St. Louis, set to enter MLS as the 28th franchise in 2022, is one of the league’s oldest cities in terms of soccer tradition.
The sport has been played in St. Louis since at least 1875, when the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published the first report of a soccer-like game. Over the subsequent 144 years, St. Louis teams have won 91 national championships (U.S. Open Cup; Amateur and U-19 Cups; and NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA titles), produced 31 members of various national soccer halls of fame, and developed 61 US national team players.
“St. Louis is the heartbeat of soccer in this country,” said Shep Messing, one of the faces of 1970s American soccer as the New York Cosmos’ goalkeeper, during a visit to St. Louis in 2010. “I’m a New York kid who played at Harvard, and that’s when I became aware of the 800-pound gorilla that is St. Louis soccer. Those guys were big and strong and fast, but still technical. I had never grown up with that type of soccer.”
“That type of soccer” was the product of a soccer culture unlike any other in the country. A mix of immigrants from Great Britain and, especially, Ireland brought the sport to St. Louis. Catholic clergy introduced soccer to boys who attended elementary schools in the city’s extensive network of parishes in the late 1800s.
“The result is that they have turned out the finest soccer players in the land,” said Tom Cahill, the founder of the U.S. Soccer Federation, in a 1908 newspaper story about St. Louis soccer.
A few years later, the St. Louis developmental system produced Harry Ratican, the city’s first player of national stature. A high-scoring forward, Ratican’s reputation spread all the way to the East. In 1916, he became a starter for the powerhouse team sponsored by Bethlehem Steel. Jimmy Dunn, another forward and a future U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame member, scored the winning goal in the 1920 Open Cup final when St. Louis won its first national soccer championship. Ratican was in the first class inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1950. The year 1950 was a landmark in St. Louis soccer for another reason: Five players from St. Louis started for the United States in its epic 1-0 defeat of England in the World Cup.
The next 30 years saw St. Louis dominate U.S. soccer like no other city. St. Louis-Kutis won six consecutive U.S. Amateur Cups. In 1957, Kutis became the last team to win the Amateur and Open Cups in the same year. St. Louis teams won 17 under-19 James P. McGuire Cups from 1956-79. Starting in 1959, St. Louis University captured 10 of the first 15 NCAA men’s Div. 1 championships. In 1964, Liverpool, which had just won the English first division championship, had to come from behind to tie a team of St. Louis-area all-stars, 1-1, in a friendly during Liverpool’s summer U.S. tour.
Time, the spread of soccer nationally and the growth of youth soccer programs marked the end of St. Louis’ dominance of the sport.
“For sure, the rest of the country has caught up,” said Mike Sorber, a St. Louis native, 1994 World Cup player and current assistant coach at LAFC, in 2009. “What comes into play is we have a small population and other cities have passed us because they have a bigger pool to choose from.”
Nevertheless, America’s first soccer capital continues to turn out international-caliber players, such as 2014 World Cup player Brad Davis and World Cup champions Lori Chalupny and Becky Sauerbrunn. In 2019, Tim Ream and Josh Sargent have represented St. Louis on the men’s team.
With the arrival of MLS to St. Louis, a new chapter begins in the city’s storied soccer history.
Dave Lange has covered soccer in St. Louis since the 1970s. He is the author of “Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital,” published by Reedy Press in 2011.