Major League Soccer is increasingly focused on Sacramento, Calif., and St. Louis as the home for its next expansion team.
Commissioner Don Garber, in a conversation with the Post-Dispatch on Monday, said that league owners are looking to make a decision on their 28th team before the end of the year. And while the league has been in serious discussions with several other cities regarding expansion, ownership groups in those cities — including Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix and Las Vegas, Garber said — will have to wait.
“Those are cities that, should we ever decide to expand beyond 28, would have to be considered as part of a next round,” Garber said.
The future of at least one city recently considered a top contender — Detroit — is now unclear, Garber said. “I’ve been in regular conversations with them,” Garber said. “And we still struggle with their stadium plan.”
Two years ago, Detroit had been a front-runner in the fight for the 24th spot, but, after the Motor City’s storied owners abandoned plans to build a soccer-specific open-air stadium, the league picked Cincinnati last spring instead. It has since announced three other teams, in Miami, Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, opening in 2020 and 2021.
Detroit is an important market for the league, Garber said, but the stadium has to be right.
“Sports teams ought to be forever. They’re not always that way, but you make the decision with that in mind,” Garber said on Monday. “We think that in order for us to be successful in that city, we need a soccer-specific stadium. And the options that we’re presented with today are only at Ford Field.”
At the same time, Garber gushed about St. Louis’ proposed site, next to Union Station on Market Street just west of downtown.
“It really checks off a lot of boxes,” he said. “It’s got the right support from the public sector. Everybody’s feeling good about that.”
ST. LOUIS BRAVES
Chicago Blackhawks owners Bill Wirtz and James Norris owned the old Arena on Oakland Avenue before the Blues were born as a NHL expansion team. So it's no coincidence that they put one of their minor league affiliates, the Braves, in that building to drive business.
That franchise moved from Syracuse and the Eastern Professional Hockey League during the 1962-63 season. The Braves then operated there in the Central Professional Hockey League from 1963-67.
So who played for the Braves? Some guys hockey fans might have heard of, like Phil Esposito, Wayne Maki, Lou Angotti, Fred Stanfield and Pat Stapleton. After Norris and Wirtz decided to sell the Arena, they helped engineer the birth of the Blues as two of the league's most influential leaders.
The Braves moved south to Dallas and were reborn the Black Hawks.
ST. LOUIS STARS
The old North American Soccer League was well ahead of its time. It wooed aging international stars like Pele while trying to create support for the support on this continent. The Stars debuted with the league in 1968, after playing the previous season in the National Professional Soccer League.
At the time, St. Louis University was to college soccer what Alabama is to college football today. The Stars had considerable local talent to choose from, including local legends Pat McBride and Al Trost. They played for the league title in 1972 and won the Central Division in 1975.
Pele's visit to Busch Stadium with the New York Cosmos in 1977 drew 32,605 fans. The Stars won that match 2-0 before the franchise-record crowd. That was the peak moment for the team as a business.
After failing to get a suitable stadium lease for 1978, the franchise moved to Anaheim under new ownership and became the California Surf.
SPIRITS OF ST. LOUIS
During the final two seasons of the American Basketball Association (1974-76), St. Louis was home to the former Carolina Cougars. Renamed the Spirits, this featured one of the most, um, interesting collection of basketball stars ever assembled. The franchise also became famous for being far more valuable dead than alive.
Spirits guards Ron Boone and Freddie Lewis had terrific ABA careers. Big men Moses Malone and Maurice Lucas went on to great success in the NBA, as did M.L. Carr. Some of the more troubled Spirits -- Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, Fly Williams, Gus Gerard and Harry Rogers -- encountered various off-court problems.
Young Spirits radio play-by-play announcer Bob Costas went on to become a sportscasting superstar. Of the team's head coaches, Rod Thorn, later became a top NBA executive.
But the biggest winners were the owners, Ozzie and Daniel Silna. They cut a fabulous deal to fold the team when the ABA merged with the NBA. Rather than take a lump sum to go away, they took 2 percent of the NBA's television money forever. That deal -- and a subsequent agreement -- earned them hundreds of millions for surrendering the team.
ST. LOUIS HUMMERS
Once upon a time St. Louis had a powerhouse professional women's fast-pitch softball team. The Hummers (short for Hummingbirds) played in the long-defunct International Women's Professional Softball Association from 1977-79 and the reached the league's World Series in the final two seasons.
Playing out of Valley Park, the team featured outfielder Pat Guenzler, shortstop Vicki Schneider and pitcher Margie Wright. Multi-sport athlete Nancy "Boomer" Nelson of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater came to the Hummers with the first overall pick in the IWPSA draft in 1979 and earned league MVP honors.
The team was owned by the Harrawood family and it played in a $1.5 million complex built by the Harrawood Construction Company. General manager George Jones became one of the area's top softball pitching instructors. Some members of the team -- included Schneider, a long-time coach and highly successful hitting instructor -- remained prominent on the region's softball scene for decades.
ST. LOUIS STEAMERS
The original St. Louis Steamers became quite the show, filling the old St. Louis Arena as a cornerstone franchise in the Major Indoor Soccer League starting in 1979. In the early 1980s the team outdrew the Blues. Its ownership group featured prominent St. Louisans like baseball legend Stan Musial.
Like the Stars, the Steamers had plenty good local talent to draw from. The club won three division titles made local celebrities of midfielder Daryl Doran. and imported goaltender Slobo Ilijevski.
“The Steamers were successful due to the grassroots support, and soccer knowledge of the St. Louis community, and to the fact that 80 percent of the team was native St. Louis players, many with international experience,” former Steamers star Ty Keough recalled last year.
Alas, the franchise fell on hard competitive and business times and folded in 1988.
ST. LOUIS AMBUSH
The original Ambush were also something. Led by the enthusiastic, hands-on ownership of Dr. Abraham Hawatmeh, the Ambush became a powerhouse in the National Professional Soccer League after moving from Tulsa in 1992. The team played in the Arena, then the new Kiel Center.
The Ambush won the 1995 NPSL, with Doran coaching, and played for the title in three other seasons before the franchise went under in 2000. Its marquee player was goal-scoring machine Predrag "Preki" Radosavljevic, who would later spent one season coaching the St. Louis FC.
This region has been home to several other indoor soccer teams in various leagues, including the Storm, various incarnations of the Steamers and a latest version of the Ambush playing at Family Arena.
ST. LOUIS VIPERS
Thanks to Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Federko, we had summer pucks to the STL from 1993-97, then again in 1999. The Blues legend brought the Roller Hockey International League to the old Arena, then the new Kiel Center.
The Vipers attracted roller hockey stars like Frank Cirone and Christian Skoryna and gave local products like Kevin Plager a shot. Former Blues winger Perry Turnbull coached and played a bit as well.
The franchise got a boost when the Kiel Center Partners bought into the ownership group in 1996 to create cross-promotion with the Blues. That led to one huge crowd in 1997 -- estimated at 14,000 -- but failed to make the Vipers viable for the long haul. Federko noted that the Vipers needed to draw 5,000 fans per game to break even and the franchise fell short of that during their six years.
After RHI was shuttered for the 1998 season, it came back for one last try in '99. The Vipers went out with a bang by winning the final Murphy Cup.
ST. LOUIS STAMPEDE
There are have been many indoor football teams in the area over the years, but the most prominent of those franchises was the Arena Football League's Stampede. It played in 1995 and 1996 at the new Kiel Center and reached the playoffs both seasons.
Former football Cardinals star Jim Otis helping launch the team . . . John Kaleo at quarterback . . . Dave Ewart tagging in for Earle Bruce as coach . . . Darryl Hammond catching touchdown passes . . . that was a first-rate operation.
Unfortunately the franchise couldn't turn a profit in the new downtown arena and vanished after two years. Various indoor teams gave it a go at the Family Arena in subsequent years, including the River City Renegades, Show-Me Believers, River City Raiders, Missouri Monsters and St. Louis Attack.
ST. LOUIS ACES
One the most popular St. Louis athletes of all time was, without question, the ever-photogenic Anna Kournikova.
OK, it's not she bought a house here and became a big part of the community. She flew in to play matches for the final version of the St. Louis Aces of World Team Tennis. That franchise, which played out at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park, had an 18-year run from 1994 through 2011. Other notable Aces over the years included Lindsay Davenport, Mark Philippoussis, Kim Clijsters and Rick Leach.
The franchise won the WTT title in 1996 and played for the title again in 2011. The Aces folded after owners Dan Apted and daughter Dani Apted Schlottman failed to find a buyer to assume control.
(A WTT predecessor, the St. Louis Slims, came and went under then-Blues owner Harry Ornest. They played for the 1985 title in their only season but fell to the San Diego Buds -- a team owned by Ornest's son Maury.)
ST. LOUIS SWARM
Unlike the disheveled Spirits of the ABA, the Swarm became a juggernaut on the fringe of pro basketball. The team ruled the late International Basketball League from 1999-2001, winning the league title both seasons under veteran NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
The Swarm featured former Mizzou stars Doug Smith and Derek Grimm and former St. Louis University standout Erwin Claggett. It played in the new Family Arena in St. Charles.
The IBL's business model was ambitious. Teams paid marquee players like Smith enough money to eschew European offers while trying to remain visible to NBA teams. Supporting such a payroll proved problematic for the Swarm and other teams in the league -- which ceased operation after just two seasons.
MISSOURI RIVER OTTERS
The Family Arena has also been home to minor league hockey, most notably the River Otters of the old United Hockey League from 1990 to 2006.
During their heyday the Otters had strong NHL ties. Former Blues winger Mark Reeds coached the team for four years. The team offered safe haven for NHL players displaced by the 2004-05 work stoppage, including Blues veterans Barret Jackman, Bryce Salvador and Jamal Mayers.
The franchise's last ownership group was led by Mike Shanahan Jr., son of former Blues chairman Mike Shanahan. Its last general manager was former Blues public relations director Frank Buonomo and former Blues defenseman Jeff Brown was one of the final Otters coaches.
Subsequent efforts to keep hockey in arena included the St. Charles Chill of the Central Hockey League in 2013-14.
ST. LOUIS ATHLETICA
East Alton attorney Jeff Cooper had big dreams for St. Louis soccer. He tried (and failed) to rally support for a MLS-worthy stadium on the Illinois side to attract a team.
He formed the Athletica, a short-lived franchise in the Women's Professional Soccer circuit, and AC St. Louis, a second-division team in another incarnation of the NASL. The Athletica operated out of the Anheuser-Busch Center in Fenton.
Despite featuring midfielder Lori Chalupny and goalkeeper Hope Solo from the U.S. National Team, the Athletica failed to gain financial traction during a competitively successful 2009 season. That franchise and AC St. Louis lost $2 million in the first year of operation.
Cooper tried to attract new owners, but that deal collapsed and the Athletica folded early in its 2010 season and AC St. Louis shut down after that season.
"I'll always have nothing but positives to say about my time in St. Louis and with the Athletica," Solo told the Post-Dispatch after getting the bad news. "Things happen in life. People can place blame all they want and think they know the true story, but I don't know if anybody in the outside world will. I stand by Jeff Cooper, I stand by the organization, I stand by the Athletica. I feel fortunate to have spent any time here at all."