Zack Ziaja had a plan.
Ziaja is part of the drum corps of the Louligans, the zealous and often offbeat St. Louis soccer supporters group that could be found in the southeast corner of the stadium at the Soccer Park for St. Louis FC matches. The drum corps supplied a fairly continuous rhythm at STLFC games, but was absent for much of the season after the county closed the doors in Fenton because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For STLFC’s final home game, on Oct. 3 — which was open only to the families of players and team employees — Ziaja and the other drummers were going to set up as close as they could outside the stadium, in the woods between the Soccer Park grounds and the Meramec River, and pound away. Even if they couldn’t be there in person, their drums still would be heard in the mostly empty stadium.
When STLFC management caught wind of the plan, they invited the drummers into the stadium. They set up in the traditional Louligan section and, socially distanced, drummed away a farewell to the team.
Drummers without a team
Now STLFC is gone, and the roles have been reversed. While STLFC played much of its season as a team without drummers, now Ziaja and his friends are drummers without a team.
The Louligans, like most soccer fans in St. Louis, have entered a soccer desert, though one with a promise of an oasis far in the distance. The region will be absent professional outdoor soccer until St. Louis City SC makes its scheduled Major League Soccer debut in 2023. In the meantime, a few semipro and amateur teams live on, as well as college programs. But at the higher levels, where once there was a team, there now is a void. What’s a fan club to do?
“I hate to sound cliché,” said Mitch Morice, one of the founders of the Louligans, “but since we’ve done this before, we can do it again. We persevere. This isn’t our first rodeo.”
It’s a flashback to 2010, the year of the group’s birth during the one-year existence of AC St. Louis, another second-division club that played at the Soccer Park. When AC St. Louis shut down, there was no reason to think another team would arrive any time soon. This time around, they just have to make it to 2023.
“I think it will go by fast and slow,” said Stuart Hultgren of South St. Louis, a Louligan. “There will be anticipation for when it starts starting six months before play begins and it will slow down and drag a little bit. The next year and a half I think will go by quick. We’ll find a new rhythm in 2021. I think people within the Louligans and FC fans in general got adjusted this year to not having a team they can see. It was an unpleasant adjustment forced on us, but I think people have adjusted and that will help. It’s not entirely a cold exit.”
The demise of AC St. Louis also was anticipated after its sister team, the Athletica in Women’s Professional Soccer, abruptly shut down in the middle of its season. When AC St. Louis closed its doors, the Louligans lived on, not tied to any one team but with precious little to support. Until STLFC started up in 2015, the main local option was Tony Glavin’s fourth-division St. Louis Lions, playing in Cottleville.
“At times at the Lions, there were only 10 of us, compared to 500 or 600 at STLFC when we could still go,” Morice said. “This time, there’s lots of options. We’re very close to the women’s team, Fire and Ice, over in Illinois, but they play only four home games. There’s the Lions, the Women’s Lions, Club Atletico, Maritsa. The hard part is there’s not going to be that sense of belonging there was at STLFC. We definitely will do what we can where we can, but it’s harder to organize when the games are more infrequent and spread out.”
What to do? The Louligans are a loosely organized group: there are no dues, no membership list, no hierarchy, other than a board of directors that had to be assembled when it became a 501c3 nonprofit group to support its charitable activities. Talk to enough members and you’ll find everyone has a different way to approach the Time Without Soccer. Many involve a television.
• “It still sort of hasn’t sunk in that FC is gone,” said Ben DeClue of Benton Park. “I’ll have kind of a retrenchment into my Dortmund (in the German Bundesliga) fandom and whatever else I can support in the interim. Like thousands of others, I put my $50 down (as a deposit for St. Louis City SC season tickets) and I’ll be following SC very closely as we get news on that. It will be a lot of German soccer for a while and whatever comes up.”
• “We’ve got some really awesome lower-league teams. I’ll go to local soccer games,” said Ziaja, the drummer, who is not alone in feeling that MLS played a role in the extinction of the beloved STLFC. “But a drum corps only works if there are people to support it. If you have five drums and three fans, it’s not effective. ... There’s a good possibility I won’t bang a drum for a couple years. MLS killed that. Well, they didn’t but they did.”
• “Luckily during the fall, winter and spring, I’m a Premier League fan,” said Karen Montgomery, who lives on The Hill. “In the summer time, I need to figure out what to do. I’ll try to hit the different local teams I’ve never actually gone to. ... I’ve never been an MLS fan. I’m excited to get soccer in St. Louis, or any kind of sports team in St. Louis. I put my deposit down and maybe when they roll out everything, I’ll get more excited. I’m getting there. I’ve got three more years to warm up to it.”
One reason the Louligans want to stay active is that they have become more than a supporters group. Through their charitable activities — in-game raffles, an annual charity soccer game and food drives, among others — the group has raised about $200,000 over the years, with the St. Louis Area Foodbank one of the main benefactors of their fundraising.
“The biggest worry is keeping the group focused and growing and our charity work,” said Brad DeMunbrun of Crystal City, another Louligan who was there at the start. “FC gave us a platform to anchor our charity efforts to. It will be hard to figure out new ways to keep our stuff going.”
A different feel
Among STLFC’s most ardent fans, there is a feeling that while the bright lights of MLS are coming, the small-town feel of STLFC will be gone.
FC fans felt like part of the family in the intimate quarters of the Soccer Park, a condition many expect won’t carry over into St. Louis City SC and its much larger stadium downtown.
New fans, attracted by name-brand soccer of MLS, will join. There likely will be other supporters groups as well. It will be a different world.
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