If you are familiar with soccer in St.Louis, you know that it’s history runs deep. For more than 135 years St.Louis has been known as a soccer city, producing generations of world class players and coaches. The city has also hosted some great teams and important games. If you aren’t familiar with just how rich our history is in the sport, I highly recommend you purchase “Soccer Made In St.Louis” by David Lange. You will be blown away by the information and feel a sense of pride in the city’s past and present.
But what about the present? Many soccer fans throughout the nation will tell you that St.Louis no longer matters, that our days as a soccer city have passed. Are they right? Or have we just hit a bump in the road?
Let’s compare our city’s current soccer importance with Kansas City. A quick look will tell you that things are looking bright out west in KC and they seem to get better each year.
Last year, Sporting Kansas City had a new home built, Livestrong Sporting Park. The $200 million, and roughly 20k capacity stadium, opened on June 9, 2011. The stadium is very impressive and makes any St.Louis fan full of envy. Because of the existence of the stadium, the city has also been able to host “big games”, such as a CONCACAF Gold Cup match, a USWNT friendly and an international club friendly versus Newcastle. In the St.Louis metro area, there is currently no soccer specific stadium that can hold above 10k fans.
It was recently announced that Kansas City will start a WPSL team, the Kansas City Shock. With this new team, the Kansas City area now has an MLS team, WPSL, MISL, PDL and a PASL team. Meanwhile, St.Louis only has the St.Louis Lions of the PDL and the Illinois Piasa of the PASL.
On the high school and club level, St.Louis has mostly dominated the state in the past with exceptional talent that has led to many championships and recognitions. St.Louis teams continue to do so, but teams from KC are catching up at both levels, winning club cup titles and showing well in high school state tournaments. A sign too that the talent is approaching that of St.Louis is the appearance of players from KC making the Missouri High School All State selections list. In fact, nearly half of the Class 3 list were players from the Kansas City area. I’ll also add that the Gatorade Boys Player of the Year of Missouri for 2011 was Derek Schrick from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, MO. So, although they may not have a Tim Ream, Brad Davis, Will Bruin or Matt Pickens, just to name a few, we may be seeing some names at that level from Kansas City in the near future.
In the meantime, we’ve proven we can still produce talent and playing the game in St.Louis is still shown to be popular. So then why not a pro team? Is playing the game popular but watching the game not so much? Wouldn’t fans of playing the sport equal that of the fans of watching? What about all the fans who watch and don’t play? Perhaps they even out.
I do believe that there is still a passion for watching the game here and we showed that recently by 1) ranking in the top 10 of TV viewership for the Women’s World Cup Final and 2) ranking in top 10 in NCAA soccer for attendance at St.Louis University Billiken’s home games. But at the same time we failed to reach the top 10 viewership for last year’s Champions League Final and CONCACAF Gold Cup Final. But try telling that to all the fans who gathered to watch both games at pubs and homes across St.Louis.
Many fans of soccer across the US will point to the failure of our 1 season NASL team, AC St.Louis, as a sign that pro soccer would not survive here. But most in St.Louis would tell these same critics that the team was not a good example of our potential due to the poor ownership and marketing. The failure could also be credited with the team being rushed into existence, lack of structure/planning and just plain bad luck (see Vaid brothers). Some even have the opinion that if the team would have waited at least a season, and in the meantime built their roots into the community and included other youth clubs and other relationships, that the team could have thrived.
When you immerse yourself in one of the many pubs airing a soccer match on a Saturday or Sunday morning, or if you read about the many high school and club soccer matches going on around St.Louis, or you head out to a live college match or Lions or Piasa, or you read up on the area soccer dedicated websites, you start to realize that there is a love of the game. So the real question becomes: without having a pro team in the area, how can you gauge if there is a WANT of a pro team in St.Louis? How can you show possible investors that there is a WANT of pro soccer in St.Louis? No one knows for certain, but here are two possible solutions that very well could provide the answers to these questions.
1) Support the St.Louis Lions- The St.Louis Lions are a PDL team that is based in St.Charles (Cottleville actually). The team is owned and coached by St.Louis soccer legend, Tony Glavin. The team plays a 16 game season in the Heartland Division of the PDL. The team fills it’s ranks by holding tryouts each season and bringing in potential players from all over the midwest and beyond. Most of these players also play college ball and quite a few end up playing professional soccer beyond their college and PDL careers.
The PDL is part of the USL system. The USL Pro is the system’s highest league and is the 3rd Level of soccer in the United States, just below MLS and NASL. Currently the USL Pro has 2 Divisions, comprised of teams from the Eastern region of the US (save for LA). Tim Holt has expressed a desire to bring in more teams and specifically mentioned the Midwest. It is no secret that Tony Glavin would like to have his St.Louis Lions play in the USL Pro, but wants to be careful in how he makes the transition. The Lions want to make sure that they will be a team that will last and therefore make sure the team is solid financially. Part of this means that they also need a solid fanbase. That’s where the true soccer fans of St.Louis need to show that they WANT a team.
The St.Louis Lions play 8 home games this season and this year is very important that they fill the seats. If you really want to see professional soccer return this is the way to prove it. Many fans in St.Louis will tell you that the Lions home games are too far and they don’t see themselves making that far of a drive for a low level team. I know even more fans that don’t quite understand that philosophy because if you love the game you make the drive. It’s our team and it’s our best chance of growing a team to possibly the NASL or MLS level. If you are one of the fans that think it’s too far but yet would like to see a Pro team return, try to make a couple games, at least. You’ll be glad you did.
2) Sign a petition! Recently there was an interview of Perry Van der Beck conducted by David Lange. In the interview, Perry points out what has already been said by Don Garber, and that is show that you can sell 10,000 season tickets and the leagues and investors will take notice. The best way to show it is by having a petition that says just that and have it signed by over 10,000 fans.
There is a group that has been formed here in St.Louis, with which I am proud to say I am a member of, that is intent on helping in any way they can to bring pro soccer back to St.Louis. The group is hoping to lure investors by proving that there is a need for a team here and that the community can come together to support this team. The group is still in it’s infancy/planning stages but is working on many ideas. After the group goes public this summer, one of the missions we will act on is leading a petition that says fans would purchase season tickets for a professional soccer team in St.Louis. Once completed this petition will be paraded around and hopefully grab the attention of various soccer officials and investors. Of course I will post up a story on the group and, most importantly this petition and where/when to sign it. When this petition comes out, please try to make sure you sign it.
With participation by the soccer fans of St.Louis, and without a spotlight on a big time financial backer, I strongly believe that these two courses of action will help bring a professional team back to St.Louis. It might not be MLS, but we have to start somewhere. Let’s not let our city’s soccer importance and history fade into the sunset.