Failure Is Not an Option as Pro Soccer Returns to St. Louis

MLS will be watching as USL’s St. Louis FC takes the field
by Dave Lange   |   Tuesday, March 24, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

St. Louis FC forward Mike Ambersley stood on the pitch a few minutes after a recent USL preseason match at the St. Louis Soccer Park and considered the comparisons.

In 2010, on the same field, Ambersley was a 27-year-old forward trying to transplant his pro career to a new club in a new league in his hometown. Financially hobbled from the start, that franchise died after the season. Five years later, he’s doing the same thing, with another new team in another rebranded league.

“Shortly after I signed in 2010, there was already a buzz about the team folding,” Ambersley said. “It really eases your mind knowing this organization is going to be around for more than a year or two.”

This time, failure is not an option for pro soccer in St. Louis.

Stakes are high as St. Louis FC opens the USL regular season in Louisville March 28. St. Louis has re-entered the conversation as a contender for an MLS franchise. With MLS evaluating expansion beyond 24 teams, with serious efforts under way to build a downtown stadium for potential NFL and MLS tenants, and with four of five international friendlies the last two years each drawing more than 30,000 people, St. Louis is a city that MLS commissioner Don Garber has mentioned recently in his expansion conversations.

Strong fan support for St. Louis FC in the third-division USL will help demonstrate whether or not St. Louis is MLS material. “This (St. Louis FC) will be a really good validation that St. Louis is ready to support a USL team and eventually, at some point, an MLS team,” says Jim Kavanaugh, the franchise’s chief executive officer.

No one knows how strong that support will be until the home opener April 11. But signs are good. “We are probably in the top three (in the league) in ticket sales and sponsorships,” Kavanaugh says. Management isn’t giving specific numbers on ticket sales. But the premier Soccer Park viewing sections, numbering about 1,400 seats of the total capacity of about 6,000, are sold out for the season. The team had “15 or 20” sponsors as of early March, Kavanaugh said, including one for prime and expensive space on the fronts of jerseys.

General manager Jeremy Alumbaugh calls preparations for the home opener “a mad dash” of upgrading lights, locker rooms and seating, and adding a beer garden. But St. Louis FC had two key advantages in place when the USL awarded the franchise last summer: strong ownership, and its own soccer-specific stadium.

Kavanaugh is the rare combination of an owner who knows business and soccer. A native St. Louisan, he was selected to the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and played indoors professionally at a time when arena soccer regularly drew 10,000 fans or more per game in St. Louis. He co-founded World Wide Technology in 1990 and helped build it into a company with almost $7 billion in annual revenue. He is CEO of World Wide Technology. Tom Strunk, the firm’s chief financial officer, serves in the same position with St. Louis FC.

In 2011, Kavanaugh and Strunk bought the St. Louis Soccer Park, one of the nation’s earliest soccer-specific complexes. Built in the mid-1980s largely by Anheuser-Busch and modeled on German soccer club facilities, the park has a stadium, surrounding training fields and a main building overlooking the stadium field that houses locker rooms, offices, a team store, meeting rooms and dining facilities. Site of numerous international, professional, college, high school and youth matches over the years, the park had languished in the wake of the 2010 folding of the St. Louis Athletica of Women’s Professional Soccer and AC St. Louis of the men’s second division pro league.

Kavanaugh and Strunk gave the Soccer Park to St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club, home to more than 3,000 youth players on teams at all levels of U.S. youth soccer, and returned the park to standards it enjoyed while owned by Anheuser-Busch. Built only for soccer, the stadium puts fans up close to the action rather than separating them with a running track or a baseball infield, as is the case with soccer matches in multi-use stadiums.

With a soccer stadium and solid ownership as a base, St. Louis FC built the franchise with the help of tips from existing USL teams. “When we went out to Sacramento, the best advice they had was, ‘Don’t act like a minor-league franchise; act major-league in everything you do,’” Alumbaugh says. “That’s something we are striving for on and off the field.”

On the field, St. Louis FC is affiliated with the MLS Chicago Fire. But St. Louis is following advice from other USL teams in terms of players. “Oklahoma City told us to build your team with your guys,” Alumbaugh says. “They said to use the affiliation guys as help, not as the focal point.”

With that in mind, St. Louis FC signed players intended to be the foundation of the club, starting with Ambersley, an NASL veteran. Other important signings include 22-year-old defender James Musa, a member of New Zealand’s 2012 Olympic team. On March 20, the team added MLS veteran defender Brandon Barklage. Ambersley and Barklage are two of eight St. Louis FC players from St. Louis, a nod to the city’s heritage as the nation’s soccer capital for most of the 20th century and still a source of current international-caliber players such as Lori Chalupny, Brad Davis, Tim Ream and Becky Sauerbrunn. As of March 23, the team had one player, defender Patrick Doody, on loan from the Fire.

Controlling its player roster is part of a long-term investment strategy, Kavanaugh says. With the USL announcing in February it will apply for certification as a second-division league, St. Louis FC already has, or is building, infrastructure to meet U.S. Soccer Federation requirements for Division 2 teams. Not that St. Louis FC has any choice: “All of the (USL) teams involved are obligated and committed to moving up (from Division 3 to Division 2), or there are certain penalties that will be put in place,” Kavanaugh says. “The league is holding all the teams across the board accountable to those requirements.

“We have a lot of second division requirements in place, such as owning the Soccer Park (which exceeds the Division 2 minimum capacity of 5,000). Today, most teams have one or two video positions on same side of field. Division 2 requires five (around the field). We’re going to build out to support that. We’ve improved the lights to the highest professional grade. There are other requirements, such as training facilities, locker rooms and digital structure to support replays. Fortunately, we have the majority of those in place.”

Looking ahead, Kavanaugh acknowledges that the Soccer Park would be an ideal home for a National Women’s Soccer League franchise. Similar to St. Louis’ rising stock for MLS expansion, the city’s position for an NWSL team has gained traction. Ticket sales for April 4’s U.S.-New Zealand women’s friendly at Busch Stadium have surpassed 31,000, guaranteeing the largest crowd for a U.S. Women’s National Team match in the United States in 12 years. The USWNT will train at the Soccer Park in advance of the match with New Zealand.

“As far as the women’s league, that’s a potential option as we move down the road,” Kavanaugh says. “We need to know how the league is going … is it viable, and is it something that can really thrive. That would be part of the decision-making process I would look at.”

The biggest-picture question asks if St. Louis can be home to an MLS franchise. “There’s a lot of work to do if anyone is going to bring in an MLS team,” says Kavanaugh, who has been involved with some of the recent conversations between St. Louis downtown stadium developers and MLS. “It’s an entirely different level of investment. We need to take it one step at a time.”

Whether or not those steps will culminate in a St. Louis MLS franchise is anybody’s guess. The USL and St. Louis FC represent the present, and the near future, of pro soccer in the nation’s 21st-largest media market.

“From our standpoint, I would not have committed to bring a USL team if I didn’t think we could put together a quality team, a venue that is going to be very professional, and a very positive experience for our fans and the community,” Kavanaugh says. “I feel really good about what we’re doing. It’s going to be a quality show.”

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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