How USL PRO in St. Louis Alters Soccer Landscape

Newest franchise fills geographic hole, potentially impacts MLS and NASL
by Dave Lange   |   Friday, May 02, 2014

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No one has to ask anymore why St. Louis does not have an outdoor professional soccer team.

The United Soccer Leagues settled that on May 1 by awarding a PRO League franchise to St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club. The to-be-named team will begin play in 2015.

How this affects the U.S soccer landscape remains a legitimate question, 1 with 4 parts.

The first part concerns the geographical impact. St. Louis, a city rich in soccer tradition stretching back to at least as early as 1875, plugs what had been a gaping hole in the map of U.S. men’s pro outdoor soccer franchises. Hitherto, there had been nothing from Chicago southwest to Kansas City.

“The location is ideal,” USL president Tim Holt acknowledged following the announcement of the new franchise in St. Louis. “It’s right in the heartland of the country. It fits well with what we are trying to do in terms of regionalized expansion.”

St. Louis is the third expansion city for USL PRO in 2015 and increases the league to 17 teams, minus Orlando, which moves to MLS next season. As Holt said, USL PRO expansion for next year has been regionally balanced, with the other new teams in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Tulsa, Okla. A fourth is expected in Detroit.

Second, a St. Louis-based USL PRO franchise affects the mandate for all MLS teams to affiliate with, or own, a USL PRO team by 2015. It’s widely anticipated that the Chicago Fire will align with St. Louis. That was expected to be part of the USL’s expansion announcement to St. Louis. But Holt, without confirming the identity of the MLS affiliate, alluded to “going through all the proper channels (for affiliation) to be vetted by both of the leagues” as the reason for the delay.

Third, one wonders if USL PRO’s move into St. Louis takes the city off the table for expansion by the North American Soccer League. The NASL had been in preliminary talks off and on with contacts in St. Louis for the last few years. Commissioner Bill Peterson recently posted on Twitter that he planned to meet with potential investors in St. Louis during April.

“NASL continues to explore expansion in multiple markets, including St. Louis,” an NASL spokesperson said when asked if the league would rule out the city for expansion. “Expansion efforts are driven by there being a suitable investor in each market and not the desire to have a club in a particular city. NASL will expand only when all relevant criteria are met.

“The activities of other leagues in potential markets are not of concern if all the elements necessary for NASL expansion are in place.”

Finally, does USL PRO’s move into St. Louis make the city a stronger contender for eventual promotion to MLS, a la Orlando? That answer lies farther down the road, after St. Louis fans demonstrate how strongly they will support their PRO team.

“The next couple years, we want to make sure we do a really good job of building out the demand for the game and making sure that the fans who are coming through are having a great experience,” said Jim Kavanaugh, president of SLSG’s board of directors. “So if we are two or three years out, and fans are loving it, and the experience is great, and it’s a destination they look forward to and want to go to, we’ll look at increasing capacity in the stadium. If things go extremely well, perhaps at some point in time we will consider an MLS team.”

Kavanaugh’s reasoned approach comes from backgrounds in the sport and in business. A player at St. Louis University and in the Major Indoor Soccer League, Kavanaugh is chief executive officer of World Wide Technologies, a St. Louis-based company with $6 billion in annual revenues that Kavanaugh co-founded in 1990.

Kavanaugh, a minority owner of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, jumped into the soccer business in 2011 along with Tom Strunk, another World Wide Technologies executive and former St. Louis U. player.

They developed their soccer business much as they have grown World Wide Technology. First, they bought the St. Louis Soccer Park, one of the nation’s first soccer-specific facilities dating back to the mid-1980s, for $1.9 million. Next, they turned the park over to St. Louis Scott-Gallagher, a 40-year-old youth soccer club with more than 4,000 players whose teams have won almost 30 national age-group championships. SLSG participates in the U.S. youth academy system.

In the years since, SLSG’s technical and administrative staff has been expanded; the Soccer Park has been extensively modernized; and other training areas and fields have been added around the St. Louis area. The park’s lighted, 5,000-seat stadium will serve at the home of the USL PRO team. Dale Schilly will be the team’s head coach. Schilly is a longtime SLSG coach who guided the ill-fated AC St. Louis men’s second-division team near the end of their one and only season in 2010.

It is a measure of the success of Kavanaugh’s and Strunk’s soccer business that the USL has been courting SLSG as a PRO franchise owner for almost a year. While the USL was talking with SLSG, Tony Glavin, who owns the St. Louis Lions of the USL’s Premier Development League, also attempted to acquire a PRO franchise.

“Ultimately, we believe that SLSG is the group that is best qualified and best equipped to be able to make professional soccer successful and sustainable here,” Holt said. “There is the infrastructure, the organizational structure, the business track record of these folks, and the business capitalization. All of those things are pluses. So we made the decision to move forward to where we are today.”

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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