Possession. It’s the lifeblood of soccer: Possess the ball to create offense.
And it’s the lifeblood of a soccer team: The team belongs to its fans, its supporters, its city. It is our team. The our is powerful. Empowering, even. Especially for a town that had a team yanked away and moved to Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, the announcement from Major League Soccer will make it official. We’ll have our new team. It is a team without players or coaches or even an announced name. But it’s unmistakably ours.
“It’s emotional,” said Taylor Twellman, the St. Louis native who was once an MLS star, even winning the Most Valuable Player award, and is now an MLS broadcaster. “And with the ownership being homegrown, the ownership being in-house? I mean, you really can’t come up with a better situation. You just can’t.”
The Taylor family and the Kavanaugh family recognized the importance of our city galvanizing and rising. Soccer could do just that. Soccer was an investment in our city, an investment in our future and, really, an investment in ourselves. The Rams’ move hurt. And other news stories have shaken the confidence and optimism of St. Louisans.
Well, here’s some good news. Historically good news. It’s the genesis of generations of joy.
And from a business standpoint, it’s just really, really good for the city. Here’s essentially a major corporation moving to downtown St. Louis … and the company soccer games will be pretty entertaining.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, just past the site of the new soccer stadium, and Union Station, and the new aquarium and Ferris wheel, and the home of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, Yadier Molina stood on the grass at Busch Stadium and talked soccer. The Cardinals’ catcher loves St. Louis and loves soccer, occasionally wearing jerseys of FC Barcelona.
“It’s going to be good for the city,” Molina said before Monday’s baseball game. “Any type of professional team that comes here is going to be good for the fans. It’s just a real fast game, and it’s fun to watch.”
Yes, soccer is fun to watch. Some people might say soccer is as boring as … well, soccer. But for those folks, the game deserves a second chance, especially in a modern context.
“The best part about the sport is that a game takes two hours, and the ball is always in play,” Twellman said. “And it’s an atmosphere unlike any other sport in our country.
“Those fans that are pro-Cardinals and pro-Blues and haven’t really seen a game in this league, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised at the energy and the potential of where this place is going to go. And especially when they walk into that stadium in downtown St. Louis. The game-day experience is going to be hard to put into words. When that stadium is up and running — and I’ve seen the pictures and the plans — it’s what very few cities in this country have, and I think there are going to be a ton of Blues and Cardinals fans, who are not soccer fans, who are going to be begging to go to these games. It’s a different atmosphere.”
The coolest aspect of MLS is the culture it creates. Talk about a feeling of belonging. The soccer community is energetic and welcoming. It’s going to be a whole bunch of fun for a whole bunch of St. Louisans.
When Twellman first joined MLS, in the early aughts, there were 10 teams. When St. Louis joins in 2022, there should be 30.
“It’s young, it’s vibrant, it’s on the precipice of explosion,” Twellman said. “And you see the likes of Miguel Almirón, Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams, three key names over the last 12 to 18 months that have been sold for multimillion dollars. … (Atlanta owner) Arthur Blank, on the MLS All-Star Game broadcast, I asked him the question — did you ever think the (defending champions) Atlanta United ticket would be more important and cooler than the Atlanta Falcons ticket? He said, ‘No, but that’s true.’ So you have an NFL season ticket holder begging to get MLS season tickets in Atlanta. St. Louis is going to be something else.”
Look at it this way: If Nashville can become a hockey town, and Atlanta can become a soccer town, surely our town can become a soccer town — because, really, we are one already.
“Soccer’s always been part of the city,” Twellman said, “whether you go from the 1950 World Cup team, through the Stars, Steamers, Ambush, AC St. Louis, St. Louis FC, there has always been something in the city regarding the sport of soccer. And then you throw in high school soccer and the club soccer and all the history? …
“And when you see the way soccer is growing in North America, to think that St. Louis wouldn’t be part of that is almost sacrilegious to me. And there are just few cities in our country where soccer is at the heartbeat and the fabric of the city. So my first thought is for the game — and I’m wearing my ‘ESPN hat’ and the ‘ex-player hat’ and looking at the game and how it’s growing. St. Louis has to be part of the future. And the fact that it is now only means good things for the game.”
On Tuesday, league Commissioner Don Garber made it official: St. Louis will be the next addition to the growing professional soccer league. His announcement represents a remarkable turnaround for an effort that many St. Louisans thought had died in 2017.
St. Louis' soccer history
St. Louis ownership group lands MLS expansion slot
The bid to land a Major League Soccer team for St. Louis began publicly in October 2018. Members of the Taylor family and of the Kavanaugh family joined forces to prepare a formal bid for an expansion team.
Carolyn Kindle Betz (pictured with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber) joined with Jim Kavanaugh, Andy Taylor, Jo Ann Taylor Kindle, Christine B. Taylor, Alison Kindle Hogan, Kelly C. Taylor, Patricia A. Taylor and Barbara Taylor. The team will be the first in the league majority-owned by women.
A formal announcement that St. Louis will get a team will be held Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.
Five St. Louis players were on team that defeated England in 1950 World Cup
A St. Louisan was the keeper for the 1950 match against England in Brazil, holding a blank slate against the side considered to be the best in the world.
Frank Borghi, who died in 2015, was one of five St. Louisans on the team that beat England 1-0.
He made a key save in the second half on a header, knocking it wide of the net. “I was lucky to jump in the air and deflect it with my right hand,” he said in a 2009 interview.
Brazil's fans, ecstatic to see their main rival lose, carried Borghi off the field on their shoulders.
“I didn’t know what they were doing at first,” he said later. “I was kind of nervous. They picked me up and carried me 110 yards to the dugout. It was kind of exciting.”
In addition to Borghi, Harry Keough, Gino Pariani, Frank (Peewee) Wallace and Charley Colombo were the St. Louisans on the field for that historic win over England. (Also on the team from St. Louis were Bob Annis, a reserve who didn’t play, and assistant coach William “Chubby” Lyons.) Keough died in 2012, Pariani in 2007, Colombo in 1986 and Wallace in 1979.
Pictures from the 1950 World Cup
In 1995, a local team won a professional soccer title
On April 25, 1995, the Ambush staged a comeback to sweep the Harrisburg Heat in four games to become the only team in St. Louis professional soccer to win a title.
The title was won three years after Dr. Abraham Hawatmeh brought the Tulsa Ambush to St. Louis.
With the NHL locked out in 1994, the Ambush had the honor of playing the first regular-season game at the new Kiel Center (now the Enterprise Center).
The team would lead the league in attendance that season, averaging 7,881 a game.
The Ambush folded in 2000; a team with the same name now plays in the Major Arena Soccer League. The area has a men's team, St. Louis FC, in the USL Championship, a league one step below the top professional level, Major League Soccer.
A team in the failed Women's Professional Soccer league, St. Louis Athletica, didn't win a championship in its short-lived tenure.
Other now-defunct professional soccer teams include: Steamers (Major Indoor Soccer League), Storm (MISL), and Steamers (World Indoor Soccer League/MISL).
The last top-level men's professional soccer team was the Stars
The St. Louis Stars were a team in the North American Soccer League, which was the top-level pro league from 1968 to 1984.
The Stars played from the start of the league until 1977, when the team moved to California.
Well-known national players were on the team, including Al Trost. (He taught at McCluer North High during the offseason.) Other well-known players included Pat McBride and English goalie Peter Bonetti.
The team wanted a better home field than Washington University's Francis Field (which had a 10,000-person capacity), and had trouble getting Busch Stadium for more than a few games during their season.
For the 1977 season, the team drew an average of 9,111 fans, but that included a crowd of more than 32,000 at Busch Stadium (the game featured Pelé).
Robert R. Hermann was one of the owners of the team.
Several local teams were once best in the nation
Several St. Louis teams have won the National Challenge Cup, now known as the U.S. Open Cup.
The tournament matches soccer teams from various levels, including Major League Soccer teams, in a single-elimination tournament to decide the best soccer team in the country.
In May 1920, in what the St. Louis Star described as "the greatest soccer game ever witnessed on any American field," the Ben Millers, a St. Louis team, beat a Massachusetts team to win the title.
More than 10,000 people watched the game at Federal League Park, a stadium near the current St. Louis University campus. The St. Louis team was the first outside the East coast to win the title.
Many of the teams in the early decades were owned by companies, hence the familiar names.
Other St. Louis teams went on to play, and win, the Challenge Cup, including:
• Scullin Steel: 1922 (The team went to the finals again in 1923, but had to forfeit a replay after a tie.)
• Stix, Baer and Fuller: 1933, 1934
• Central Breweries: 1935
• Simpkins-Ford: 1948, 1950
• Kutis: 1957, 1986
• Busch: 1988
Pictures from the Cup game
European clubs used to come here to play against local teams
From the 1930s through '70s, St. Louis was a regular stop for foreign clubs making American tours. There were no professional American leagues, so teams played top amateur clubs.
Over the years, clubs came from: Canada, Mexico, England, Chile, Germany, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Scotland, France and Turkey, among others. Manchester United came twice, in 1950 and 1960, playing matches at old Public Schools Stadium. The St. Louis teams almost always lost, though there was a 1-1 tie with Liverpool in 1964.
The games may have been regular events, but that didn’t mean they weren’t special.
“It was fun playing against (those teams),” said Bob Kehoe, a defender who took part in several of them in his long career. “They were almost always better than we were. We’re fledglings, newcomers to the game and they’ve been playing for hundreds of years. We were rarely, if ever, successful. But we’d learn from them, pick up nuances, say, ‘I never saw a team do that before.’ It was enjoyable, even if you got embarrassed.”
Manchester City played a team of CYC All-Stars in St. Louis in 1958, in front of about 4,000 people. The teams played at the Public Schools Stadium.
"As expected, the all-professional English League team won the match, by a score of 6-2," read the Post-Dispatch article. "The St. Louis players, all amateurs, were delighted to have held the First Division team to a 1-1 score at half time and to have escaped with only six goals charged against them, one of those a penalty kick."
Pelé has played here
The greatest soccer player of all time had scored 1,268 goals over his illustrious career when the New York Cosmos faced the St. Louis Stars on June 23, 1977. But with tenacious marking from Bob O'Leary and Roger Verdi and acrobatic goaltending by John Jackson, the Stars kept the incomparable Pelé and the rest of the Cosmos off the scoreboard in a 2-0 victory. Among his three shots, Pelé sent a header over the net and fired wide on a free kick. His frustration showed with 5 minutes to play when he literally tackled the Stars' Al Trost from behind.
"He should have had a caution for that but I guess because it was Pele' the referee decided to let it go," Trost said.
After the game, Pelé raced over to Jackson and shook his hand. Pelé, then 37, retired at the end of the '77 season with his Cosmos winning the NASL title. The crowd of 32,605 at Busch Stadium was the largest to see a professional soccer game in St. Louis.
Billikens' 10 NCAA soccer championships
The Billikens men's soccer team won 10 NCAA soccer championships from 1959 to 1973.
Bob Guelker coached the team through 1966, then the team was coached by Harry Keough, a defender who played on the 1950 U.S. World Cup team.
SLU played against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 27 times from 1971-1998 in the "Bronze Boot" matches. The rivalry was resurrected in 2018. The 1980 match holds the record as the largest soccer crowd at an NCAA men's game (22,512).
Guelker coached at both colleges.
U.S. Soccer has played several World Cup-qualifying matches here
In November 2015, the U.S. Soccer men's team defeated St. Vincent and the Grenadines in Busch Stadium.
Before that, the national team played a qualifier in November 1989, against El Salvador at the Soccer Park in Fenton.
The 2015 game drew 45,000 people; the 1989 game had a sellout crowd of 8,500.
The team had played two previous matches in St. Louis in the run-up to the November game. The Americans had come to St. Louis twice before in qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. The first was in the preliminary round, when it beat Jamaica to advance into the final round of qualifying. In their second match in that round, the Americans beat Costa Rica.
The November 1989 match ended in a tie, but the U.S. team later qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, losing all three matches. It was the first time the American team made the World Cup since 1950.
Hermann Trophy is annually awarded here
Soccer's version of the Heisman Trophy, the Hermann Trophy, is awarded through the Missouri Athletic Club, and presented at the club in St. Louis every year.
The top NCAA Division I women's and men's soccer player receives the trophy. Previous awardees include players who went on to be on the national roster, including Americans Christen Press, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Tisha Venturini; and Canadian Christine Sinclair; men who went on to the national team include Alexi Lalas and Al Trost.
The award is the result of a merge of previous awards for soccer players given by Robert R. Hermann and the club.
Youth and high school soccer thrive here
From the soccer program at Christian Brothers College High School, which was inducted into the Missouri sports Hall of Fame this year, to the myriad youth clubs, hundreds of children and teens play soccer in St. Louis.
Some of those players grow up to play for the U.S. national teams, including Ruth Harker, a goalkeeper for the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She was named to the first-ever U.S. Women's National Team in 1985, a team that played one game in Italy.
Other players include: Lori Chalupny (Nerinx Hall), Kevin Grimes (Rosary), Chris Klein (De Smet), Pat Noonan (De Smet), Steve Ralston (Oakville), Tim Ream (St. Dominic), Josh Sargent (St. Dominic), Becky Sauerbrunn (Ladue Horton Watkins) and Taylor Twellman (SLUH).