Saint Louis FC's players celebrate earning the first berth in the USL Cup Playoffs in the club's history last October. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
Saint Louis FC had a breakthrough first season under Head Coach Anthony Pulis in 2018, reaching the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time behind an excellent home record (10-2-5) and a solid defense that recorded 12 shutouts in the regular season.
The one area where the side lacked, though, was in the attacking third where it registered only 44 goals in 34 regular-season games. That total ranked second-fewest of any side to reach the USL Cup Playoffs, while Kyle Greig’s 13 tallies accounted for almost one-third of that total on his own.
Finding additional firepower in the attack has been a huge priority for Saint Louis this off-season, most notably with the acquisition of El Salvador international Joaquin Rivas from Tulsa Roughnecks FC. Rivas notched 12 goals a season ago for the Roughnecks as he broke into his national team’s set-up, and subsequently scored his first goal in just his second appearance for La Selecta last November against Haiti.
With eight new additions to the club’s squad this offseason, there are multiple new options at Pulis’ disposal that include notable attacking additions alongside Rivas like former Colorado Rapids forward Caleb Calvert and former FC Cincinnati attacking midfielder Russell Cicerone. Here’s how those new weapons could be deployed in the new season.
Saint Louis was a consistent 4-4-2 team throughout the 2018 season, and while the numbers might look slightly different here with Joaquin Rivas slotted in as a central attacking midfielder behind Kyle Greig, there are going to be plenty of principals that remain the same from last year. Utilizing STLFC’s current roster, we see Guy Abend slide into the defensive midfield role in front of center backs Sean Reynolds and Sam Fink. Lewis Hilton could join the attack from a slightly more advanced midfield position when Saint Louis has possession and will drop back in alongside Abend defensively.
The important additions to this potential lineup are the two full backs as Paris Gee comes in at left back and Matt Bahner at right back.
In the graphic, we’re looking at the way this formation could work when STLFC is looking to attack the right side, which would see Bahner likely provide more attacking impetus down the flank than Phanuel Kavita did a season ago when positioned at right back. Bahner’s ability to join the attack would potentially free up Cicerone’s movement, allowing him to use his decisiveness in cutting into the penalty area. It would also create a passing network that would incorporate Joaquin Rivas, Hilton and Kyle Greig should space open centrally, or allow Bahner the chance to deliver for multiple options in the penalty area.
On the opposite side, the combination of Gee and Kadeem Dacres would generally be looking to invert to the center with both players naturally right-footed, but that would also open up chances to combine at the top of the penalty area with the creative Rivas, who should add a more consistent playmaking element alongside Hilton’s ability from set pieces.
Moving to a defensive back three could be a significant shift in approach for Saint Louis, but with the staggered nature of the midfield as laid out in the graphic it could prove an effective change of pace depending on the opponent. And while the initial lineup will look like a back three defensively, there would still be plenty of crossover from the regular back four the side has played to allow for the flex into a new formation.
In this version of the formation, we see Paris Gee moving over to serve as the right wingback, putting him on his natural side and allowing more potential interaction with Joaquin Rivas – with whom there was evident chemistry during the duo’s time in Tulsa. Austin Martz comes in as the left wingback, with the two-way solidity he brings providing some scoring threat down the left and the ability to cover defensively.
The key in this system would be both Gee and Martz recognizing when the other is going to join the attack and sitting back to allow STLFC to keep its defensive shape. If one gets caught upfield, the center of the field should be covered by Guy Abend and fellow offseason arrival Oscar Umar, while either Sean Reynolds (left center back) or Phanuel Kavita (right center back) shift over to cover the space vacated by either Gee or Martz.
With Abend and Umar serving as the midfield shield, the formation would provide more freedom for Lewis Hilton to get into attacking positions, supported by either of the wingbacks and Joaquin Rivas, which would aim to provide a supply of chances for Kyle Greig to finish. With Greig coming off a year in which he converted 30.95 percent of total shots – fourth-highest among double-digit goalscorers in the 2018 season – the veteran forward has proven more than capable of converting should his supply be consistent.
Over his time in in Tulsa, Joaquin Rivas showed himself capable in multiple attacking options, but while it would certainly make sense in the previous two examples to play him as a second striker to Kyle Greig, his natural left-footedness could make a wide position in Pulis’ favored 4-4-2 system one that allows the addition of Caleb Calvert to the lineup and another strong attacking threat in the opposing penalty area.
Rivas’ 10 left-footed goals were tied for second in the Championship a season ago, and in this system it would also allow him the opportunity to combine with Paris Gee, whose ability to delivery in-swinging crosses as a right-footed left back would be a plus for both Greig and Calvert, who both check in as solid aerial targets at 6-foot-2. On the opposite flank, Kadeem Dacres would provide balance and a good outlet for the side to use his speed on the counter attack, while still allowing Lewis Hilton to support from midfield.
There is a certain amount of risk associated with a formation like this – the level of defensive protection when an attack breaks down could be cause for concern, especially should Hilton and one of Gee or Matt Bahner have joined the attack – but in a situation where Saint Louis is going to have to deal with a strong defensive unit getting additional attacking weapons on the field should be the team’s prerogative.
As with anything this far out from the regular season, the three potential lineups listed above serve as only indicators of how this season might play out for STLFC. In addition to the incoming talent Saint Louis has added, young forward Albert Dikwa is someone that the side will likely have high expectations from after back-to-back selections to the USL Championship 20 Under 20 over the past two years and offers an exciting alternative in the attacking third with his speed and eye for goal.
What is almost certainly going to be key for STLFC in making the jump from a team that is capable of reaching the postseason to a team that can do damage once it gets there is its creativity when it gets the ball into attacking positions. Saint Louis recorded 80 chances created from set pieces in the regular season a year ago, the most of any team in the Championship, but ranked tied for 10th-fewest in chances created from open play. The arrival of players like Rivas, Calvert and Cicerone should help that cause, but it will be interesting to see how much the side is willing to risk in its efforts to achieve better attacking numbers in 2019.