Where Next for MLS? 2. St Louis
Our first post in this series on where MLS might expand to next prompted an interesting discussion, as Miami was dismissed for its history. Numerous Portland fans were bemused that the article had not mentioned the Timbers, arguing that Soccer City USA would be the best destination for the league. But this series is not about where I think MLS should go next (and believe me, Portland would be high on that list), but instead looks at the current top few contenders for a spot.
And St Louis, just pipped to the post by Philadelphia for the last MLS franchise awarded and still in line for a spot, certainly has a claim to historical worthiness.
St Louis can also claim to be the original “Soccer City USA”. The sport thrived in the western outpost in the late nineteenth century. In his book Soccer in a Football World, David Wangerin writes that “No US city embraced soccer more unreservedly than St Louis, which operated all manner of junior, amateur and semi-professional leagues, most stocked with red-blooded Americans equally at home on the baseball diamond.” The St Louis Soccer League attracted gates of thousands, producing many of the country’s best players and teams.
Intriguingly, St Louis developed a notably “American” playing style, one based on workrate and strength rather than passing. The St Louis Globe Democrat concluded that the American game had more “pep, punch and thrill” than the British game. It was far less a game of ethnic enclaves than in other parts of the country.
Unfortunately, by the 1930s, the St Louis league had disappeared, almost without a trace. The college game continued to thrive, though, and St Louis provided five of the players on the American defeat that upset England at the 1950 World Cup.
Professional soccer finally appeared in St Louis with the NASL’s St Louis Stars, founded in 1967 and playing at the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. They draw almost 8,000 on average in their inaugural year, and almost 10,000 in their final year, 1977. The team were runners-up in the playoffs in 1972. They kept to the St Louis tradition of developing local talent; this allowed them a certain stability, but also meant a lack of star power ensured mediocrity.
The gap left by the demise of the NASL team was filled by indoor soccer. The St. Louis Steamers joined the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1979, pioneering soccer as glitzy family entertainment, music blaring and dry ice wafting over the field for player entrances. The Steamers were a success, attracting over 13,000 per game. Indoor teams have come and gone, though, in tune with that form of the game in the country as a whole.
Now St Louis is pushing this history in its expansion bid, touting its status as “Soccer Capital of America”.
St Louis’ strongest selling point for MLS, though, is surely its stadium plans. St Louis Soccer United, the group backing the bid, has a tract of land in Collinsville, Illinois secured for an 18,500 capacity soccer specific stadium already. The stadium plans promise to take MLS to the next level in design, as these renderings show:
The project’s soccer-specific stadium will be among the next generation of MLS stadiums striving to capture the intimacy and excitement of the European game. It will incorporate a roof structure which fully covers the seating areas to help mitigate inclement weather conditions and hold in the sound of the crowd.
St Louis Soccer United tout a high rate of local participation in soccer (10.2% of residents play, compared to 7.1% nationally) and a thriving metropolitan area of 2.7 million people as a base for strong support. Jeff Cooper, the man running St Louis bid, seems to understand the culture of soccer support, touting the possibility of what would technically be an Illinois derby with Chicago, less than three hundred miles away. He recently told the Daily Herald that “With all the rivalries in other sports that St. Louis and Chicago already have, it’s a ready-made rivalry. “We have a great market. It would be a fun rivalry to have.”
You can guarantee that several hundred Fire fans would make the trip every season; if, unlike Columbus (Chicago’s current closest team), St Louis could return the favour, you’d have an MLS version of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry in baseball. St Louis is also even closer to Kansas City, which might just give the Wizards the jolt their fanbase seems to need: Kansas City’s isolation from other MLS markets surely hasn’t helped its development. A stronger basis in the Midwest with some real rivalry games would add to MLS credibility.
Financial backing is where St Louis fell short in their contest with Philadelphia. Had St Louis Soccer United put forth the bid they have now ten years ago, they would have waltzed into MLS. Unfortunately for them, it now takes far deeper pockets to get into MLS, and thus big investors will still need to be found for this to happen.
St Louis is only the eighteenth biggest market in the country, and isn’t as glamorous a location as New York City or Miami media-wise. But if there are to be eighteen teams in MLS, and given St Louis history of supporting local soccer and developing talent, one has to respect their bid, especially with their stadium plans so well developed. But as always in MLS, it will come down to money, money, money.