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Soccer in St. Louis: history, tradition, fans, but no MLS team

St. Louis has proved it's a town full of soccer fans and history—but a stadium deal and strong ownership group are essential in getting an MLS franchise.

Isaac Knopf

People have always told me about St. Louis' rich soccer history.

There's the St. Louis Association Foot Ball League that formed near the turn of the 20th century, followed by the St. Louis Soccer League—the only professional soccer league in the country at that time.

Then, of course, there's the famous story of the 1950 United States World Cup team that beat England. Five of the 11 players fielded were St. Louis natives.

A new chapter was added to the storied history of soccer in St. Louis on Friday, as the U.S. men's national team kicked off its 2018 World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was the first competitive USMNT match in St. Louis in over 25 years—and to add to the occasion, the game was played under the lights of historic Busch Stadium. It was my first time in the home of the Cardinals and my first professional soccer match in St. Louis.

Busch Stadium was just a few hundred tickets away from being sold out—a 43,000-man sea of red with a few hundred dedicated Vincentians in clusters of yellow. It's hard to compare the atmosphere to what I've experienced in Kansas City because of many factors: crowd size, intimacy, acoustics, etc. But regardless of my previous experiences, I was impressed by the crowd. The American Outlaws were vocal for the entirety of the match, and many sections of fans throughout the stadium stood just as long. But, because the fans were much farther away from the field than at Sporting Park, it didn't feel as intimate of an experience as I am used to—and yet, there was a peculiar nostalgic aspect about the experience; it reminded me of the years I spent watching the Wizards in CommunityAmerica Ballpark (Oh, how I miss the grass berm, kettle corn, and Jimmy Conrad Leaps into the Cauldron.

U.S. men's national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann called the atmosphere at Busch Stadium "fantastic," noting the "tremendous support" of the national team in St. Louis. But the support was felt most personally by defender Tim Ream, St. Louis born and raised.

"It was great. Playing in front of family and's one of those things that's hard to describe."

Friday night's game confirmed to me that St. Louis has plenty of soccer fans—and with youth soccer booming, I don't think soccer fandom will die down anytime soon here.

St. Louis has featured teams in NASL, MISL, NPSL, WISL, WPS, MASL, and USL. Seemingly the only acronym that St. Louis' soccer community hasn't joined is MLS. Despite a passionate soccer community with great tradition and success, the foundation for a stable organization isn't quite up to expansion standards.

Lately, however, with the potential for a new downtown football stadium to house the Rams, maybe, just maybe, a St. Louis MLS expansion team could have a home, too.

"It's no secret that St. Louis has been pushing hard the last couple of years," Ream said. "I think with the fans coming out and supporting the USL team this year, and [the national team] tonight obviously, and the last couple of summers with the international games that have been here—it would be nice."

Ream, who grew up playing soccer in St. Louis before breaking into the professional scene, seemed wishful but reserved about the possibility for a St. Louis franchise—because, as he's figured out over the years, it doesn't come easily.

"It's always nice to have a team in your hometown that you can support . . . Hopefully St. Louis can do that here in the next couple years."

Only one thing is certain: if MLS awards St. Louis an expansion team, Sporting Kansas City will have a new rival—something that'd be great for STL and KC.