Battery staked their own claim to a playoff place with Sunday’s victory against Indy Eleven, pulling within a point of Saint Louis with a game in hand as the week begins.
But the momentum the club saw go missing for four months now appears to have returned, and Saint Louis has no intention of slowing down.
“Every one of the players, I couldn’t be more proud of them for the work they’ve put in the last seven days,” said Pulis. “We give them the information and then we trust them to go over the white line and execute, and they’ve done that fantastically well over the course of the last three games. Now it’s important we keep that going.”