Ahead of the Bayer 04 USA Tour 2022, Lutz Pfannenstiel, sporting director at St. Louis CITY SC, paid a visit to Leverkusen. In an interview with bayer04.de, the 49-year-old, who played professional football all over the world in his playing career, talked about the forthcoming visit of the Werkself to Missouri, the newly built stadium in St. Louis and the enthusiasm for football in the USA.
Mr Pfannenstiel, the Werkself are shortly off to St. Louis. Fernando Carro, the Bayer 04 CEO, has described the tour as “another milestone” for the Werkself. How important is the five-day visit of the Bundesliga club to your club and the city?
Pfannenstiel: The Bayer 04 visit is something very special for us as a club. The game against a team in the Champions League, the associated opening of our new stadium plus the great anticipation felt by Americans – the momentum could hardly be better.
St. Louis CITY Soccer Club is in the MLS for the first time in the coming season from February 2023. What makes this club stand out and what are your objectives?
Pfannenstiel: St. Louis has always been the football capital in the USA. SC in our club name not only stands for Soccer Club, but also Soccer Capital. After many years, we have finally managed to attract an MLS franchise. Our ambitions are correspondingly big. We don’t just want to be in the league but also compete and be successful in the first season.
The St. Louis squad has several former players from the Bundesliga. How were you able to persuade players like Roman Bürki to join your project?
Pfannenstiel: On the one hand, the MLS that has become more and more popular in the past few years and has, above all, improved enormously in quality on the pitch in the recent past. The days of the so-called PR players, that is older players who were at the end of the careers in the USA in their mid-thirties, are over. The players coming to the MLS now are full of energy and they want to achieve great success. We were able to convince players like Bürki of our project and the incredible enthusiasm for sport in the city also contributes to St. Louis being a place where players can feel at home. We brought in a number of players six months before the start of the season. That’s unusual. But that gave them the chance to acclimatise in peace and quiet.
The sporting highlight of the Bayer 04 USA Tour 2022 is the friendly between Bayer 04 and St. Louis CITY Soccer Club. The brand new CITYPARK Stadium is being opened by this inaugural event. A big step forward for your club and a special opponent.
Pfannenstiel: More than that. Bayer 04 have an incredibly strong squad that plays attractive football. Being able to test ourselves against a Champions League team is something very special for us. The timing of the tour fitting in so well with the World Cup in Qatar is perfect for all sides involved. We can give our fans and spectators a taster before the winter break of what they can expect in the new MLS season – that’s great.
How important is the St. Louis CITY SC project and the construction of the CITYPARK Stadium for the city?
Pfannenstiel: Football is very popular in the city including with children and teenagers. For example, four clubs from St. Louis are in the highest university league. That’s something very special in a city of only three million inhabitants. We have also succeeded in building a stadium and training ground in the city centre. That will also help to bond the people in St. Louis and the club.
In addition to the friendly, PR events are planned as is involvement in community projects and a cultural programme. Can you explain life here in St. Louis and surroundings to Bayer 04 fans…
Pfannenstiel: St. Louis is a very friendly and open-minded city with hot summers and cold winters. And a city of sport with a lot of people enthusiastic about sport. We have the Cardinals in baseball, one of the best teams of all time, and the Blues in ice hockey who won the Stanley Cup in 2019. The Bayer 04 people will really feel at home here – also experience first hand the enthusiasm for sport in St. Louis at a college basketball game and a NHL ice hockey match
More and more outstanding players are joining the MLS in the USA. In the past that included David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The league now has football stars like Douglas Costa, Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and the former Leverkusen player Chicharito. What makes the MLS so attractive for top players?
Pfannenstiel: The league has completely changed its buying behaviour. After the time of big names, we now have a Switzerland international at the best age in Shaqiri in Chicago and two Italian players in Insigne and Bernardeschi in Toronto. In addition, we have more young players in their early to mid twenties from South and Central America. That means the league is improving in terms of quality – and the interest in the MLS is growing amongst players.
While football is the number one sport in Europe, American football, basketball and baseball are more popular in the USA. What’s your assessment of the development of football in America and the enthusiasm for the most popular sport amongst Europeans?
Pfannenstiel: Turnover, spectators – all the numbers are going through the roof in the MLS. Of course, there’s big competition from the other sports in the USA. But the whole thing is very dependent on the state and the city. We have baseball and ice hockey in St. Louis but no NBA basketball team or American football side in the NFL. And, in every big city, I think there is room for at least three popular sports. Basically, the significance of football and the MLS will increase domestically and internationally. The Americans are cultured in terms of sport and they always want to be the best – it’s the same in football. In the medium term, they want the MLS to compete with top five leagues in Europe. The fact the World Cup is coming to the USA in 2026 will be incredibly helpful.
What’s the response been like to the friendly against Bayer 04?
Pfannenstiel: The match is sold out, all 22,500 tickets went quickly. There is huge enthusiasm in the city. The euphoria in the region is almost unstoppable with the top game against Bayer 04 coming at exactly the right time. We are looking forward to a great game and the atmosphere in our new stadium. That will herald a new era for us.
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