Can St. Louis Host an MLS Team?

Jan 14, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; MLS soccer ball prior to the 2016 MLS SuperDraft at Baltimore Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 14, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; MLS soccer ball prior to the 2016 MLS SuperDraft at Baltimore Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

If it is built, will they come?

At this point it seems like every major market that can support one is lining up for an MLS team. The Twin Cities in Minnesota have Minnesota United FC moving up from the North American Soccer League (NASL), Atlanta has Atlanta United, Los Angeles is getting a second team in LAFC and its 26 owners, and David Beckham is building a team in Miami. Yet when SI’s Grant Wahl asked MLS coaches and executives where they would like an MLS team, the overwhelming answer was St. Louis. After the departure of the Rams, who were last in attendance in the NFL, can St. Louis support an MLS team?

The History of Soccer in St. Louis

As reiterated time and again in the video, St. Louis has a long history with the beautiful game. Of the three American World Cup squads before the United States’s 46-year absence from the tournament, St. Louis is represented by a quarter of the players on each squad. These include Bert Patenuade, scorer of the first official hat trick in World Cup history and player for St. Louis Central Breweries from 1934-36, and Harry Keough, for whom the Keough Award is named. The award has been given out since 2004 and rewards the best male and female players based in the St. Louis area. Past recipients include ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman and current US Women’s National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

St. Louis has also excelled in the American domestic cup tournament, the US Open Cup. Of the 12 Cup titles won by a team in the state of Missouri, 11 have come from St. Louis teams. Several other teams from the area reached the finals before losing. In the 100-year history of the Cup, a St. Louis team has reached the final 20 times (as late as 1983), and the city has hosted the final (or one of its legs) 18 times.

More from St. Louis General

Despite the international and amateur success, the city has not seen a particularly successful professional team in quite some time. The earliest professional team in St. Louis was St. Leo’s, founded in 1903. The team originally competed in the St. Louis Association Football League, winning three titles until  leaving the league in 1908. In 1908 the team moved to the St. Louis Soccer League (SLSL) and four years later they were crowned national champions in a round-robin tournament. The SLSL was a successful league, sending a representative to the USOC final 15 times from 1918-1939.

But from 1939-1967 there wasn’t a true professional team until 1967 in the St. Louis Stars. The Stars, who would play in St. Louis through 1977, only reached the playoffs three times; attendance at Stars matches never averaged more than 10,000 people in a season, including 1972, when they reached the Soccer Bowl, only to be defeated by the New York Cosmos. This was despite playing the majority of their games at Busch II.  The Stars moved in 1978 to Anaheim, California, becoming the California Surf.

St. Louis would not see another professional team until 2003, when the St. Louis Strikers began play at what is now World Wide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri. The Strikers were part of United Soccer League’s Premier Development League, the fourth tier of US soccer, and ceased play in 2004. In 2010, AC Saint Louis was created, playing in the NASL Conference of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Division 2 Professional League. Despite owner Jeff Cooper’s best attempts, the franchise folded at the end of the season after investors pulled funding for both AC St. Louis and its women’s counterpart, St. Louis Athletica.

St. Louis FC and the Louligans

One of the lasting legacies of AC St. Louis was the Louligans. The Louligans coalesced from several groups into a one during the sole AC St. Louis season; they have continued to support many clubs around the area including St. Louis Athletica and the St. Louis Lions, a PDL franchise in the suburb of St. Charles. The Louligans have also supported indoor soccer in the St. Louis area; the group can frequently be found at Illinois Piasa matches. In addition, the group was at an announcement of a 2013 Man City-Chelsea friendly to be held at Busch Stadium. In 2015, the Louligans had another club to support: St. Louis FC.

Perhaps more important than on-field success is the amount of spectators in the seats

In 2015, St. Louis FC joined USL, the third division of US soccer. The team also plays at the WWT Soccer Park, and is owned by St. Louis Scott Gallagher, a major youth club in the area. The team had a poor year in the league, finishing in ninth place of twelve teams in the Eastern Conference. The US Open Cup was a different story; the team defeated both PDL side Des Moines Menace and MLS-bound Minnesota United before falling to cross-state rivals (and eventual champions) Sporting Kansas City in the fourth round of the tournament. More importantly, the side only lost 1-0. SKC dominated the game, but holding damage to one goal is a victory in of itself for a team in its first year of existence.

Perhaps more important than on-field success (at least in terms of receiving an MLS franchise) is the amount of spectators in the seats. It is in this category that STLFC, it could be argued, lags behind by necessity. But if one is to argue that point (and I won’t), even they have to concede that STLFC is not lagging by much. Saint Louis FC began life on very stable footing; the team had the fourth highest average attendance in USL over the 2015 season.

The Future, Or How to Raise a Soccer Field From a River

The only problem with that is the size of WWT Soccer Park. The park has maximum listed capacity of 5,500. This number is a far cry in proportion from Richmond’s City Stadium or Sacramento’s Bonney Field, both USL stadiums with capacities of 22,000 and 11,000 respectively. Furthermore, Sacramento is building a new  soccer specific stadium in anticipation of an MLS bid, whose capacity will be more in line with both the Richmond stadium and the average capacity of an MLS stadium. Of course, a new stadium would be needed in order for an MLS franchise to come to the city.

There is some precedent for moving up to MLS in a stadium of that size; Orlando City played in a 5,300 seat stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports during their time in USL. But even they have moved into the Citrus Bowl temporarily until a new 20,000 seater is constructed.

What also would be needed is a stable ownership group. After the failure of AC St. Louis due to an unstable investment situation, MLS is surely more weary of that then they have been in the past. St. Louis FC owners aren’t quite wealthy enough to own a franchise by themselves; however, rumor has it that Dave Peacock, the driving force behind the efforts to keep the Rams in St. Louis, canvassed the city for potential investors in an MLS team while he was attempting to keep the Rams in St. Louis.

Dec 17, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; A view from the proposed site of the riverfront stadium. Could a soccer-specific stadium be in the site’s future? Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 17, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; A view from the proposed site of the riverfront stadium. Could a soccer-specific stadium be in the site’s future? Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

This, if the rumors are true,  was a smart move on his part. The Rams had no intention of staying in St. Louis, and Peacock was probably aware of that. If Peacock was able to gauge a certain level of interest in an MLS franchise, then St. Louis is closer than some people might think. The man that is perhaps key to the future of MLS in St. Louis is Jack Taylor, the owner of Enterprise Rent-a-Car. With a net worth of $9.1 billion, Taylor is one of the richest men in the United States, and has been far more involved in the city of St.Louis than Stan Kroenke ever tried to be; his various philanthropic endeavors include a $40 million donation to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and $92 million to 13 different charities this past June.

While the Taylors could own an MLS franchise by themselves, a consortium of investors is a better idea. St. Louis can’t pull together a group with the star power or sheer numbers of LAFC’s ownership group, but it could get one with enough money to create a financially stable franchise, which is something the area has lacked.That is not to disparage STLFC, but one year does not a success make. If people want to see an MLS franchise in St. Louis, they’ll have to support St. Louis FC for potentially the long term.

 Et tu, MLS?

Aside from the problems currently inherent to the city itself (lack of either a large enough SSS or ownership group), there are also roadblocks to MLS expansion in St. Louis inherent to MLS. MLS Commissioner Don Garber loves admitting teams in pairs. At this point there are two pairs lined up for entry. Miami and LAFC are are one set, with Minnesota and Atlanta as another.

Miami and LAFC are both scheduled to begin play in 2018, while Atlanta and Minnesota are to begin play next year. This would put St. Louis on the back burner for expansion even if an ownership group got together in the short term. There’s just not enough time to scrap MLS’s current plans. The stadium question also exists, and the ownership group, which is currently non-existent, would have to then go through the red tape and secure funding in some form. No matter if that funding public or private, it would take some time.

Will Sacramento Wait for St. Louis?

The earliest partner that St. Louis could enter MLS with is fellow USL side Sacramento. As I mentioned before, Sacramento is already planning a stadium that is capable of hosting an MLS franchise, and the Republic have set USL records for attendance in each of their two years in the league. In my opinion it’s unlikely that Sacramento will sit idly by with an MLS-ready stadium and the support to match to wait for St. Louis.

Next: 5 Things You Can Do to Get Over the Rams

St. Louis is an interesting case in MLS expansion; the city is much closer than some might think to getting an expansion franchise. The city has a strong base of support, one that will only grow with the loss of the Rams. St.Louis FC would be wise to take advantage of their departure and build a solid large fan base in the city. What the city lacks, it has lacked since Jeff Cooper twice tried to launch a bid: an ownership group that can survive. St. Louis can afford to take its time in building a great ownership group and fan base. But if the city waits too long, it may have to wait a very long time.