Voices: Bradley Wright-Phillips

Whenever I watch João Klauss ↗, I see an MLS version of Dimitar Berbatov – the Bulgarian legend who starred for a decade in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Fulham.

They’re both strikers who, when you look at them, you’d think they shouldn’t have the touch they do, such soft feet, and creative passing. They shouldn’t be as deceptively quick as they are, either. But they’re strong finishers, composed in front of goal, technically sound and well-rounded. The game is smooth for them, it comes naturally.

Let me show you what I mean.

Last year, late in St. Louis CITY ↗’s record-setting expansion season, they stormed to a 4-1 win ↗ over Midwest rival Sporting Kansas City ↗. Klauss was named Player of the Matchday after scoring a brace, and his second goal said it all:

He collects the squared pass, takes a touch and it flicks up, a bobble of sorts. Yet Klauss doesn’t even think twice, doesn’t panic. He hits it straight on the volley, finding the top corner with a screamer. To be that big and have feet so soft, to improvise like that, it was technical genius.

I can guarantee you Klauss doesn’t mean to flick that up, but he understands the goalkeeper cannot be set, so if you can fire a quick shot off, you’ll likely score. You never mean to take bad touches, but the top strikers have a level of confidence where if your touch doesn’t go according to plan, you can problem-solve and find a path forward. Klauss knew that in that moment.

More needed in 2024

Now, can we start seeing more of that more consistently this year?

Klauss just scored his first open-play goal since September 2023, securing last weekend’s 1-0 win ↗ over Austin FC ↗. And St. Louis have a huge game up next, heading to rival Sporting KC on Saturday (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass ↗). It’s a rematch of last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Round One series, when St. Louis (the No. 1 seed) were stunned across two legs by Sporting KC (the No. 8 seed).

For everyone around St. Louis, that early exit still stings. The whole season you’re getting praise, breaking records for expansion teams left and right, probably punching above your weight. And then the games you have to win, you don’t have enough. And it’s against your rival? Ouch.

Now, teams know what to expect from St. Louis and they’re middle of the Western Conference. But here comes a game that can turn things around and inspire your season. A win away at SKC could seriously their fortunes and start to build momentum – and they need Klauss at his peak to get there.

Klauss knows it too – you could see it on his face last weekend when the ball finally went in. I’ve been there before and it’s a feeling of relief because, as a striker, your job is to score. When you’re not, you can doubt yourself. You can start to think you’re not a good striker, something’s broken. But you need to keep running into the same spots, keep taking shots, be confident, be brave. It’s hard, but that feeling of getting a goal after a long drought, it’s the closest thing to getting your first professional goal.

When I was in those ruts, I would spend a lot of time talking to my dad. I also had a friend who was essentially a football therapist and I’d talk to him. Or I’d go back and watch my old videos because you can start to question yourself, doubt starts to creep in. I always found, when I was frustrated in front of goal, I’d watch myself score goals and it let me know I could do this, the proof is right here.

Get Klauss some service

For Klauss, the other part is St. Louis need to feed him more – they need to find a way to get him more service, get him more chances at goal. What I mean is it’s not all on the Brazilian’s shoulders. St. Louis have a very good attacker in Aziel Jackson ↗; he’s clever in between the lines. And there are players like Eduard Löwen ↗, Indiana Vassilev ↗ and Célio Pompeu ↗ – they’re creative and add to the group. I just think St. Louis need more firepower, adding a few players this summer. That also helps them offset losing Jared Stroud ↗ and Nicholas Gioacchini this winter.

Do that and we could be looking at a situation essentially like what Dejan Joveljic ↗ has at LA Galaxy ↗. Their two wingers, Joseph Paintsil ↗ and Gabriel Pec ↗, just want to provide service to the No. 9. If Klauss had that, I think he’s up there in the goalscoring charts. Last year he had 10 goals and two assists, but he was injured for a large part. That tells me he can reach 15-plus goals with the proper structure and creativity around him. He’s the focal point for St. Louis, but you need more top players around him.

The other part is you can’t João Klauss’ commitment or work rate. Last year, I was talking with their head coach, Bradley Carnell, and he kept saying for all the talent and technical ability their No. 9 has, he also works very hard. Yes, he’s technically strong, a good finisher, strong, can hold up the ball and link play. But he’s also a very humble man, a lovely guy whose work off the ball goes unnoticed. It’s a coach’s dream.

One more: When we talk about St. Louis, I want us to comment more about how brilliant Klauss was. If you’re going to be a team that really puts opposition to the sword, we shouldn’t be always talking about your goalkeeping being how you win a game. That’s how it is with St. Louis sometimes, though. Roman Bürki ↗, yes, you’re a great goalkeeper. But he doesn’t need to be Man of the Match every week. Can someone like João Klauss tilt that conversation even more? I think so.

Take these steps and we’re talking about St. Louis as a sure-fire playoff team. Maybe not the top seed, like they were in 2023, but they have a special talent in Klauss. When he’s getting goals, they’re really firing. I think they can build that team around him even more, they reach another level.