St. Louis was always a soccer city. Now it’s an MLS city, too

ST. LOUIS. When fans of St. Louis City SC rounded the corner as a member of staff tried to keep the ever-growing mass of people in their designated area. The march to the match was supposed to take place along sidewalks, not down the street.

He didn’t stand a chance.

On Saturday night, the streets of St. Louis belonged to the supporters. In each block, the number of fans singing and chanting only grew until the city block could no longer accommodate them all. In the end, even the guard just gave up. “Let you be heard!” he yelled as the group finally reached their destination, preparing to enter the gleaming new CityPark for the first MLS match there.

And they did. After all, some of these fans have been waiting decades for this moment, rooting for teams in the minor leagues or indoors. Others have heard story after story of the half-dozen Lou players who helped the US beat England in the 1950 World Cup, or the St. Louis Football League teams that beat everyone in the late 1910s in what would become the Open Bowl. USA.

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St. Louis has always been a football city. Now it’s also an MLS city.

Whether ancient or modern, St. Louis may have the most storied football history of any city in the country. The list of current and former US national team players is long, ranging from active standouts such as US men’s team defenseman Tim Rome, US women’s team defenseman Becky Sauerbrunn, and men’s team forward Josh Sargent to the 1950 team.

“When I described my football experience, no one else said it,” said Taylor Twellman, a St. Louis native and former US national team player who is now working on Apple MLS broadcasts. “People ask me all the time how to describe the St. Louis players, and the only word I come back to, for both men and women, is competitiveness.

This competitive nature extends to other sports as well. Twellman pointed to Ryan Howard, a former Philadelphia Phillies star whom Twellman played baseball against as a child before focusing on football, and basketball stars like Jason Tatum and Bradley Beal, but said even they recognize St. Louis as a football city. That’s the number of players who have made it through respected academic programs like St. Louis Scott Gallagher, or who have played high schools and colleges like St. Louis University in front of big crowds.

“Moving to SLU was a lot of fun for me,” recalls Vedad Ibisevic, a former Bundesliga standout who now coaches Hertha Berlin and is a veteran of the Bosnia and Herzegovina 2014 World Cup team. “There used to be big crowds.”

Ibišević moved to St. Louis as a teenager and his family joined the largest Bosnian population outside the country. A wave of migration began in the 1990s thanks to the city’s acceptance of refugees during the Bosnian War. There are traces of Bosnian culture everywhere, including a replica of Sarajevo’s Sebil Fountain and several bakeries and cafes.

Just as the St. Louis Football League was founded in 1915, European immigrants wove themselves into the fabric of the city’s football blanket to make it stronger.

For years, Matt Baker remembers being asked why the city doesn’t have an MLS team, and has followed efforts to build a team since around 2007. Now, his Flyover Footy podcast features a pro team and, in a sign of the momentum behind the club, was recently picked up by a local radio station. “It actually seems like this club is now taking its place as a combination of almost all of the football history that our city has built, but it is also taking its place alongside the Cardinals and the Blues as an equal in the professional landscape. ‘ Baker said.

It also doesn’t hurt that the MLS is coming while the wounds from the Rams’ sudden departure, which required owner Stan Kroenke to convince his fellow NFL owners that St. Louis is no longer a viable market, are still healing. Kroenke’s arguments against the city are not forgotten here – the local sportscaster shows the highlights on his Sunday show when the team now in Los Angeles loses – and Kroenke’s name is still on the lips of no small number of sports fans in the city. .

“The Rams departure was the lowest of the low in terms of civic pride,” Baker said. “You didn’t just have a sports team leave—you had a sports team owner who was born and raised in Missouri, tearing the city apart as he left.”

New and shamelessly proud of being in St. Louis, the City is a hot ticket. He won far more than just those who supported teams like St. Louis, St. Louis Football Club, or those who went to City 2 games last season.

Even these teams took to the field more than a century after the first games in St. Louis. The first organized game to hit the papers in the city, at least as recorded by historian Dave Lange, may have been played at an ice rink. A newspaper clipping from 1872 is not entirely clear. Ten years later, 2,000 people were enjoying the game at the legendary Sportsman’s Park baseball stadium.

The new football home in St. Louis is built much more purposefully. In addition to being located in the city center next to the renovated Union Station, CityPark has all the typical modern conveniences.

It is partly embedded into the ground so that each of the 22,423 seats can be as close to the field as possible. It also has over 20 local food and drink options prepared by local chef Gerard Kraft, who has won the prestigious James Beard Award. There’s toasted ravioli from a place on the hill, Bosnian dishes, a favorite local hot dog, Vietnamese and Mexican street food, a St. Louis-style barbecue spot, and, yes, a local pizzeria, but one that eschews Provel cheese. a mixture used in many places throughout the city.

Patrick Kavanagh is a real estate broker in St. Louis. He is also a diehard Arsenal fan who fell in love with the team while watching Thierry Henry. MLS has never resonated with him and he said he is “a little worried” about fans staying with a new team in the STL given that MLS is not the world’s top league and many European football fans still look down on it . However, even if he’s a little skeptical, Kavanagh joked that after watching Saturday’s game against Arsenal, he needed to “change his shirt” and join the pre-game crowd outside the stadium to prepare for the first home leg.

“I watched the first game and I was really impressed with the quality,” he said. “It’s definitely appealing to people who may have been on the fringes of the sport before, that’s for sure.”

As every sports fan knows, there is no better way to get more fans into the stadium than to create a winner. The club wants to do this and also represent the city in how it approaches the sport.

“I’ve only been in St. Louis for two years, but it’s a city of hardworking workers. This is the style of play we want,” said center back Kyle Hiebert. “We put a lot of pressure, trying to always outplay our opponent. I hope that we will not only achieve results and wins, but our style of play will suit the fans.”

The club is also already working to create an even wider professional path for talented young players in the area, with the goal of further expanding the roster of St. Louis greats. That process is already bearing fruit: Miguel Perez, the 17-year-old forward who became St. Louis’ first homegrown player, made his MLS debut in the first week that St. Louis defeated the Austin.

“I am sure that wonderful children will come out of there in the future,” Ibisevic said. “I have witnessed this myself. There are many talented kids in St. Louis. Now they don’t have to go to Kansas City or Chicago.”

Saturday was a dream night for football fans in St. Louis. Tickets for the stadium were sold out and there was a great atmosphere around it. City won 3-1, their second win in a row despite many predictions that the club would struggle for the net.

It’s clear that the team can put on a nice evening for sports fans, which is a big deal, but many are wondering if the team can help even more.

Unlike other recent MLS expansion markets, St. Louis is not a booming city. Even its biggest supporters can’t describe it as trendy like Nashville or Austin, or even a growing city like Saturday goers, Charlotte FC. In 2022, US Census data showed that St. Louis fell out of the top 20 most populous metropolitan areas in the country. Entire neighborhoods in the city center are condemned.

The local ownership group, led by President and CEO Carolyn Kindle and including other members of the city’s legendary Taylor family, is hoping the city of St. Louis will play a role in bringing people back and transplants to the area. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on Saturday he sees CityPark as “a facility to help reimagine the city, an urban redevelopment project with the MLS team at its core.”

However, this message does not always reach the people of St. Louis.

“I saw this and I thought, “Ugh, I didn’t know we were dead.” But at the same time, he is not wrong. We are definitely a second-tier city,” Kavanagh said. “Of all the places where people move from the coast to the hinterland, this isn’t necessarily one of the best options, but it’s happening.”

To be a true Twellman success story, the club not only needs to become popular with the strongest MLS demographic in most markets – young white fans eager to get on the train and have an experience perhaps the same as the one they had while traveling. Abroad. It also needs to be connected to areas in and outside of St. Louis County where the previous teams’ marketing efforts may not have reached.

“St. Louis needs to evolve. It should be more varied. It needs to be more inclusive,” Twellman said, referring to African American communities north of the stadium, Hispanic communities across the Mississippi River in Illinois, and Bosnian communities. …


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