Lutz Pfannenstiel on St. Louis success, MLS vs. Bundesliga comparisons, and tapping Midwest talent

St. Louis City SC broke the record for best MLS start by an expansion team with a 4-0-0 start. Last weekend's 4-0 win at Real Salt Lake City made it only the third team with a 15-point start in five games after the 1996 LA Galaxy and 2012 Sporting Kansas City.

In mid-2019, MLS announced that the city with such a deep American soccer history would finally field a team in the league. The building of St. Louis City SC began in earnest with the hiring of German Lutz Pfannenstiel as Sporting Director in August 2020.

Pfannenstiel was famous for playing for more than 20 clubs on six continents. He established his management credentials as scout and head of international relations in 2011-18 for Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim.

In the buildup to St Louis City's MLS debut delayed from 2022 to 2023 because of the Covid pandemic — besides signing players familiar to him from his Bundesliga experience — Pfannenstiel laid the groundwork for the club's youth development system. That included the 2021 hiring as Director of Coaching former U-17 U.S. national team coach John Hackworth, who coached St. Louis City 2 to a 2022 MLS Next Pro runner-up finish, and is now also first-team assistant coach under Bradley Carnell.

SOCCER AMERICA: How does the season start compare to what your expectations were? Are you surprised at how well it's gone so far?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: A perfect start after four games [now five] isn't something we could expect. But I am not surprised that we're performing well and that our playing philosophy is being executed so well. We put a lot of work into the preparation and we signed players who fit our philosophy. We also had more time than other [expansion] teams. I'm very pleased with the way we're playing and so far the results are also very good.

SA: How would describe what the atmosphere is like at the CityPark Stadium? What is it like compared to Bundesliga games?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: It's an electric atmosphere of unconditional support. There's momentum in the city around professional soccer and that's created a great example of what it means to have "12th player" home advantage, which has helped us immensely. The stadium scene is very much like Europe. The games have been sellouts and the fans stay in the stands for 10, 15 minutes after the game, which is even cooler than in Germany, where some people leave right away or before the game is over. Our fans stay and celebrate with the team.

The way the stadium is designed, it's very intimate. It's so tight, you don't just look at a mass of people, you literally see the faces of the fans, direct eye contact. The makes it a very unique feeling.

Plus, being here in downtown, with thousands and thousands of people walking outside the stadium before the game, you always get goosebumps.

SA: Club President and CEO Carolyn Kindle leads the majority female ownership group — the first in MLS history and rare in any sports. Would you like to comment on the significance of that? Do you imagine your job would be in any way different if the club had traditional male ownership?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: For me, it makes no difference if I work with a female or male CEO. For me it's about the individual person, and Carolyn is doing a fantastic job. Her commitment to the city and the club I haven't really seen anywhere. I compare it a little with Hoffenheim and Dietmar Hopp, who put a big part of his life into professional soccer, doing some great things for the region, something great for the city.

She's doing something really big for the community. This is the main part. Mike, it's not just about the pro team. The pro team is, I would call it the Hochglanzproduckt, the product you see on the weekend. But every thing we do with the academy, with the community. That is the future of soccer in St. Louis and the ownership, especially Carolyn, is super committed to that. I really am deeply impressed.

When it comes to business side, obviously the Taylor family is very experienced and successful when it comes to business ventures. But one of the things that for me is very special is she doesn't have a big soccer background, but she is one of the best students when it comes to the game. It's really impressive how much she's learned about the game.

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[Editor's note: St. Louis SC CEO Carolyn Kindle is the granddaughter of Enterprise Holdings' founder, Jack Taylor, who named the company after the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier upon which he served in World War II. A St. Louis native, Taylor (1922-2016), started Enterprise Rent-A-Car in 1957. Enterprise Holdings also operates Alamo and National brands. Kindle is also the President of Enterprise Holdings Foundation.

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SA: You've brought Bundesliga expertise to Major League Soccer. How is your job different in MLS than it would be in Germany and do you think there are things the Bundesliga can learn from MLS?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: Obviously, you can talk a lot about not having relegation here, or having a playoff system here. In the Bundesliga, there is no salary cap. MLS has a salary cap.

I really enjoy working within a salary cap. It gives you a very clear idea: what can I do, what can I not do. In Europe, sometimes clubs are getting stretched because the market is squeezing them because other teams are spending more, and teams have the tendency to over-spend.

Here, everything is clear. You cannot overspend. You have clear rules with agents. The league is basically on top of everything and controls it in a very good way. For me, it is sometimes a more effective way of working than in Europe.

SA: Compare the style of play in MLS to the Bundesliga. For example, do teams differ more compared to each other than the 18 Bundesliga clubs may vary?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: Hundred percent. The United States is as big as a continent. You have different time zones. Completely different cultural areas. For example, in California you have a massive influx from Latin America. In Texas, lots of youngsters with Latin American background. Same in Florida. You go into other regions with players of different backgrounds.

There is a big variation. You have different influences from different kind of countries. And sometimes it's the coaching style.

And wherever you go, you see something else. One week you're playing in cold weather, snowstorm conditions. Another week it's warm weather. In Salt Lake City and Colorado, you've got high altitude. MLS is more of a continental competition than like a European national league.

João Klauss (left) has five goals and two assists after five games. The 27-year-old Brazilian was acquired from Hoffenheim, which he joined as an 18-year-old. Miguel Perez (right), who has one start and appeared in four game so far, was signed to an MLS Homegrown contract in February at age 17 after playing in St. Louis City's academy and seeing MLS Next Pro action for St. Louis City II.

SA: How would you describe St. Louis SC's playing style?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: In the Midwest, our playing culture, our playing style, combined with the resources we have, is our pressing, counter-pressing, an aggressive model of having a high intense kind of soccer, creating that organized chaos.

This is very much like what a team like Hoffenheim did, or Red Bull [clubs]. I don't really like the comparison to Red Bull too much. Yes, we have some Red Bull in us when we don't have the ball, but when we do have the ball, we at St. Louis City SC are different. We have our own style.

SA: How does U.S. youth development for the pros compare to Bundesliga?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: There are similarities when you look at the youth development. Something that impresses me here a lot is that you still have a lot of raw talent and you are able to find it and still mold it.

That's different in Germany where everybody plays soccer from a young age. Here you still find that diamond in a little later on because it's a multi-sport culture. They're athletes who play three sports and one day they decide which to pursue. The athleticism here is superb and the physical education they go through really impresses me.

You have a huge amount of great athletes here in this country and now especially with MLS Next and MLS Next Pro, you have a unique opportunity to have really good youth development. 

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SA: To what do you attribute the smooth transition to MLS of your foreign player signings?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: When you say adjust, yes, they did adjust well. But they didn't really have to adjust because they knew what we were going to ask them to do.

For example, Klauss [the team's leading scorer] came as an 18-year-old boy to Hoffenheim, where I brought him in. He was molded into the player he is, by the style we played there. So for him, to do what he does in St. Louis is nothing new. That's what he did in Hoffenheim. Then we sent him on loan to [Austrian club] LASK, where Oliver Glasner [now Eintracht Frankfurt head coach] was his coach who is a guy who came through the Red Bull school. So for Klauss, it's all pretty normal. For Roman Buerki being in Dortmund, it's all pretty normal. Even for Eduard Loewen, who knows that kind of soccer, it's nothing that requires a big adjustment.

Even if you look at a young player like Tomás Ostrák [23], who had a big influence from Steffen Baumgart in Cologne, where he needs to work hard, he needs to always be on his bike, he needs to fight. This is what was required of him as a young player in every training session. So for him being here now, working for Bradley Carnell, who is just as demanding and motivated to do everything in a perfect way. Our guys are used to that.

SA: You knew Bradley Carnell [South African who was New York Red Bull assistant coach before hired by St. Louis]  from Germany, where you were his instructor at the German federation [DFB] coaching school in Hennef ... 

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: He was in Germany for a long time. He was the same player as he is a coach. The playing style under Ralf Rangnick [at VfB Stuttgart] was to be aggressive as a wing back. As a young coach he worked under Rangnick, and that shaped him. He got his first license from me, back then the B license. I always followed him after that, including at Red Bull, where as interim head coach he changed the season around with a lot of commitment and a lot of detailed work. I knew before he did that he would for me the top candidate to come here. Because he knew the philosophy we with wanted to implement with the ownership.

SA: Obviously, it's early on in the St. Louis City youth pipeline — you said "it's paramount that local talent becomes a significant part of the team's future" — but how is that project coming along?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: The first time I spoke with Carolyn we spoke about we want to do something for the community. That's what it's all about at the end of the day. Give local kids a chance to be part of the game. Be key players for the first team. That is a process of five, 10, 15 years.

Having this soccer hotbed, plenty of talent in this region, we don't really want to pick guys from all over the country. We want to be local and regional.

When I arrived, I watched every high school game possible.

SA: How did you find Miguel Perez, the 17-year-old who appeared in the each of the first four games and started one?

LUTZ PFANNENSTIEL: We found Miguel Perez playing in an ODP game in Booneville, Missouri, in the middle of nowhere, next to a cornfield.

He went through our trial system. He did well with the U-17s, he worked hard. He worked himself into the under-23s, and MLS Next Pro last year. Hard work pays off.

He learned from the first moment he trained with us, he was doing it under our principles and he stuck with it.

If you asked the kid two years ago, "You think you'll become a professional footballer, he would have probably said, 'Not really.'" But he proved to everybody what he can do. And he's not the last player you will see from our region move through the program. There is a lot of talent here, like Caden Glover, who already signed a Homegrown contract [at age 15 in January].

Miguel Perez is a great example, but there will be more who will come through our system into the pro team.

Photos: St. Louis City SC

10 comments about "Lutz Pfannenstiel on St. Louis success, MLS vs. Bundesliga comparisons, and tapping Midwest talent".
  1. humble 1, March 28, 2023 at 1:12 p.m.

    That - is a top notch interview.  Thank you. Learned a lot about what is happening in St. Louis.  Was not aware of Pfannensteil's extensive background.  He visits HS's!  What is wrong with this man - does he not know HS is a 'waste of time' like so many local parrot!  Love this.  He has a very singular perspective.  I like people that he bring concepts, not templates.  He took the as-is and made it part of his to-be.  The community, including High Schools as part of your soccer eco-system.  This German is teach us about our own country!  Keep it going! 

  2. Wooden Ships replied, March 29, 2023 at 4:38 p.m.

    Humble, St. Louis is very unique in its support and following of High School soccer. Often, during the season (in the early 70's it was from November thru February), Soccer was front page of the newspapers and on occasion the entire front page. Competition included the football and baseball Cardinals, the Blues and the Hawks that relocated to Atlanta. Virtually all the high school coaches had a professional playing background. If I remember correctly, there was a moratorium on club soccer during the high school season. There are some of my former teammates still coaching high school, which puts them in the 60-70's age bracket. Today, the youth players are quite literally  6th generation descendants of the game.

  3. humble 1 replied, March 30, 2023 at 11:34 p.m.

    Before my soccer player was born, I lived and worked in St. Louis area for several years, I never read about or saw any soccer, except for the pitches I passed at SIEU that were always, empty. I was all over that city.  What you write is true, it's just that soccer exists in kind of a bubble. Since I come from outside the bubble, having played and followed basketball, and following baseball, and football played with hands, before my soccer player began forming, I know this well.       

  4. frank schoon, March 29, 2023 at 8:01 a.m.

    It looks like it's 'Thomas Tuchel' style ball has come to the MLS finally. Not a fan. I much rather would have seen a Brazilian influence or some influence that stresses finesse....Who knows maybe Jesse Marsch will come back to the MLS ...The Wins don't impress me, I worry more about what we're teaching the players and German influence is not what I want to see

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 29, 2023 at 4:49 p.m.

    This was my fear too Frank when I was hearing who the ownership group were considering. St. Louis would support any style and historically we've had varying styles due to our ethnic makeup. The current SC style is subject to change over time depending on the manager. The Lou has always had technical and turbo. For the average fan having a winning team so quickly is exciting, but I think most would appreciate a more possession style as well. Sounds like for now I'd have to call in a marker or two to go see a game. Hopefully some day as I rarely get back there. Not sure when I'll actually see a game on TV either. I'm up to my chin on streams now. 

  6. frank schoon replied, March 29, 2023 at 5:53 p.m.

    Ships, I's a start, but I know this town deserves a soccer team...

  7. humble 1 replied, March 30, 2023 at 11:18 p.m.

    I will only say, beggars can't be chosers.  There is more than style at work in St. Louis SC, this is what I was refering to more than to the style of play.  I have not watched a STL SC game.  For me, USA to be successful in soccer, must not confine it to large (MLS defined) metro areas, and elite academies.  This is top down.  A country can only be a soccer nation when the game comes from the bottom-up, grass roots, or no grass, dirt.  This feature of German soccer is what Pfannenstiel is bringing, the peoples game.  Reaching out.  Opening up.  This is what I mean. We are so far from being a soccer nation, and this is what we need to work on.  Picking a 'game model' or 'stlye of play' before we have the fundamentals this is putting the cart before the horse.  Anyway, back to style, I am not Uruguayan, but I follow Uruguay, so, I am fine with the pragmatic approach to the game.  Killing a game with a one goal lead properly, I am ok with this.  Thanks!    

  8. Steve Rustige, March 29, 2023 at 10:35 a.m.

    STL CITY's style of play is very, very direct.  Maybe 3 - 4 passes at most.  Very little playing out of the back.  Push the ball forward almost at all times and press the defenders.  This creates turn overs and goal scoring opportunities.  This works in the MLS because the skill level to absorb the press and counter is not there yet.  CITY has also been successful because they have a very organized defense.  And Burki had a couple outstanding saves in their last match against Salt Lake.  I miss the build up of a great goal, for sure, but I'm happy that we have a team in St. Louis that we can root for, and they are winning.  It's been a lot of fun!

  9. frank schoon replied, March 29, 2023 at 11:15 a.m.

    Steve , Good for you, St. Louis has a team, enjoy yourself. This town has had a great soccer history.  If it requires this type of ball to first bring in the crowds, so be it, but in the long run I would like to a better quality game...

  10. Ben Myers, March 29, 2023 at 3:43 p.m.

    Pfannenstiel had to be very careful about what he said.  Can't be critical of MLS or US soccer at large.  We'll leave that to Wynalda and others who have seen the ungainly and profiteering system of player development in this country.  He can't anger people by saying what he really thinks.  At the same time, he knows to carry forward a very positive attitude, because that is what works, after all.

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