The city of St Louis has, for a long time, been regarded as the historical “soccer hotbed of the United States”, but said “hotbed” currently only boasts a USL team and a professional indoor team. What’s up with that?
As many of our readers know, St. Louis is one of the cities in the country that is actively pursuing the possibility of becoming an expansion team in the MLS. This has been a hot topic for a few years, but as of late efforts have been made to push the bid and make this a reality. An ownership group, known simply as MLS2STL, has presented plans for a stadium in downtown St. Louis, and the reactions have been mixed.
Many people think that this would be a great way to rejuvenate the city and revive the area around Union Station and Downtown, as well as to fill the bitter void that was created with the departure of the Rams at the hands of he-who-shall-not-be-named. Others think it is not fair to expect taxpayers to fund such an endeavor, our Governor included.
The proposal hit a few walls on the way up but as of today, we appear to be moving forward as the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed the stadium bill in a 20-7 vote. This means that the public will get a chance to vote on the topic as it will be on the ballot in April 2017. In any case, the purpose of this article is to break down a few fundamental things to consider as we await the verdicts from the MLS and the City of St. Louis.
First and foremost, let’s look at the history of the sport in St. Louis. After all, the “hotbed” nickname had to come from somewhere, right?
Well, the city boasts a soccer history that is more than a century long. At its conception, the St. Louis Soccer League (1907-1939) was the only fully professional soccer league in the whole country. Even with the dissolution of this league, the spirit of soccer didn’t dampen.
Between 1967 and 1977, the St. Louis Stars played in the North American Soccer League and the team was praised for having a high concentration of American players as opposed to other teams’ reliance on international players. The Stars moved to California in 1978.
The Steamers emerged as the new team to support, albeit being an indoor soccer team. The Steamers’ home opener drew a crowd of 18,000 fans! This team was known not only for relying on American players, but it had a roster that heavily boasted local talent. Their average seasonal attendance was more than 12,000 fans between 1980 and 1985. An indoor soccer team drew more fans than the St. Louis Blues in four consecutive seasons! The franchise came to an end after the 1987/1988 season.
The following year, the St. Louis Storm took the place of the Steamers in the Major Indoor Soccer League where they played until 1992. After them came the Ambush, another indoor team that played from 1992 to 2000. They played in the National Professional Soccer League and they made the playoffs every year with the exception of their final year in existence, and they won the league in the 1994-95 season.
Then came the Steamers 2.0 (completely different from the aforementioned Steamers), and they played between 1998 and 2006.
The city also saw another Ambush team emerge in 2013, and this team still plays today in St. Charles.
In 2014 it was announced that a USL expansion team would be allocated to St. Louis in 2015, and that team is the STLFC that we all know and love today.
We have also seen some success on a collegiate level as the St. Louis University Billikens were extremely dominant from the late 1950’s through to the mid 1970’s. They won 10 NCAA Division 1 Championships throughout these years, and had an impressive 89% winning percentage under legendary coach Bob Guelker. A few SLU graduates who went on to play for the USMNT include Mike Sorber, Brad Davis, Al Trost, and Brian McBride.
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville also had their run with coach Guelker, who is a National Soccer Hall of Famer. They won two national championships—one in Division 1 and one in Division 2, as well as six regular-season titles.
So, it is safe to say that the talent is here but it is constantly being exported as former collegiate players look to play in the MLS and abroad. Some of these prominent exported talents include Brian McBride (SLU, Fulham FC, USMNT, 3 World Cups), Tim Ream (SLU, Chicago Fire Premier, NY Red Bulls, Bolton Wanderers, Fulham FC, USMNT), Mike Sorber (SLU, Kansas City Wizards, Pumas de la UNAM, Chicago Fire, New York MetroStars, USMNT, 1 World Cup), and Chris Klein (Kansas City Wizards, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy—where he is now president, USMNT), to name a few. Honestly, the list of players from St. Louis in various leagues is vast. It is important to note that every USMNT roster in World Cup history has had at least one player from the Arch City. Also, in the US’ memorable 1950 World Cup victory over England, five of the starting eleven players hailed from St. Louis. What a rich history!
Our city has hosted a number of high profile soccer matches over the years including Chelsea vs. Manchester City, Real Madrid vs. Inter Milan and Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Argentina in 2013, Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Ivory Coast in 2014, USWNT vs. New Zealand and USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2015, and AS Roma vs. Liverpool in 2016. All of these games had very high attendance with the Real Madrid vs. Inter Milan game at the former Edward Jones Dome breaking the city’s soccer attendance record with 54,184 spectators. It goes without saying that soccer games usually draw large crowds regardless of the nature of the soccer game (i.e. friendly or WC qualifier). If a friendly game between two international teams in a baseball stadium (!) can draw a crowd of 48,263 (Chelsea vs. Manchester City), imagine how many supporters a local team could bring, especially in such a sports-oriented city. The proposed stadium will have approximately 20,000 seats, with the ability to expand to 26,000. Attending a soccer game at Busch Stadium, however, leaves much to be desired. The layout of the stadium doesn’t allow for the same atmosphere and close proximity that a regular soccer stadium or even the Soccer Park in Fenton does. Trying to watch a soccer game in a baseball stadium is like trying to watch a movie designed for iMax theaters on your smartphone, in my opinion. You can still get the gist of what’s happening, but you aren’t getting the full experience. After attending many soccer games in my life, including a few at the World Cup in Brazil—it just looks and feels strange.
With all that being said, do we think that the general populous of St. Louis would appreciate such a move? Why yes, we do. Considering the fact that soccer is the world’s sport, we don’t even have to look further than the large Bosnian and Italian populations in the city. But we will—St. Louis is a melting pot city with many little pockets of different nationalities. The United States is becoming more and more interested and involved in the sport and if the attendance and atmosphere at STLFC games is anything to go by, our own MLS team would be well received by the locals.
So the stadium has been approved by the Board of Aldermen and we now look to the people of St. Louis and the MLS to see what the next step is. If everything works out, what can we expect? For one, no more soccer games in a baseball stadium (if you can’t tell by now, this makes me cringe)! The naming and sponsorship rights for the stadium and team could easily be taken up by one of the many local corporations and companies here in St. Louis. Think Enterprise, Anheuser-Busch, Ameren, Purina etc. Not to mention the jobs that would come with a new team and stadium! Projections show 450 construction jobs and 428 permanent stadium/team operation jobs, alongside concession, parking and other positions. Anyone that has been to Union Station or downtown in general recently knows that the area could do with a new attraction. Soccer fans generally travel well so hotels, restaurants and other local businesses would be patronized and if successful enough, business owners would be encouraged to move back downtown where there are a plethora of abandoned stores, buildings and restaurants. A local team would also provide incentive for our talented homegrown players to stay here and aid in the development of a full-fledged, functioning and competitive organization here in the Lou. The stadium would also undoubtedly be multipurpose, providing another venue for a multitude of other events.
What is important is that the people of St. Louis feel like we are gaining something from this, and that something doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. Be it a chance to host NCAA Championship and International soccer games, the team and owners’ commitment to philanthropy and community development, a chance to win a major league and gain prestige, or even a chance to demolish the Colorado Rapids by a large goal margin (we know we would love that), the people come first. However, if money is the main issue, the ownership group has projected that the project will generate as much or even more in taxes than it will cost the public. It will be within the legal safeguards that assure that funding the stadium will not defund the important services that are provided by our firefighters and police. The City contribution will be $50,000,000, which the group feels it would essentially be borrowing as it would be kicked back in the form of the aforementioned taxes and if the proposed funding is inadequate, the ownership group has stated that they would not look to the taxpayers again after the initial contribution. If the people decide against such a move then so be it. Voters and taxpayers need to know that their voices are important and considered when making such expensive decisions. If the decision ends up on the ballot in April, we simply ask (we, not affiliated with any of the groups invested and or involved in this decision, but rather those eager to see this come to fruition) that people consider the rich history of the city with regards to the sport and the opportunity this presents for us to renovate our beloved metropolis. And most importantly, consider this; a new team in town turns us from the bitter ex to the better off person sticking it to he-who-shall-not-be-named by saying “See, we’re fine without you, boy bye!”