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Soccer fans understand Real Madrid excitement; they remember the early Steamers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In May, St. Louis saw Man City’s spirited comeback from 3-0 down to win 4-3 over Chelsea in front of a capacity crowd at Busch Stadium. On Saturday, Real Madrid and Inter Milan face off. Is it fair to say that soccer is back in St. Louis?

The 48,363 fans who filled the stadium on May 23 had many heads turning; are there really that many soccer fans here?

But for some, such surprise seems unjustified. With the enthusiasm demonstrated with ticket sales for the international professional teams, the Beacon decided to look back at one slice of soccer history here: the first incarnation of the St. Louis Steamers.

St. Louis' proud history with soccer dates back to its start at Grand Avenue Baseball Park on May 28, 1875.

Throughout the early 20th century and into today, St. Louis has consistently supplied the nation with a pipeline of talented players. From St. Leo’s Catholic Parish in the early 1900s to the formidable SLU teams in recent history, the city has been a hot bed for soccer.

And the pros made their mark when the St. Louis Steamers arrived in 1979.

The Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) formed in 1977, announcing a new breed: Indoor soccer.

This twice-removed relative of the outdoor variety introduced fans to power plays, line changes, boards and a very vibrant orange ball.

The speed was incredible; the six players (5 outfielders and goalkeeper) worked tirelessly in an end-to-end battle, without a midfield, to rack up as many goals as possible. The game required sharp skills, a quick touch and the ability to use both feet.

“It really was a fast-paced, free-flowing, goal-packed version of the sport,” said Tony Glavin, the former Glasgow-born St. Louis Steamers forward and founder of the St. Louis Lions Soccer Club.

MISL games had four 15-minute periods as opposed to the three 20-minute periods in the then outdoor National American Soccer League (NASL) or the two 45-minute periods we see today.

“It was very similar to what we played as kids, knocking the ball about on the hard, concrete streets, in a small space with a bunch of friends,” said Glavin.

With local soccer hero Pat McBride as head coach, the Steamers prepared for their home opener at the Checkerdome on Dec. 14, 1979, against the Hartford Hellions.

“I think we had a crowd of around 18,000 or 19,000 for that first game,” said McBride. “I still remember Tim Leiweke, the director of sales, coming running in and saying ‘You’ll never believe what I’ve just seen in the lobby, there’s no way we’ll get everybody seated before kick-off,’ and he was right!”

The crowd of 18,005 that night blew all expectations away, and continued doing so as the numbers stayed consistent throughout the season. The team finished the season with an average attendance of around 15,000, that’s higher than the St. Louis Blues.

But why did a lesser-known sport create such an immediate connection to the city’s fan base?

“I believe it was down to our philosophy,” said McBride. “We really wanted to deliver a great product, not so much that we had to win every game but there was a sense that we just wanted the fans to come away with an experience.”

Fans would be knocked back by loud, blaring music, a dazzling light show and steam effects as players raced out into the arena. The show was like a modern day hockey game, yet this was indoor soccer, in the ’80s.

“You could hear the music blocks away as they announced the players names,” said local fan Anne-Marie Vaughan.

McBride also attributes the inclusion of several local players to the rising success and popularity of the team.

“It had a real St. Louis flavor to it,” McBride said. “Ninety percent of the players were all local boys. When the announcer would go over the players name and bio, where they were from etc, it was all St. Louis, St. Louis, St. Louis. The crowd would then just roar to life.”

The Steamers’ tradition of employing local talent had St. Louis precedent. The previous NASL team, the St. Louis Stars had many local players such as Denny Vaninger, Al Trost and Pat McBride, despite the rest of the league pulling in overseas talent.

And this domestic touch did nothing to damage the competitiveness of the Stars; some of the notable St. Louisians such as Tony Bellinger, Ty Keogh, Greg Makowski and Steve Pecher were also part of the U.S. national team. These four individuals were involved in U.S. National Team’s first victory on European soil back in 1979 as it defeated the Hungarian national team 2-0 in the country’s capital, Budapest. 

Mixed in with a handful of international stars, the Steamers were able to maintain some of the MISL’s highest attendances and consistently put on a performance for the fans.

“My two favourite players would have to have been Tony Glavin and the goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski,” said Gary Stephenson, a sales consultant and regular attendee of Steamers fixtures. “Glavin may have been small but he was an explosive player and that Slobo, wow, I remember one time he tried to take on their entire team, and he was the goalkeeper!”

Scotsman Glavin made the transition from outdoor to indoor, as with many other players at the time, as a way to maintain fitness for the regular season.

“You ask any player, all they want to do in the off-season is have a ball at their feet, whether it’s indoor or outdoor,” said Glavin.

The former Philadelphia Fury midfielder immediately became attached to the city on his brief spell here in the summer of 1980, and was eventually got an offer he just couldn’t refuse.

“I was amazed when I flew over the city to see so many soccer pitches lined into the ground,” said Glavin. “So one Sunday, I decided to take a drive around and came across some young lads playing in a youth league, it was great to see; something that just wasn’t really there in Philadelphia, and you could see this place had a great vibe and history to it.”

After strolling to a 12-20 record for their first season, the Steamers climbed to the top of the Central Division the following year with a 25-15 record, just losing out to the New York Arrows 6-5 in overtime.

They equaled their success again in the 1981-82 season topping their division 28-16 before again losing out to the Arrows in a best of five series 2-3.

“Those early years were definitely the best,” said Dave Lange, local soccer historian and author of Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital. “They really discovered the baby-boomers in their beer drinking, party-going prime; it was a fun, cheap thing to do on a cold winter’s night, going to watch a Steamers game.”

The Steamers continued to be successful, reaching semi-finals and finals in consecutive years up until 1984. The departure of McBride as head coach, who many considered to be the focal point of the team, led to a slowly spiraling fall from the top for the Steamers. A decline in attendance combined with the pressure put on by outdoor enthusiasts eventually saw the collapse of the Steamers on April 15, 1988, with the MISL following suit in 1992.

Several attempts to revive soccer in the city have come and gone. The Storm played from 1990-92. The Ambush played from 1992-2000. The Steamers came back in 2000 and played interrupted schedules through 2006. There was even an outdoor team for one year. Now the Ambush franchise is being given new life, and will be based at the St. Charles Family Arena.

Will it catch fire and fulfill the promise of support soccer has long had in St. Louis? Part of the answer might be in the seats Saturday watching the best in the world go at it.

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