Installing seats in the lower bowl seems to have been an unnecessary expense.
Such was the dry commentary of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month when St. Louis CITY SC played its first MLS home game. The prolonged frenzy from supporters too geeked to sit down – think a bowl-full of Bailey – caused jaws to drop. So had the hours of pre-match crowd-control challenges for blocks around the fashionable new CITYPARK, some 10 minutes west of the Gateway Arch.
These were not just the pumped-up soccer stalwarts one finds in colorful abundance in Cincinnati, Nashville or Seattle. These folks, multiple reports mutually confirmed, were nearly crazy.
“It was incredible,” said star midfielder Eduard Löwen, whose penalty kick goal put City ahead to stay in a 3-1 victory over Charlotte. “The moment I stepped out I had goosebumps. You could tell the whole city was waiting for this moment so long.”
More of the same is no doubt in store for FC Cincinnati this Saturday, when the still unbeaten (5-0-2) and still Eastern Conference leading Orange and Blue take their MLS-longest nine-game road unbeaten streak into the Missouri maelstrom.
The match is also a homecoming for FCC head coach Pat Noonan, who grew up in the St. Louis metro community of Ballwin, Mo. As well as anyone, Noonan understands the forces behind the city’s frenzied embrace of CITY SC. It’s one of the more curious sidebars to the growth of MLS that a franchise took so long to materialize in “The Lou,” because the city’s soccer history outside MLS is unquestionably the richest in the U.S. The enthusiasm surfacing now has been pent up for decades.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a soccer town,” Noonan says. “A lot of attention was put on the sport, because we all knew that so many of the biggest names in U.S. soccer had come from our town. And now, with St. Louis having an MLS club, you can feel the positive energy in that town around that team.”
Not an expert on soccer history pre-FCC? Still think this MLS newcomer may be somehow terribly presumptuous to proclaim that the “SC” in its name stands for “Soccer Capital” as well as just “Soccer Club”? Then Noonan would have you consider:
*Reports of soccer games in St. Louis newspapers date back more than 150 years, at least to 1872.
*In 1907, St. Louis was said to have “the only professional soccer league in America.”
*In the 1950 World Cup, when the U.S. Men’s National Team stunned England 1-0, a result some have called “the greatest sports upset of all time,” five of the victorious players were from St. Louis. The only U.S. newspaper to staff the game, played in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was the Post-Dispatch.
*In the late ‘50s into the ‘60s, Saint Louis University was the dominant power in college soccer, winning five national championships in a seven-year span.
*And in the pre-MLS years of the 109-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, St. Louis teams claimed 10 championships, most recently in 1988. (FCC will open its 2023 Open Cup quest on April 26, vs. Louisville City FC at TQL Stadium.)
“As a St. Louis native, it’s really neat for our town to have an MLS team,” Noonan said. “It brings more eyes globally on our city, and the strong market will bring a lot of success to our league. It’s pretty cool.”
But Noonan will grow progressively less starry-eyed about his hometown club as Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. (ET) kickoff approaches. The Orange and Blue, though riding high, have only a one-point lead over New England for the Eastern Conference lead and a single-point edge over the Revolution and Seattle for the Supporters’ Shield.''
FCC hardly need to have their hands held for a tough road atmosphere. They already own a 1-nil win March 25 at the 30,000-seat sound chamber of Nashville’s GEODIS Park. They have tied their other two road matches this season – 0-0 at Orlando and 3-3 at Chicago -- and the Chicago result included a furious comeback from a 3-1 deficit, with Sergio Santos scoring in the 84th minute and Junior Moreno in the 87th.
The Nashville result lifted FCC’s mark in road matches since July 30 of last season at Miami to 3-0-6. They have not lost on the road since July 17 of last year at Columbus. A result at CITYPARK would make the Orange and Blue only the fourth side in MLS history to go 10 straight road games without a loss. Seattle and Portland have posted streaks of 10, and FC Dallas holds the record at 12. FCC’s streak of nine is more than twice the league’s next-longest active road result streak, as Los Angeles FC is a distant second at four.
A win at St. Louis would give FCC two straight road victories in the regular season for the first time since not quite a year ago, as Cincy won 1-0 at Minnesota on May 7, following a 2-1 conquest at Toronto. FCC did, however, close the ’22 regular season with a win at D.C. United before opening the playoffs with a 2-1 victory at the Red Bulls.
But back to St. Louis City SC. Why were MLS and St. Louis unable to marshal an Eastern Missouri side for 27 long years (1996-2022)? The answer lies somewhere among the factors of 1) no attractive stadium option, 2) no sufficiently impressive ownership group and 3) the effect of the city’s other pro sports.
For MLS’s first 20 years, through 2015, St. Louis already had three major pro franchises – baseball’s Cardinals, hockey’s Blues and the NFL’s Rams. Despite that ardent soccer history, there was concern that the city lacked the bandwidth to support a fourth club.
MLS showed some interest in 2017, but St. Louis voters turned down use of significant public funds for a new stadium. How could that have happened in the “Soccer Capital?” The populace, analysts determined, was still feeling badly burned about sports investment in the wake of the Rams’ costly and controversial return to Los Angeles in 2016.
But a St. Louis bid was re-launched in 2018, with a crucial new factor. The ownership group – local – would be the highly regarded Taylor family, stewards of the car rental giant Enterprise. And the bid for CITYPARK Stadium did not require a public vote, as no funding was sought through taxes or from the city.
The stadium plan was approved by the relevant city authorities in late 2018, and on Aug. 20, 2019, MLS announced St. Louis as its 28th franchise. The team was targeted to begin play in 2022 – a lengthy run-up under any circumstances, and especially so compared to the bare nine months FCC had between its franchise approval and March 2019 opening kick. And in July 2020, it was announced that City’s debut would be delayed yet another year, until 2023, due to complications from the Covid pandemic.
Thus, MLS fever had max time to incubate on the banks of the Mississippi, and many credited the luxury of almost four years prep time as key to CITY's incandescent start this season. They became nothing less than the toast of MLS while becoming the first franchise to win its first five games – the previous record was three – and they outscored opponents 15-4 in the process. They won 3-2 at Austin, 3-1 vs. Charlotte, 2-1 at Portland, 3-0 vs. San Jose and 4-0 at Real Salt Lake.
But the on-field fairy tale has since gone into pause mode. CITY lost for the first time on April 1, 1-0 to Minnesota at CITYPARK. And last week against Seattle -- FCC’s signature conquest this year – a nil-nil match at halftime turned into a 3-nil road defeat.
“A 3-0 score line is never an easy thing to accept,” said CITY head coach Bradley Carnell, a native South African. “It was not a flattering performance. We’ve got to fight through this, suffer together and find solutions. I’m excited to see our response.”
For all its woes the past fortnight, CITY at 5-2-0 is still just a point behind Seattle for the Western Conference lead.
And the import of all this for FCC could be that if CITY no longer looks quite so formidable on the field, their sense of urgency – and also that of their fans – could be at its highest pitch yet this weekend.