City SC will start season without defender Joakim Nilsson |

Defender Joakim Nilsson, part of the spine of St. Louis City SC, the key players who play in central positions on the field, will miss the start of the season after recently having surgery to clean up his injured knee.

“We’re going to start assessing him at the end of May,” City SC coach Bradley Carnell said Sunday, “and then get that question again, where are we with Nilsson. He’s got time now to totally recover. I know we are on the right track with him now. … He’s not even a question mark right now.”

City’s season starts at the end of February, so Nilsson could be out three months. He had injured his knee in a match for his native Sweden in May, and the initial decision was that it would heal with rest and rehab. He moved to St. Louis in the summer and worked with the team, but he was the one player among the team’s early arriving European players who did not get in a game with City2, the team’s developmental squad. At the time, Nilsson thought it would be a close call as to whether he could be back before the MLS Next Pro season ended and said he was frustrated by missing time with what he saw as a minor injury but understood the situation. (“The most important thing is next year, and I want to be fit there,” he told the Post-Dispatch last summer.) But his situation did not improve, and the decision was made to have surgery in December.

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“It’s just a pity that he had a little setback,” Carnell said. “And then we decided to do the proper intervention before getting into the season and then all of a sudden, that it’s just a drag on and delays it further, so rather get it out now before. We actually saved two months on the back end maybe to hopefully progress his career for another five years or 10 years.”

Nilsson was one of the most experienced of the European imports sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel brought into his team, playing in Germany with Arminia Bielefeld, including two seasons in the Bundesliga, the German league, and also being part of the Swedish national team. At 28, he’s also one of the oldest players on City SC.

Nilsson looked likely to start at left center back, alongside Tim Parker. Expansion draft claim Jonathan Bell would be an option at that position, but he’s recovering from sports hernia surgery and could be training with the full team soon. In the team’s intrasquad scrimmage on Sunday, Kyle Hiebert played alongside Parker, though Josh Yaro, who with Hiebert formed an effective middle on the back line for City2 last season, is another option. They also have a trialist in camp, Lucas Bartlett.

“Let me get my coin,” Carnell said. “We’ve got full confidence in Josh Yaro, we’ve got full confidence in Kyle Hiebert, we’ve got a stud like Tim Parker. So I think we are in a very good space, whether we play a three-man back line or whether we play a four-man back line. I think we definitely have options, and we will not be any weaker going into the season. For sure, Joakim is an international fully fledged warrior. And we’d love to have him for the start, but we feel comfortable with the group that we have.”

“I honestly don’t think about it too much,” said Hiebert, “because if those guys were back, I’d be doing the same thing every day, working hard, competing, trying to do my best to help my team win every day. But yeah, there is an opportunity there, and so I’m excited.”

Hiebert was on the winning team on Sunday when City SC wrapped its first stretch of camp with a 40-minute intrasquad scrimmage at the team’s training facility downtown. In goals, the team directed by assistant coach John Miglarese defeated the team led by assistant coach John Hackworth 2-1, but in the system used by the coaching staff, which also gave out half-points for things like strings of completed passes or interceptions, the match ended in a tie. (The team’s other assistant coach, Elvir Kafedzic, officiated the game, while Carnell watched.)

Niko Gioacchini and Eduard Lowen (on a penalty kick) scored for Miglarese’s team and Jared Stroud scored for Hackworth’s. Midfielder Rasmus Alm left the game early because of what Carnell termed fatigue. The scariest moment came when Selmir Pidro and Akil Watts went for a high ball and Watts landed on Pidro, twisting his left leg beneath him, but after a while on the turf, Pidro got up and played the rest of the scrimmage.

“Obviously there’s a lot of things that are still choppy,” said Carnell. “We like a little bit of the chaos but as we start to file the product, things will be smoother. You can see now over all the exercises, you put it into a bigger space, and while we saw many great things during the building-the-pieces-of-the-puzzle progression to game day, it’s still a bit choppy, it’s still a bit rusty, which I’m perfectly fine with because we saw really good things and we saw some really glaring things that we need to improve on.

“You could see the energy. They covered tons of ground. Obviously toward the end, it started tapering down but it’s about setting thresholds every single day.”

“You could see it’s already some stuff starting to click,” said Hiebert. “I’d hope more for our team than theirs’, but I was looking for both, some combination play, guys knowing what each other want. … The more communication, the quicker you learn what guys want with the ball and without the ball.”

The team will take Monday off and train in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday before moving camp for 11 days to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

St. Louis City SC head coach Bradley Carnell, along with players Tim Parker, and Joshua Yaro discuss what it’s like to take the field for the first time as a team on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

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