If We're Such a Soccer Town, Why Doesn't St. Louis Have a Major League Soccer Team?

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JON GITCHOFF FOR THE RIVERFRONT TIMES
  • Jon Gitchoff for the Riverfront Times

For a city without a Major League Soccer team, St. Louis has hosted more than its share of international friendlies in the last six months.

A sell-out crowd of 48,263 watched Manchester City upset English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea in May, and Real Madrid, helped by playboy Cristiano Ronaldo, beat Inter Milan in front of more than 54,000 fans in August.

In two weeks, international soccer superstar Lionel Messi will lead the Argentinian national team against hometown hero Vedad Ibisevic and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Busch Stadium.

The match comes just as Major League Soccer looks to add four more teams to their rosters, leading some to wonder:

With thousands of dedicated fans who've proven their soccer cred, should St. Louis be the next MLS city?

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"St. Louis is one of those names that keeps popping up," says Bobby Hammond, director of team administration for F.C. Dallas. "I assume these friendlies are kind of test runs on what kind of fan support we're getting."

Lionel Messi will play with Argentina in St. Louis on November 18. - CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON ON FLICKR

River City's biggest barrier to an MLS team? No surprise: It's money.

"At the end of the day, you still need an owner that has a lot of money, and you need a soccer-specific stadium," says Steve Pecher, a retired U.S. soccer defender and director of St. Louis Scott Gallagher youth soccer league.

Pecher and other soccer fans liken St. Louis to Seattle, where an excited fan base drove the construction of CenturyLink Field to accommodate both American football and soccer.

"If you're selling out [of tickets], especially when you're playing in Busch Stadium, certainly that shows the fan base is there, which has helped make Seattle very successful," Hammond says.

No one seems to be stepping up to fund a soccer stadium in St. Louis, especially as the city risks losing its NFL team because it can't afford millions of dollars in stadium upgrades at the Edward Jones Dome.

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David Beckham wants to start an MLS team in Miami. - ADIFANSNET ON FLICKR

The comparison to Seattle is encouraging, though, since so much of soccer's appeal comes from rivalries, Hammond says. Seattle has Vancouver and Portland to pit against. St. Louis is close enough to Kansas City and Chicago to make rivalries interesting.

"I think the fan base is here, but I think it would have to be energized," says Pat Barry, executive business director at St. Louis Scott Gallagher youth soccer league. A rivalry -- or an internationally famous player -- could give St. Louis "something to rally around," he says.

If St. Louis were to go for an MLS team, the time is now. The league has 19 teams and is expanding to 24 teams, first adding NYCFC, another professional team for New York. Orlando is building a new soccer stadium, and David Beckham is recruiting in Miami, leaving two more spots.

Meet the St. Louis soccer player who'll challenge Messi and his Argentinian squad in two weeks after the jump. In the meantime, soccer experts agree hosting such quality exhibition games puts St. Louis on a short list of American soccer cities.

"As a community, it's a chance to show that we can support the game," says Barry. "Any time we have these opportunities, it's in our best interest to put our best foot forward." Hammond says the November 18 game between Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina is "an opportunity" for fans who want more professional soccer in the Lou.

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"It's a call to arms to all the soccer fans to go to the game and show that you're a soccer town," Hammond says. "Especially if you don't have an MLS team in your town in order to see world class soccer players and teams, that's something that any soccer fan should take advantage of."

Team Bosnia. Vedad Ibisevic is third from the left on the top row. - ULICAR STREETS ON FLICKR

This month's game is sure to draw some serious crowds. Not only is Messi one of the most popular athletes in the game, Bosnia's Vedad Ibisevic, who played soccer in St. Louis at Roosevelt High School and Saint Louis University, is a hometown hero to St. Louis' large population of Bosnian immigrants.

Last month, Ibisevic, 29, scored the only goal in a game qualifying Bosnia's national team for soccer's ultimate contest, the World Cup, for the first time since the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Whether St. Louis ends up on the MLS roster or not, the city has proven itself as a soccer-lover's destination. A recent article on MLSsoccer.com wonders if St. Louis is the "up-and-coming soccer mecca of the USA."

"I think it's a compliment to St. Louis that we're included on the list [of cities hosting friendlies], and I think it's a result of our fanbase," Barry says. "Obviously the last two events here have been extremely successful. I think it makes sense for promoters to bring the game back to St. Louis."

Fans can purchase tickets at the Busch Stadium box office or by calling 314-345-9000.

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at Lindsay.Toler@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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