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Hochman: LA Galaxy's Klein supports MLS in STL

Hochman: LA Galaxy's Klein supports MLS in STL

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MLS Cup Real Salt Lake Galaxy Soccer

Los Angeles Galaxy's Chris Klein, now team president, in the MLS Cup soccer match in 2009, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

That steam was like a dream, soccer heroes emerging from it during pregame introductions, and it forever wafts in the top of his mind, like a fluffy cloud of childhood memories … or, I suppose, like the stale cigar smoke in the rafters of the Old Barn.

“I’ll never forget as a kid, one of my great sports experiences was going into the old Checkerdome, having the lights turn off and seeing the players run out of the steam from the tunnel,” Chris Klein said of the 1980s Steamers games at the multi-purposed, multi-nicknamed St. Louis Arena. “It’s what got me involved in this game – and to love the sport.”

Steam of consciousness.

In those days, soccer was a show in St. Louis. In 1983 alone, the indoor soccer Steamers averaged 17,107 fans. Averaged! And no one embodies the St. Louis soccer culture more than Klein. He was a star at De Smet, winning 1993 player of the year honors from this newspaper. He played for the U.S. National Team. He starred in Major League Soccer. Now, he’s the president of Major League Soccer’s Yankees. The LA Galaxy have won more titles than any MLS team, and the club plays in a sparkling new stadium. He puts on the modern American soccer show.

So, yeah, who better to talk about MLS to STL than Chris Klein?

This might be a new sentiment heard about St. Louis … but a Los Angeles pro sports exec gushed about St. Louis as a sports town.

“Hopeful to see it all come together,” he said, “and have St. Louis get what the city deserves.”

Now, my biggest fear is that St. Louis somehow bungles the April 4th vote, the bill for the soccer stadium doesn’t pass, and St. Louis is passed over for MLS.

That city residents will misunderstand how the money is allocated.

That St. Louisans take for granted that someone else will do the voting for them.

This is our one chance to lock in generations of growth. This is the Blues being offered to St. Louis in the 1960s.

St. Louis is awesome, but there are a lot of cities out there like ours, cities slowly blooming into the new generation of millennials and start-ups and tech companies and modern urban development. This soccer stadium, this soccer league, is an injection.

“To think that we started the MLS in 1996 and where we’re at now,” Klein said by phone Friday. “And the amount of investment (for an expansion team) that it takes to get into our league, this thing, there’s no question, not only is it here to stay, but it continues to grow at a rapid rate. There are a lot of factors that come into play for that, but I see this as a home run for the city of St. Louis – and for Major League Soccer.”

Klein said soccer in St. Louis is valued. I like that sentiment, that word. And it’s true. He talks about the tight St. Louis soccer fraternity (Gamma Omicron Lambda?). He grew up in the Scott Gallagher program here and got to know Jim Kavanaugh, another local soccer star who’s part of the SC STL ownership group of the potential MLS franchise. They keep in touch – the St. Louis man who made it in soccer and the man who is making soccer in St. Louis.

And there is certainly something cool about planting the seed of this new team, making it authentically St. Louis, not received (or, now it seems with the Rams, borrowed) from another city. This team is ours and this team’s ownership wants to be here.

“Soccer has a unique way of binding together fans and people in a local market like no other sport can do,” said Klein, 41. “I’m still a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and St. Louis Blues fan, and understanding the value of those franchises, soccer will fit in very well and hope to fill some of the void that was left by the football team.

“We’ve seen this. You see it in Seattle where the SuperSonics had left, and a time when sports was down in their city. And the Sounders came in at the right time. Now, they’re one of the great success stories in our league. The one thing our league has done over the recent history is – we’ve gotten expansion right. And having St. Louis looked at as one of the top hopeful franchises, in a city that is uniquely positioned in an area where we need it, and having the history that St. Louis does, and a stadium project that will be wildly successful.”

It’s about grand thinking in our market (on Grand and Market and such). It’s about looking how the Blues bloomed in our market in previous generations. It’s about growing for future generations. It’s about understanding how this isn’t just about a soccer team, but a soccer culture infusing downtown’s culture.

“Just very aspirational images of what we can be,” said Dave Peacock, a member of SC STL, on Saturday. “Kind of this notion of a better vision in 2020. There’s a lot of good stuff going on. People don’t realize how much better Scottrade Center will be. You’ve got Ballpark Village expanding. I think could be exciting. Construction-wise, this will be a 10-20 year run of the largest increase in construction in St. Louis’ history. … MLS is a piece of that puzzle.”

On the phone in his Southern California office, Klein was suddenly transported to Oakland Avenue. He rattled off the names of his favorite childhood soccer stars: “Daryl Doran and Jeff Cacciatore and Carl Rose and Slobo,” referring to the late goalie Slobo Ilijevski, who, for some St. Louisans of a certain age, was as much of a one-name sensation as was Madonna or Prince. Sure enough, Sunday is Slobo bobblehead day at the 3 p.m. Ambush game at Family Arena.

Klein’s soccer visions of Astroturf yore are lore, but the exec sees St. Louis thriving with a beloved outdoor soccer team, playing in the league that grew as he grew. And he’s now president of a prominent franchise, in a fraternity that costs $150 million just to join.

So, yeah, if this MLS thing happens here, and the LA Galaxy has a 2020 game in St. Louis, is there a certain hometown place he’ll want to share with his team?

“Of course,” Klein said. “I’ll take everyone to Imo’s Pizza.”

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