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St. Louis City SC continue flying start: which MLS expansion team has had the best debut season?

St. Louis thumped Sporting Kansas City on Saturday and sit in third place in the East Conference, 12 games into their time in MLS.

St. Louis thumped Sporting Kansas City on Saturday and sit in third place in the East Conference, 12 games into their time in MLS.
Scott RovakUSA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

In the week that it was announced that San Diego would be the home to Major League Soccer’s 30th expansion team, the 29th decided they hadn’t quite had enough time in the limelight yet. Could St. Louis City SC have dreamed of having a better start to their first season in MLS?

St. Louis City bounce back after recent defeats

Bradley Carnell’s men, who made their league debut in February, began their inaugural campaign in superb fashion, winning their first five league matches to immediately storm to the top of the Western Conference as well as the overall table. Things have, inevitably, tailed off somewhat since then but, following back-to-back narrow defeats to Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire, St Louis bounced back to form on Saturday by trashing Sporting Kansas City at CityPark, the third time this season they have won a game by a four-goal margin.

This weekend’s results leave them in third place in the Western Conference, three points behind leaders Los Angeles FC, the reigning MLS Cup holders. They are also a point adrift of 2022 Concacaf Champions League winners Seattle Sounders but have played two games fewer.

Concacaf Champions League the target?

If we shift our attention to the overall MLS standings, they are in sixth spot (out of 29). Similarly, though, they have games in hand on four of the five teams above them and will move above Nashivlle SC, New England Revolution and the Sounders into third if they win them. That would be enough to secure a place in the Conacaf Champions League for 2023-24; not bad for a club that isn’t even four years old.

Which expansion has had the best debut season in MLS?

10 teams featured in the inaugural MLS season, with expansion beginning with the addition of Chicago Fire and the short-lived Miami Fusion in 1998. Since then, 22 different teams have joined the league at one stage or another. But which has performed best in their debut season and what do St. Louis need to achieve to take that record from them?

Early glory for Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo

Well, it’s a question that is not all that straightforward to answer given the way MLS has grown over the years. On paper, things are fairly clear. The Fire won the MLS Cup in their debut season in 1998, a feat which Houston Dynamo repeated in 2006. However, it both of those seasons, there were only 12 teams competing in the league. Still incredibly impressive achievements, of course, but you’d have to assume that the greater the competition, the more difficult it is to hit the ground running in such fashion.

Recent success stories in a bigger MLS

Perhaps, then, we should also take a look at more recent examples in a bigger league. Since MLS has expanded to 20 teams of more (which seems a reasonable size), three clubs have managed to reach the playoffs in the debut season.

Honourable mentions must go to Atlanta United (2017) and Los Angeles FC (2018), who made it to the first knockout round in the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs respectively. The Five Stripes, of course, went onto win the MLS Cup in their second season, while LAFC did so in 2022, their fifth campaign.

Nashville SC’s run to Eastern Conference semi-finals

But it is Nashville SC have enjoyed the best debut season of the more recent expansion teams. In 2020, they finished seventh out of 14 in Eastern Conference to qualify for the playoffs play-in round. There, they thumped Inter Miami to reach the first round of the playoffs proper, where they eliminated Toronto after extra time. Their journey, however, ended in the Conference semi-finals as they were defeated 2-0 by Colombus Crew, also after extra time.

So, if you’re old school, St. Louis City SC have to win the MLS Cup just to match the best ever debut season by an expansion team. However, perhaps it’s more realistic to compare them against more recent additions to a bigger league, in which case they don’t have to look too far back to fix their eyes on a target.