For many years, St. Louis soccer fans rightfully called our town the Soccer Capital of America. Now, as the city courts Major League Soccer with hopes of gaining a team, we review the reasons why the sport could work in St. Louis.
1. St. Louis and Soccer Go Way Back
When the USA stunned England during a 1950 World Cup match, five of the eleven players on the U.S. team were St. Louisans, and the only American media outlet covering the event was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
2. St. Louis is a Breeding Ground for Soccer Stars
The city has produced more than a handful of professional soccer notables, including Chris Klein, Pat Noonan, Brad Davis, Tim Ream, and Taylor Twellman.
In 1973, Saint Louis University won the NCAA Division I college championship, UMSL won the Division II championship, SIU-Edwardsville finished second in the final coaches poll (behind number one SLU and ahead of number five UMSL), and Florissant Valley won the National Junior College Championship. SLU still claims the most NCAA soccer championships with ten.
While St. Louis has continued to turn out world class players, we haven’t been able to convince the newest and best outdoor league in the U.S.A, MLS, to award a franchise to St. Louis. Whether it’s been a lack of an adequate stadium or a well-heeled owner, the perfect storm for STL soccer hasn’t occurred…until perhaps now.
3. St. Louis Packs the House for Soccer Events
St. Louis had the second highest attendance in all North American winter sports in 1981, trailing only the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. The St. Louis entry in the MISL drew more than all other NHL, NBA and MISL teams that season.
The St. Louis Stars of the NASL played eleven seasons here, and led the league in attendance several times. On the high school level, St. Louis teams have won multiple national championships, and the all-time leading winner among high school coaches is CBC’s Terry Michler.
MLS plays 34 games per season, so adding seventeen dates plus pre-season games enhances the value and revenue generating ability of a stadium. Having a Major League Soccer franchise will give the St. Louis soccer fan base the team they’ve wanted since the league started up nineteen years ago. And the overall sports presence of the region will be enhanced with a fourth team that shows up on TV on a regular basis.
Regions of similar or smaller size than St. Louis are part of MLS. Minneapolis has just been awarded an expansion franchise. They join Atlanta as new franchises that will start play by 2020. Kansas City is averaging almost 20,000 fans per game, and has a great history of support. Columbus is averaging 14,000 a game, and Stan Kroenke’s Colorado Rapids bring up the rear in MLS attendance at 13,878 per game. The league average is 20,443. Should St. Louis be able to match the league average if we get an MLS franchise? I don’t think there’s any question that we can.
4. St. Louis Has a Shiny New Stadium Plan
In the past, while there has always been a fervent interest in MLS by the hard core soccer fan base, there hasn’t been a combination of qualified ownership and a stadium.
Now, that fan base can boast a glittering new riverfront stadium and potential ownership that is backing St. Louis FC of USL, a minor league affiliate of the MLS Chicago Fire. SLU grad Jim Kavanaugh heads the ownership group. He is co-founder of St. Louis based World Wide Technology, a $6.5 billion a year company.
Of course, St. Louis soccer has had its setbacks, too. The Stars couldn’t survive here in the long term (in fairness, the league didn’t survive) and moved to San Diego in 1977. The league folded after the 1984 season. The indoor soccer Steamers, Storm and Ambush have had varying degrees of success, but each has gone out of business at least once. In 2009-2010, St. Louis had men’s and women’s outdoor teams that, for various reasons, couldn’t make it.
On Tuesday, MLS commissioner Don Garber will visit St. Louis to talk about expansion with Governor Jay Nixon, STL Stadium task force co-chair Dave Peacock, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
St. Louis soccer fans will also have the opportunity to impress Garber with a 4:00 rally at Ballpark Village, which will offer prospective owners an audience with the commissioner.
Activating the soccer fan base and getting them in favor of a new stadium would not only to house their new team, but help keep the NFL in St. Louis, too. From a sports fan’s perspective, MLS is a no-lose proposition.
For the folks that love soccer, they’d get an opportunity to see the sport at its highest level. And for NFL fans, they’d get an opportunity to keep a football team in their town.
It all starts on Tuesday. A strong showing by STL’s soccer aficionados at Ballpark Village can spur Garber to more closely consider St. Louis. A raucous reception certainly would make a difference.
St. Louis is more than just a great baseball town.
As those that live here know, it’s a great sports town. This week presents an opportunity to make the landscape even better. This week could set St. Louis on its way to reclaiming the title of Soccer Capital of the USA.