St. Louis finally finds its team
This season the soccer-mad city has MLS representation for the first time, building on one of the most passionate fanbases anywhere in the country.
Nearly three months into the MLS season, St. Louis City SC are well-placed to mount a serious playoff charge this year. They sit fourth in the Western Conference, four points off the top but having played two fewer games than league-leading Seattle Saunders.
St. Louis have scored more goals than anyone else in the west and their CITYPARK stadium has sold out every single game so far. This Saturday they host Sporting Kansas City in a crucial derby match, one of the most hotly-anticipated fixtures in the league’s Rivalry Week.
It’s a promising start by anyone’s standards, but what makes St. Louis’ season even more impressive is that this is the team’s first year in MLS. Finally, soccer-mad St. Louis has a top level team and the city and its supporters are cherishing every moment of it.
St. Louis, soccer city
Jake Koenig is a founder and host of Ball Watching, a podcast following St. Louis City SC as they make their maiden voyage in MLS. He explains that, although the city hadn’t seen a second of MLS action until this year, the history of St. Louis soccer runs deep.
“It was a long process, a long time coming for us,” Jake tells AS. “It’s hard to believe we went so long without a top level professional team here.”
“We have so much history with soccer, dating back to the late 1800s. Even some of the first official leagues started here.
“St. Louis is a hotbed of immigrants and our roots in soccer probably date back to Italian immigrants… We had a big history with the game but were never able to have that top level team.”
St. Louis had been mooted as a potential site for an expansion team for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until August 2019 that the Gateway City was officially approved as the site of the league’s 28th team. Their MLS induction was delayed by the pandemic, but that extra wait only heightened the anticipation.
“As soon as the first kit was announced the shirts were gone, sold out in minutes,” Jake recalls.
“We had 60,000 people sign up in the first 24 hours of season tickets going on sale, in a stadium that holds 22,000. Everything about the club so far has been record breaking because the appetite is here.”
The fans in search of a team
When St. Louis was announced as the next expansion team, MLS commissioner Don Garber paid tribute to the city’s “rich soccer tradition” and “deeply dedicated soccer fans”. In another city it might be tempting to dismiss this as PR fluff designed to push up ticket sales. In St. Louis, that status is beyond dispute.
When the team takes to the field on Saturday for their first ever MLS derby match against Kansas City, they will be roared onto the pitched by thousands of members of St. Louligans, an independent supporters group dedicated to soccer in the city.
So committed are they to St. Louis soccer that the Louligans precede the foundation of St. Louis City SC by a decade. They started out in 2010, following AC St. Louis in second-tier NASL. That team folded after the first year but the supporters, who had bonded while following the short-lived side, wanted more.
“When we started it was just a disparate group of soccer fans having fun at games,” Brad DeMunbrun, co-founder of St. Louligans, tells AS.
“We had started to get to know each other and make friends outside of the games and then the team folded… Some of us weren’t ready to give up what we’d started so we searched out other teams in the city that we could support.”
“We thought we could show people that St. Louis could support a bigger team because we knew the fans were out there.”
Over the following decade the St. Louligans turned out for various iterations of St. Louis soccer. There was fourth-tier USL-PDL side St. Louis Lions; indoor soccer team Illinois Piasa; women’s team Fire and Ice SC; and, most recently, Saint Louis FC of the USL Championship.
Throughout that turbulent time the support grew and the group gained greater prominence within St. Louis’ sporting sphere. As membership numbers tipped into the thousands the group became increasingly focused on the community from which it was drawn, holding charity events to support local causes.
By the end of 2020 the group’s various philanthropic initiatives had raised more than $200,000 for a number of St. Louis charities. In doing so, the bonds between those involved only strengthened.
“We focused on having fun and just supporting soccer in general and slowly started to accumulate more like minded people,” Brad explains. “Even if we weren’t necessarily friends with everyone we did all have the common bond of the soccer fan and enjoyed getting together on weekends.”
Building a club
The Louligans kept turning out for every iteration of soccer in the city but a spot in MLS was the Holy Grail. When the new team was finally confirmed in 2019, St. Louis waited with bated breath as it began to take shape.
“It was very gradual because we had such a long runway, with a lot of blocks put in our way,” Jake recalls.
“But when the ownership group was put together they were all St. Louis-based, which was phenomenal,” he says. “Knowing how committed they are to the city was a fantastic start.”
In a city that had never before had a top level soccer team they were starting with a clean slate, but building on the fervent support that they knew they could count upon in the stands. For Jake, and everyone else in the city, this was a chance to continue St. Louis’ fine sporting heritage.
“I think [sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel] saw this less as just building a first team and more like getting things back on track in terms of making soccer accessible in St. Louis.”
“This ownership group wasn’t just about coming in to buy the best players and win championships from day one… It’s been a little more holistic.”
After such a long wait everything was in place by the time the team finally stepped foot on the pitch in February. St. Louis got off to a red-hot start to life in MLS with five wins from their first five matches, scoring 15 and conceding only four in that glorious first month.
The CITYPARK stadium has sold out for every MLS home game and bars in the surrounding area fill up five hours before kick-off. Recent results on the road have shown that life in MLS will not be easy, but for St. Louis fans the chance to compete is more than enough.
This weekend tens of thousands of St. Louis soccer fans, and a fair number from neighbouring Kansas City, will descend on St. Louis’ downtown district for the first MLS match of the two cities’ sporting rivalry.
St. Louis fans will be hopeful of a return to winning ways against their struggling rivals, but the score is not everything this weekend. Regardless of the result there will be reason for optimism in a city that calls itself America’s soccer capital.
“They’re really trying to build up the community around the club, not just drop the club in there and say ‘enjoy’,” Jake explains.
“They built what I’d call a community alongside the club, and just not the team itself.”
St. Louligans founder Brad is deeply embedded in the city’s footballing culture and has seen countless iterations of St. Louis’ love for the game. As he reflects on the new team’s start to life in MLS, he is full of optimism for what’s to come.
“It’s been a dream start,” he says. “It’s still an expansion team and there will be ups and downs, but the team is really trying its best to create a bond with the fans.”
“Wherever we end up in the table this season, it will have been a success.”