Major League Soccer has begun searching for a stadium site in St. Louis. With that news, “St. Louis on the Air” decided to look back at the history of the sport in St. Louis.
Dave Lange, the author of “Soccer Made in St. Louis” joined host Don Marsh on Monday to discuss how soccer got to its place in the hearts and minds of St. Louisans today.
Lange says that St. Louis should be considered America’s first soccer capital.
“For many decades, until the mid-‘80s, we were the only city in the United States that was producing generation-after-generation of native-born players, St. Louis-born players,” Lange said. “In other cities, it was usually first-generation immigrants who were playing the game and when their children grew up they wanted to play baseball and soccer to be more ‘American.’”
He said that since the mid-‘80s, soccer has picked up popularity nationwide, first becoming popular as a participation sport and now, in the past 10-15 years, as a spectator sport. In the 1950 FIFA World Cup, the United States beat England 1-0 and five of the eleven starting players were from St. Louis.
Interestingly enough, Lange says that soccer’s popularity/success had previously peaked in St. Louis from 1950-1970.
The earliest mention of soccer that Lange could find in a St. Louis newspaper was in 1875. In the late 1800s, the U.S. population exploded with immigrants from the United Kingdom who brought with them soccer. For example, the brothers who founded Christian Brothers College, brought soccer to the school from the UK, and then brought the sport to grade schools in a grassroots soccer movement.
Saint Louis University, which has 10 national titles under its belt for soccer, SIUE, UMSL, Quincy University and other schools in the St. Louis region have all flourished as “soccer schools.”
There are also 29 St. Louisans in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, including Harry Keough, who we talked about last month.
Does this sort of soccer legacy bode well for the success of an MLS team here?
“Absolutely,” says Lange. “We’ve shown that in the past few years that when they’ve brought in International Friendlies, there have been five or six in the last three years, and each have drawn around 35,000 each time.”
Lange says he believes MLS has wanted to be in the region for a long time.
“If you look at the map and see where the teams are, there is a hole right in the middle,” Lange said. “You have one in Chicago and in Kansas City and they’d love one in St. Louis to create two natural rivalries.”
While the possibility of a professional team has been floated in St. Louis for a long time, some worry that prophecies like those of Stan Kroenke, which have said St. Louis is “not a three professional team market” mean MLS soccer would not be able to survive here. Some professional soccer teams have not been able to survive in other, larger markets.
“Over the last 30-45 years, [big cities have] had several soccer teams,” Lange said. “New York City, Chicago, you name it, they’ve had soccer teams that have come and gone. The difference now is that the sport is on television from England every Saturday morning, live from Germany every Saturday morning, MSNBC has jumped on them.”
Lange even sees a silver lining in cases where the teams have not done particularly well.
“Here’s how failure has turned into success: When those teams failed 30 years ago, the players started training kids to play,” Lange said. “They planted the seeds especially in places like Dallas, Seattle and Portland. Soccer really germinated in those areas. They created an interest in kids who started playing and those kids are now adults with kids in play. That has been a huge factor in increasing interest in soccer in the U.S.”
For Lange, the case is simple for soccer in St. Louis: professional games have averaged 21,000 in attendance over the past five years. He says that’s higher the NBA and the NHL.
“We’ve been building a solid base of people who actually go to the games,” Lange said.
If you want to learn more about soccer in St. Louis, Lange will be participating in a TedxGatewayArch event on Thursday, February 18. It’s one of several panels discussing soccer that will be held at Washington University. You can find out more here.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.