Rich in history, St. Louis ready for first steps in MLS
Abandoned by the NFL, the Midwest city of St. Louis has rallied behind the "other football" with their new Major League Soccer club set to make their debut on Saturday.
But, unlike in many of the markets MLS has entered, the league's 29th club needs to do no converting of fans in a city which has a long and deep connection to the game.
When owner Stan Kroenke moved the NFL's St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles in 2016, there were plenty of the city's let-down sports fans who were adamant they were finished with the NFL.
It was the second time an NFL team had left the city, with the Cardinals having left for Arizona in 1987, and the anger was palpable in the Missouri city.
In the aftermath of the Rams' departure, MLS commissioner Don Garber was asked if Kroenke's move had opened the door for an MLS team in the city but was careful in his response.
"It gives it a little more momentum," Garber said cautiously.
It turned out to be quite some momentum.
Just three years later, MLS had awarded St. Louis an expansion franchise and within four years a purpose built stadium and downtown soccer complex has been built for the new team.
Carolyn Kindle, the founding owner and president of the majority female ownership group of St. Louis City, doesn't see her club as filling a gap left vacant by the NFL, preferring instead to focus on the long established love for soccer in the city.
"I think they're different fan bases," she told AFP.
"I think St. Louis was just excited to have a professional soccer team because it's been talked about for so many years."
The main reason for that talk is the city's rich soccer history going back to the early days of the game in the United States.
The first fully professional league in the country, formed in 1915, was based around four St. Louis clubs and players from the area made up the bulk of early United States national teams.
The American team which famously beat England during the 1950 World Cup featured five players from St. Louis and that influence has continued - every single US World Cup squad has featured at least one player from the city.
In the era of the old North American Soccer League, the St. Louis Stars were famed for being built around local and American players, doing battle with the international imports on teams like Pele's New York Cosmos.
The NASL folded and when MLS arrived in 1996 there was no St. Louis team, but the thriving youth football scene remained and produced plenty of players for the league.
One of those, former US international striker Taylor Twellman, who now fronts MLS's television broadcasts, says the game is deeply entrenched in the city's sporting culture.
- A soccer city -
"Soccer has been talked about in St. Louis since the start of time. It's taught by so many players that played on some level. St. Louis University was the premier program when there was only college for men's soccer. The women have been fantastic.
"The parochial and town level coaching was done by players. You tell me how many cities in this country have that?" Twellman told AFP.
"The soccer scene has always been ultra competitive," he added. "So much of that is from youth soccer, parish playing against parish, the Bosnian community playing against the Italian community. It was South side against North side."
Kindle knew her ownership group was tapping into a fervent soccer fan base but even she has been shocked at over 60,000 deposits for season tickets at the 22,500 capacity CITYPARK stadium.
A club also needed building from scratch.
"We started January 2020 with six employees. We started January 2023 with one hundred and seven," said Kindle, who said that fans were consulted throughout the process.
The on-field team building was led by German Lutz Pfannenstiel, a much travelled former goalkeeper who had worked for German clubs Hoffenheim and Fortuna Dusseldorf before taking the reins in Missouri.
Another player with a Bundesliga background, South African Bradley Carnell, is the club's first coach, having gained experience as an assistant coach at New York Red Bulls.
St. Louis's first game will be at Austin on Saturday before a highly anticipated home opener against Charlotte the following week.
Kindle expects that to be an emotional occasion.
"Honestly, the city is just so excited to have this happen. It's going to be loud, it's going to be crazy."