St. Louis Unfit For Current Round of MLS Expansion

With no investors and no stadium, St. Louis has no chance for 23rd or 24th franchises
by Dave Lange   |   Wednesday, February 26, 2014

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When Major League Soccer announced it was buying back Chivas USA last Thursday, Commissioner Don Garber threw a couple hard ones high and inside at the long-suffering soccer fans of St. Louis.

Garber talked about MLS expansion. The follow-up report on MLSSoccer.com listed the cities Garber identified where the MLS is talking with potential investors for the league’s 23rd and 24th franchises. None of them represent St. Louis.

Strike 1.

Garber further said that while MLS intends to put Los Angeles-based Chivas USA on the market, conditions of the sale prohibit relocating the franchise to another city.

Strike 2.

More comments from Soccer Don might be interpreted as strike 3. More on that later.

But if not strike 3 and out, St. Louis is, at best, barely in a ballgame where the winners will be the cities awarded much-coveted MLS franchises.  

That’s the harsh reality facing the soccer faithful in a city that prides itself as the former capital of the sport in the United States.

The last 12 months had renewed hope that St. Louis was making progress toward an MLS franchise. A total of 132,844 people attended 3 international friendlies in St. Louis, including a record crowd (54,184) for a soccer match in Missouri. St. Louis franchises started in the Major Indoor Soccer League, the Women’s Premier Soccer League and the National Premier Soccer League. The National Women’s Soccer League will stage an exhibition game in St. Louis March 22. More international friendlies are unannounced but on the horizon. And there’s talk that St. Louis could have a USL PRO franchise for 2015.

St. Louis has several things going for it as a potential MLS city:

Strong fan base: Besides the aforementioned turnout for international friendlies in 2013, a goodly portion of the area’s 2.9 million residents are current or past players. About 45,000 kids play soccer in St. Louis. A good guess is three or four times that many adults have played the sport, thanks to a soccer tradition that reaches back at least as far as 1875. Then, there’s the area’s 70,000 Bosnians, many of whom are passionate about soccer.

Geography: St. Louis is about equidistant from MLS teams in Chicago and Kansas City, which could lead to the creation of strong rivalries, not to mention a boost to Midwest MLS TV ratings.

Tradition: St. Louis teams have won 89 national championships at the college, junior college, Junior Cup, Amateur Cup and Open Cup levels. Those championships are a direct result of turning out generation after generation of native-born, high level players since the late 1800s, and which continues today with players such as Lori Chalupny, Brad Davis and Becky Sauerbrunn.

But …

If St. Louis is going to join Atlanta, Minneapolis, Sacramento, San Antonio and San Diego (the cities Garber mentioned) among locations recognized by the MLS as having expansion potential, then St. Louis must come forward with 2 things:

- Well-developed plans to build and finance a soccer-specific stadium.

- An ownership group with extremely deep pockets.

It’s not that St. Louis hasn’t tried. Jeff Cooper, a local attorney who headed a prosperous law firm, spent perhaps $10 million of his own money contriving a plan for a stadium and a team. He literally came within hours of buying Real Salt Lake and moving the team to St. Louis in 2007. But intervention from Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr. led to public funding for a soccer-specific stadium that kept RSL in Salt Lake City.

As MLS franchise fees skyrocketed, Cooper’s millions weren’t enough and he couldn’t cobble together additional investors. Two of them pulled out unexpectedly in 2010, forcing Cooper to close St. Louis Athletica of Women’s Professional Soccer 6 games into their second season. He shuttered his second-division men’s team, AC St. Louis, later that year.

Cooper’s efforts from 2005-10 underlined the transition of MLS team ownership from millionaires to billionaires. But no person, group or company with 10-figure portfolios seems eager to take up the cause for MLS soccer in St. Louis.

An oft-mentioned potential investor is Stan Kroenke, who owns the NFL’s St. Louis Rams and is the majority owner of Arsenal. But Kroenke also owns the MLS’s Colorado Rapids. When asked last Thursday if Kroenke might be a candidate to buy MLS-owned Chivas USA, Garber replied, “We are not interested in any other owner owning multiple teams.”

Strike 3? Not quite, but close.

While Kroenke might help the cause by accommodating soccer in his plans to build a new stadium for the Rams — assuming the Rams remain in St. Louis — that leaves begging the question of franchise ownership.

Four years ago, U.S. Soccer’s secretary general and chief executive officer, Dan Flynn, was asked about the potential for St. Louis to be an MLS city.

Flynn, a St. Louis native and former St. Louis University soccer player, gave an answer that still applies:

“St. Louis clearly fits from the standpoint of player development, solid coaching, players who are passionate, and parents who are passionate and supportive. St. Louis’s challenge is from the top end.”

Dave LANGE

Nationality:
USA
College:
SIU
Club Domestic:
Houston Dynamo
Club Foreign:
Liverpool
Dave writes about soccer in St. Louis, something he's been doing since the early 1970s. His book, "Soccer Made in St. Louis," was published in 2011 and has almost sold out. He was a head coach for 11 years at Busch Soccer Club.
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