Could NWSL Friendly Lead to Expansion in St. Louis?

Chicago Red Stars to meet FC Kansas City March 22
by Dave Lange   |   Friday, March 14, 2014

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Women’s professional soccer returns to St. Louis on March 22 when 2 National Women’s Soccer League teams, the Chicago Red Stars and FC Kansas City, meet in a preseason match at the St. Louis Soccer Park.

But don’t read too much into this. No, the NWSL is not testing St. Louis for expansion, at least not in the near term.

“Since the Red Stars aren’t traveling anywhere for preseason, we were looking for an opportunity to get a friendly against a pro side and FCKC is the nearest choice,” Red Stars general manager Alyse LaHue said.

So why not play in Chicago or Kansas City? For starters, St. Louis is equidistant from both cities.

But the real deal-maker was Red Stars manager Rory Dames. Dames played at St. Louis University and is the director of coaching and player development for Chicago’s Eclipse Soccer Club. Through his St. Louis ties and his role with the Eclipse, Dames interacts often with St. Louis Scott Gallagher, the youth select club that owns the St. Louis Soccer Park.

“Rory is close with the directors of St. Louis Scott Gallagher, and that is truly how this all took shape,” LaHue said.

In addition, “Rory loves the Soccer Park,” said Steve Pecher, SLSG’s director for Missouri girls’ players. (SLSG also operates in nearby Illinois and has specific staff for each state.)

Long before “soccer-specific stadiums” became a popular term, the Soccer Park was one. Built in the early 1980s largely through the efforts of then-locally headquartered and civic-minded Anheuser-Busch, and modeled after similar club facilities in Germany, the Soccer Park has a 6,000-seat main stadium and 5 surrounding fields.

The main field, renamed recently for St. Louisan and U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Denny Long, the soccer-loving former president of Anheuser-Busch, has been the site for U.S. National Team matches and college games. The Soccer Park was the home for two ill-fated professional teams, AC St. Louis in the men’s second division and the St. Louis Athletica of Women’s Professional Soccer, in 2010. (The Athletica played most of their inaugural 2009 season at the Soccer Park as well.)

The Athletica of 2010 were a virtual international all-star team. Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx, Lindsay Tarpley Snow, Tina Ellertson, St. Louis native Lori Chalupny and others from the U.S. Women’s National Team were joined by Japan’s Aya Miyama, Brazil’s Elaine, Sweden’s Madelaine Edlund and England’s Anita Asante and Eniola Aluko. Brazil’s Jorge Barcellos was the head coach.

“We were stacked,” Chalupny said. “When I think back on that starting lineup, we really were almost an all-star team. We felt we could win it all.”

The Athletica went 2-1-3 in its first 6 games. But the team never got a chance to realize its potential. On May 27, the team folded after investors in England pulled out of the Athletica and AC St. Louis. The Athletica’s players became free agents.

The upcoming exhibition between the Red Stars and FCKC will be the first sniff of women’s pro soccer in St. Louis since the Athletica’s final home match on May 16, 2010. It also marks a homecoming for three St. Louis players, Chicago’s Chalupny and Alyssa Mautz and FCKC’s Becky Sauerbrunn.

Chalupny and Sauerbrunn were named to the NWSL’s Best XI in 2013. Together, Chalupny and Sauerbrunn have almost 150 caps with the USWNT. Chalupny, who continues to play and excel professionally, has been ruled medically ineligible for the USWNT since 2010 because of past concussions. Sauerbrunn had a brief stint with the USWNT in 2008, then caught on as a regular on the USWNT roster starting with the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

“I rarely get a chance to play in front of my hometown friends and family, so this preseason match against Chicago is a very welcome development,” said Sauerbrunn, the NWSL’s 2013 defender of the year. “My parents have been making trips across the world to watch me play since they retired, but this local game also gives my brothers and their families a chance to see me play as well as the club coaches who made me the player I am today. So personally, I'm very excited. As a player, this is also a great chance for FCKC to play a quality side before the season starts.”

Mautz is especially happy about her return to the Soccer Park, where she played as a youth for St. Louis Scott Gallagher.

“I can't tell you how ecstatic I am to be back playing on my old stomping grounds, especially where I developed as a youth player,” she said. “I have so many great memories at the Soccer Park, and to finally be back playing in front of family, friends and coaches is an honor. I am looking forward to the great St. Louis soccer atmosphere.”

In an attempt to build that atmosphere and allay a parking shortage, St. Louis Scott Gallagher is charging only a parking fee ($10 per car) and no admission. The facility is limited to 1,000 parking spaces.

If parking could be added, the Soccer Park would be a prime candidate as a permanent home for NWSL or lower-division men’s pro soccer. NWSL attendance averaged 4,271 in 2013, well within the current capacity of the Soccer Park’s main stadium. With the addition of bleachers at the ends, the stadium could accommodate 10,000 fans. The main stadium has been renovated since the days of the Athletica: The playing surface was converted to artificial turf, and an aging scoreboard was replaced.

Asked if St. Louis would make a good home for an NWSL franchise, Chalupny said: “Absolutely. We’ve got the Soccer Park sitting there (for a stadium), and we had a good fan base when the Athletica played there.”

With those factors in mind, the upcoming Chicago-Kansas City friendly might have long-term implications on the NWSL expanding to St. Louis.

“St. Louis would be a great market and we’d love to have more Midwest rivals,” LaHue says. “So I hope the friendly does spring some interest.”

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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