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Pro soccer team Saint Louis FC weighs in on future of the sport in area after failed stadium vote

Saint Louis FC celebrates during a winning game against Ottawa Fury FC on April 1.
Mark Guthrel Photography
Saint Louis FC celebrates during a winning game against Ottawa Fury FC on April 1.

Earlier this spring, voters in the city of St. Louis voted against public funding for a soccer stadium that would bring a Major League Soccer team to the region. While the future of MLS here is unclear, that doesn’t mean the fervor for soccer in the area has died down.

Enter: Saint Louis FC, the area’s only professional outdoor soccer team. On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the future of soccer in the region and the team, which recently started its third season, with General Manager Jeremy Alumbaugh.

“It’s a unique city in the sense that St. Louis has supported soccer at so many levels for so many years,” said Alumbaugh, referring to the city’s youth, indoor and outdoor soccer teams. “Even though we don’t currently have an MLS team, I’d like to think that support for soccer is very, very strong.”

Just last week, the team had to postpone a game due to flooding at their soccer park in Fenton, but that hasn’t slowed the team down. They’re currently ranked fifth in their league, the United Soccer League. This weekend, they face off against the number-one ranked Charleston Battery. And next week, they’ll join the 104-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup soccer tournament.

Support for the team is growing. Alumbaugh said that of the 30 some-odd teams in the USL, Saint Louis FC games are number three or four in attendance and the team draws a hardcore fan group, the Saint Louligans, to each game. In 2016, St. Louis FC was counted sixth in total regular season attendance, according to USL. By individual game, that number varies.

How does Saint Louis FC fit into the larger soccer world?

Major League Soccer used to run reserve teams to help players get more minutes and practice ahead of MLS team play, but the effort wasn’t really working out economically, Alumbaugh said.

“In a strategic partnership with the United Soccer League, every MLS team now must have a team in our league or a relationship with a team in the league,” he said. “In the first two years, Saint Louis FC had a relationship with the Chicago Fire. MLS players could come to us to get minutes, younger guys who were not yet ready or players recovering from an injury, kind of like the relationship between Triple A teams and Major League Baseball.”

Today, Saint Louis FC is an independent team, no longer directly affiliated with any MLS franchise. Alumbaugh sees this as a good thing.

“For MLS teams, their biggest priority is to develop players to get them to the MLS level,” Alumbaugh said. “For MLS teams, development is the priority over competition. But believe me, they win, they compete. We don’t feel at a disadvantage because we are in control of our own destiny.”

What is the future of Saint Louis FC without the MLS stadium deal going forward?

Alumbaugh said that part of the plan for the soccer stadium, had public funding come through, was to bring the St. Louis Scott Gallagher youth league and Saint Louis FC under one umbrella.

“That’s what made St. Louis so attractive to the MLS office,” Alumbaugh said. “We have everything here ready to go. We have a youth system ready to go. We have developed numerous MLS players over the years.”

Alumbaugh doesn’t think St. Louis has any hope of getting an MLS team to the city now, but that’s not going to disrupt plans for Saint Louis FC going forward.

“From the get-go, we’ve said we didn’t start St. Louis FC to bring MLS here,” Alumbaugh said. “That was never our driver. Our driver was to bring something back to St. Louis that was gone for so many years: high-level professional men’s soccer in a quality soccer stadium.”

Alumbaugh said he’d have to wait for the dust to settle over the stadium vote to know exactly what the future may hold for Saint Louis FC.

“But our task and mission has been to provide something for this growing millennial city of St. Louis, for the soccer strong city of St. Louis and to have something for young players to aspire to do,” Alumbaugh said. “That’s something we’ll continue to do regardless if we are an MLS club or not.”

What is the future of soccer in St. Louis?

Alumbaugh said that, in the past, professional soccer has struggled to thrive in St. Louis, even as it has continued to produce MLS-level players. He hopes that Saint Louis FC’s business model, attendance and corporate support, which continue to be strong, will change that legacy.

“Are we the capital of soccer in the United States? No, we’re not,” Alumbaugh said. “We were at one time, but I don’t think we’re a struggling soccer city by any means.”

Alumbaugh explained that the MLS can now charge expansion fees to cities, which makes it difficult for investors in cities the size of St. Louis to fork up the full funding for stadiums. He pointed to Indianapolis as another city that also recently concluded it would not be able to lend public funds to a soccer stadium. 

Alumbaugh said that he thought misinformation had circulated about the MLS stadium vote and that the constituency still had a sour taste in their mouths over previous stadium deals. As a non-native St. Louisan, he also said that the city/county divide is a unique challenge to the region.

“When I lived in Chicago, I never considered myself living in Will County. I live in Illinois now, and I consider myself living in St. Louis,” Alumbaugh said. “It will be very difficult for St. Louis to move forward like some other cities have in our area, Nashville and Kansas City come to mind. We’ll struggle for years until we find a solution.”   

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.