The other day I parted with a pair of soccer socks carrying a few distinct green turf fibers embedded into the toe. I haven’t touched any competitive field in just about a decade, but I know exactly where I picked those up. They are a reminder of a story that doesn’t belong to me.
It’s a story of learning and growth. It’s a story of passion and apathy. It’s a story of pain and greed. A story of hope, of joy, pain, admiration, aspiration. It’s a story defined by the people who made it all possible, but the story doesn’t belong to them. At least, not just them.
It belongs to the city of St. Louis.
Where It Begins
When I close my eyes, I can go back to the summers as a kid, feeling the scorching heat coming up off the aging astroturf at Soccer Park, a St. Louis icon nestled right up against the banks of the unpredictable Meramec River. It’s been through a few name changes, but for many around the city like me it was the center of the soccer universe.
Just about every youth soccer player has either played in a match on one of its many fields or attended a summer camp put on by St. Louis Scott Gallagher (or Busch Soccer Club, depending on your age). It’s where countless kids fell in or out of love with the game. It’s where we saw the St. Louis quasi-royal Busch family members land their helicopter just to impress some 10-year-olds (it worked on me, for the record). And while I can’t ask them myself, I would bet good money the likes of Tim Ream and Becky Sauerbrunn have left quite a bit of blood, sweat and skin behind at that park.
I remember playing my own high school and club games on those fields. I broke a few ribs once in a game and my nose twice in warmups. My brother threw his back out at a camp. I watched a few teammates dislocate knees and break ankles. Everyone got absolutely beat up. But we kept going back, because that’s where the soccer was.
It’s 2001, and I’m just a kid in a tree trying to kill time. My dad is on the sidelines of a soccer field, coaching my oldest brother’s 7th/8th grade school team. At the time I’m more interested in catching bugs and kicking my own orange and gray size 4 ball around the adjacent field, but the game is already in my blood.
My dad was a college soccer player in the early 80s, a time when the game had little to no foothold in the USA. His hometown Minnesota Kicks have recently folded, and the NASL is on its last legs. But that doesn’t quiet his love for the game. He spends his young adult years as a teacher and actuary by day, and earning youth coaching certifications by night. Across the 90s and 2000s, he coaches hundreds of girls and boys, teaching them about teamwork, self-confidence, humility, and excellence. He also peppers in some soccer when he has time.
His method works pretty well. The game in 2001 is what will be the first of four league championships in an eight-year coaching run. (The last will feature yours truly in 2006, the day after the Cardinals win the World Series.) Under his guidance, my brothers and I are opting to watch international games on the local Spanish-language channel over cartoons. When we get our original Xbox, FIFA 2003 with Landon Donovan on the cover is the first game we buy.
In 2009, one of us is off to college on a soccer scholarship. In 2011, I’m captaining my high school team to a district title a few days after the Cardinals win the World Series, and simultaneously making the hardest decision of my life to that point - to end my club career and not pursue college soccer myself.
At Christmas of 2015, my dad, brothers and I become part owners of Manchester United. It’s one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received, and my single share certificate is prominently featured on my office wall.
Greed, Apathy, Realization
On December 17, I walk into the Edward Jones Dome for what will be the final time to watch the St. Louis Rams. Thursday Night Football brings the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into town, adorned in their aggressively red Color Rush uniforms, a stark contrast to the Rams’ gold attire. We leave the stadium victorious, but forlorn. The whole crowd knows what’s coming. We know what ownership plans to do. And a few days later, on January 4, 2016, it’s confirmed. St. Louis is losing the Rams.
It’s April 5, 2017, and my playing days are now well behind me. I’m working at a PR and marketing agency in Des Peres, sitting with my two colleagues, Andrew and Jonathan. The day before, the city of St. Louis has rejected a motion to bring in an MLS franchise. Despite grassroots support and a decent ownership group, there was to be no stadium agreement. The soccer dream is officially on hold. Many have accepted its death. After the Rams’ contentious departure and disastrous stadium deal, the city is officially uninterested in becoming a three-sport town again.
But a year and a half later, a new initiative pops up. #MLS4THELOU is the name given to a new initiative, championed by Carolyn Kindle-Betz. She launches a press tour about their vision for a 100% privately-funded operation. Everything seems legitimate, but St. Louis has been burned before. In March of 2019, Don Garber voices implicit support of the plan, calling for St. Louis business and community leaders to get behind the push. Finally, on August 20, 2019, less than a year after a dead dream is revisited, St. Louis is awarded a franchise. In 2022, a yet-to-be-named team from the Gateway City will join the ranks of Major League Soccer.
The Waiting Game
And then…the world shuts down. Leagues around the world are put on pause. Ligue 1 in France ends their season completely. The MLS puts together an unprecedented bubble plan along with the NBA. Major League Baseball cuts its season by more than half. College athletics become a tumultuous mess of controversy as athletic directors and conference commissioners struggle to find a way forward.
I could go on, but we all lived it. The important thing to know in this story is how St. Louis had to put its dream on hold yet again, delaying its kick off to 2023. We also had to swallow one more poison pill.
Our beloved Saint Louis FC, the green and blue USL mainstay with a passionate fanbase who called Soccer Park their home, were always going to be impacted by the new MLS franchise, but no one quite yet knew how. Rumors would spring up about the club folding into the MLS as an academy/development squad. Some thought they would remain independent.
On August 13, 2020, the club is unveiled as St. Louis City SC to much fanfare and excitement. We see our bold new colors, a vibrant reimagining of our city flag. We see plans for the new stadium aimed at revitalizing a struggling section of downtown. What we don’t see, but many were planning for, is any detail regarding STLFC. Its absence speaks as loudly as a would-be mention.
In the end, the result we saw was the one no one wanted. On August 25, just a few days later, Sports Illustrated broke the story. STLFC couldn’t weather the COVID-19 storm. Amid the joy of our impending MLS arrival, St. Louis had to say goodbye to professional soccer before it could move forward.
The next two years are a steady march toward progress, watching a stadium slowly emerge from what used to be just an interstate offramp. We see an impressive but ragtag staff fill the leadership ranks. Elite talent commits to the club, and moves to St. Louis to play with the CITY2 development squad. That conglomeration wins the MLS NEXT Pro Western Conference in both the regular season and the playoffs. St. Louis City SC plays its first match on November 19, 2022 at CITYPARK, a friendly against Bayer Leverkusen.
It’s November 25, 2022. I’m sitting across the street in Maggie O’Brien’s for a quick bite and beer with my brother before the United States plays England in the World Cup. It will be my first time in the new stadium, and it doesn’t disappoint. A modest crowd of 800 sells out the Ultra Club to watch the match, but my big highlight in what was already an exciting 0-0 draw was finally stepping across the threshold of our new home for the first time.
It’s here. It’s real. It’s happening.
What We’ve Always Had
From the outside, St. Louis City SC may look like a triumphant army arriving in a wide-eyed town eager for the spectacle of this mysterious game called soccer. The sleek white stadium contrasting an aging but dignified Union Station, crowned by a world-class training facility, looks like it was lifted straight from a European daydream. The headline-catching Apple TV deal, however hotly debated it may be, is presented as a gift to a city dipping its toes in Major League Soccer for the first time. Even the staff, spearheaded by the enigmatic footballing personality Lutz Pfannenstiel, feels squeaky clean, orchestrated and polished in contrast to what can be a highly physical, and often chaotic and brutal, league.
The hype is real; make no mistake. Preseason hysteria has reached a fever pitch after what appear to be signature performances, with supporters no longer asking, “who can we keep up with,” but rather, “who can keep up with us?” Belief is high. Expectations are creeping even higher. February 25 and March 4, the first ever match and first ever home match, respectively, are circled on calendars throughout the Gateway region. The electric City Red (pink, let’s be honest) jerseys are popping up all over town on store mannequins, fans, and even a few statues. St. Louis is ready for City to mold itself into the DNA of the town.
But what the outsider may not know is just how ready this city has been for such a long time. The story of soccer in the United States is intrinsically tied to the MLS, but it’s also intrinsically tied to St. Louis.
Records are hazy, but we know the St. Louis Soccer League was one of the first-ever fully professional soccer leagues in the country. The league operated from 1907 to 1939, two years longer (so far) than the MLS. The 1950 US Men’s National Team featured five St. Louisans in the incredible 1-0 World Cup upset over England.
In 1968, a sellout crowd watched the fledgling St. Louis Stars play host to Santos Football Club, doubling their attendance of a typical home match at Busch Stadium II thanks to a certain Brazilian phenom known as Pele coming to town. An urban legend about Pele playing a pickup match with neighborhood kids even persists about what is now a largely unkempt youth field sandwiched between aging warehouses just southwest of the city.
In addition to the Stars, the Steamers, Storm, Ambush, Athletica, AC St. Louis, and most recently departed Saint Louis Football Club have all lived, died, and lived again in various forms, bringing both women’s and men’s professional soccer to the city. Saint Louis University Men’s Soccer claims 10 national titles; the women’s program claims two.
Yes, soccer is in the very fabric of St. Louis. It permeates every childhood, every street block, every athletic field.
Who We Are
Mr. Mato was my elementary school’s custodian. He emigrated to St. Louis from Bosnia in the 1990s, fleeing the brutal conflict that brought many of his community to St. Louis. He made a life for himself in South City, struggling with the language barrier as he tried to raise a family thousands of miles from home. I only knew one way to talk with Mr. Mato. His Adidas Sambas were the tell - we both spoke soccer.
I can’t take full credit for bridging a cultural divide. I had some truly wonderful classmates, a few of which are still some of my best friends. We found the language of sport to share with him, and he wowed us with his skill. Over the years, we came to learn he played professionally in Bosnia many years prior.
Time passed, and I moved on through the ranks of academia. Mr. Mato was no longer a part of my daily routine. It’s the spring of my freshman year of high school, and I’m back at Soccer Park watching one of my brother’s final club soccer tournaments before he goes on to play in college. There are games all around, and teams, parents, children and referees are everywhere. But one man in a yellow referee jersey catches my eye, eating his lunch out of a brown paper bag. Sitting in the front row of the bleachers a few feet to my right, wearing his signature pair of Sambas, is Mr. Mato.
I go up to him and introduce myself, but I didn't need to remind him who I was. He immediately lights up when he sees me, and asks me in broken English how I am. I tell him I’m a freshman in high school, and I’m watching my brother’s game. He asks if I still play, and I say yes. He smiles and gives me a small punch on the shoulder, then looks at his watch and says he needs to get to his next game. He stands up, shakes my hand, and begins to walk away.
No more than five minutes later, I catch him out of the corner of my eye walking up to me. He’s now wearing a pair of black Umbro cleats with knee-high black socks. He has a whistle in his left hand, and his brown paper bag in his right. He reaches into the bag and pulls out a can of Pepsi. He stops in front of me, smiles, and reaches it out.
It took me a few years to understand what the moment meant. It wasn’t some contrived Super Bowl commercial. I was just a 14-year-old kid saying hi. I lacked the emotional maturity to understand everything he left behind, and everything he brought with him. I grew up in the United States to a family that never had to contend with war on my doorstep. I never had my education disrupted; I never had to worry about how to communicate with not just the person next to me, but nearly everyone in a country foreign to me.
My dad, who witnessed the entire exchange, told me that what he saw wasn’t just a kid saying hi. He saw a good man who has struggled and fought for everything he has, experience a true moment of acceptance. It was one thing for my friends and I to get to know him at school. It was something completely different for me to go up to him and start a conversation, knowing full well we didn’t speak the same language. I credit my parents, my coaches, my teachers, my family, for that moment.
And it’s only grown more important to me as I’ve gotten older. I wish I could tell him thank you, but I wouldn’t know how to find him. I’m not even sure if “Mato” is the correct spelling, much less his real name, or one he gave us kids that was easier for us to pronounce.
But I do know soccer was the language to bridge continents. Soccer connected two people across generations and backgrounds. Soccer gave me a beautifully human moment in which very few words were spoken, but the message was clear. Soccer brings community. It brings acceptance. It brings happiness.
Where We’re Going
It won’t be long now. The first crowd will finally enter the gates of CITYPARK, eager to see our boys play their second-ever MLS match against Charlotte on March 4, 2023. It represents the culmination of so many things. It is the highlight of my personal story as a product of the St. Louis soccer community. It is the crown jewel on foundations laid down more than a century ago by sporting pioneers. It is the vehicle by which we can hope for something a little bit better for all of us who carry a story or two through those gates.
I can’t wait to see each of you come through our town in the coming years. There’s so much to see. So much soccer history to take in. So many people whose lives both enrich the game, and have been enriched by the game. So much to share that doesn’t belong to any of us, because it belongs to all of us. No matter how long it’s been, it digs into your life like a piece of Soccer Park turf clinging to your socks after all those years. Once you’ve been written into the story, you’re in it for good. And St. Louis has been in it for a long, long time.
So before you take in St. Louis City SC for the first time, I hope you can take a moment to reflect and ask yourself what soccer is to you. Maybe right now it’s nothing. I only ask that you open yourself to the stories that make it everything.
Soccer, for my part, is a can of Pepsi.
See you at the Park.
Want to talk St. Louis City SC and all things soccer? Come find @StLFooty on Twitter!