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Hochman: The St. Louis U. men's soccer team, stirring old memories while making new history, is undefeated

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SLU faces Dayton in A-10 soccer tournament

St. Louis University soccer player John Klein (10) battles the University of Dayton's Xavier Zengue (12) during the second half of the opening round game of the A-10 men's soccer tournament at Hermann Stadium on the SLU campus in St. Louis Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. SLU topped the Flyers 2-0. Photo by Sid Hastings

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Occasionally, a college team’s return to glory will stir up ghosts from the past. But here at St. Louis University, it’s stirring up Trosts from the past.

“It really reminds me of the good ol’ days!” said SLU legend Al Trost, 72, an Olympian and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. When I called Wednesday, he was on a Zoom, talking soccer with some family members, including his brother and former Billiken, Tom.

“I really enjoy watching them play,” Al said of the current club. “They play a lot of up-tempo and high-pressure.”

Around St. Louis, there’s this notion that SLU is just always good at soccer. But the Billikens haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2014 — and haven’t won their conference tournament since 2012. But this year could be the year, considering they’ve made it to the conference tournament without yet losing a game. The Billikens are 13-0-3, and on Friday they host Fordham in an Atlantic-10 Conference semifinal contest. And this team has generated excitement that has penetrated the campus — and permeated the city, from Soccer Park to Soccerdome to Soccer Master.

SLU soccer is relevant again.

“I’m glad you brought up the one key word, the one absolute key word,” said former SLU player Bill McDermott, “and that is St. Louis University soccer is relevant again. And it’s relevant again on the national stage. We’ve had to be patient to get there. And the end result is, as of right now you’re one of the top 16 seeds overall in the NCAA Tournament. So that’s tremendously exciting. It links with the past, yes it does.”

SLU is ranked No. 8 in the coaches poll and, how about this, No. 2 in the nation per the poll from Top Drawer Soccer. The Billikens have won 10 national titles and been to the tourney 48 times, but they haven’t won it all since 1973. Generations of SLU soccer players remain in our community, coaching and running camps and, occasionally, raising a namesake to play the beautiful game. So with SLU playing well again, some games, they say, have felt like reunions. Or, really, family reunions.

“Winning brings everybody back to campus,” said McDermott, a local ambassador of the sport who answers to the nickname Mr. Soccer. “But when they come back to see this team, they’re pretty much saying collectively: ‘Ohhhhhh, now I see why they haven’t lost the game.’ They’re playing attractive soccer, very attractive soccer. For intercollegiate soccer, it’s about as good as it’s going to get.”

The Billikens are coached by Kevin Kalish, who played for the 1997 team that made it to the Final Four of soccer. Their play-making No. 10 is John Klein, whose father, John, played in the mid-1980s, and whose grandfather John won national titles with Billikens in 1959 and 1960. Freshman Brian Johnson’s dad, John, played in the late 1980s and was a two-time All-American. Freshman Jack Mika’s dad, Jeff, played with John Johnson. It would be a soccer family reunion if the team was 0-13-3, let alone 13-0-3.

Kalish remembers a meeting at a Chicago hotel in 2018, right after his alma mater hired him. Kalish met with his lieutenants, including assistants Kris Bertsch and Kevin Stoll, and they answered the question: “What makes SLU SLU? Because we’re different than trying to maybe recruit as an ACC school or a Big Ten school, that’s not us. We’re SLU and what we have is uniquely different. But I think it’s really important to understand that identity. And the identity is — the collective is always going to be greater than individual. It’s about getting the right guys that kind of embrace that and represent St. Louis. It means something to them to wear the jersey. If you can get a lot of those guys collectively, you can be as good as anybody in the country.”

SLU’s goal scorer in the No. 9 jersey is Simon Becher, a Connecticut kid who even has ties to our town because his grandparents, Kalish said, grew up in North County. If SLU is going crack the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003, it’ll be because Becher is a beast. But perhaps the soul of the team is Klein, the legacy player whose soles are omnipresent.

“My mom’s favorite player is Johnny Klein — she can always see he’s involved in every play, it seems like,” Kalish said. “He’s everywhere. If there were chalk on his shoes, at the end of the game, there would be chalk marks pretty much covering the field. … His vision and his ball-striking are as good as any player in college soccer. And I think it’ll help him go on and have a professional career. But what makes Johnny special is his competitiveness — it’s off the chart.”

Speaking of charts, the team tracks a player’s tracks. They use censors in shoes to follow how far a player runs in a game — and when they’re running categorizes as “high intensity.” The metrics forever favor Klein, who often is tops on the team in feet covered by his feet.

Kalish smiled when a comparison to the Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly was made.

“They’re very similar in terms of their mentality, they’re great teammates and make guys around them better,” the coach said.

On the decorated shelves near the soccer offices, the 1973 NCAA title trophy waits for a new friend. Surrounding it are mementos from yesteryear — and yesteryear’s yesteryear, because the Billikens won NCAA titles in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. There are homages to Brian McBride. And Pat McBride. And Pat Leahy — the soccer standout who became the New York Jets kicker (and franchise’s career leader in points).

Maybe this is the year that SLU, again, wins it all.

But even if the Billikens don’t, they’ve resuscitated a relevancy. And it’s stirring St. Louis.

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