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St. Louis hopes MLS' 28-team goal is gateway to expansion

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

With the St. Louis Rams NFL team gone for Los Angeles, a group of St. Louis bigwigs sees an even greater appetite for soccer in the country.

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St. Louis is often referred to as the birthplace of soccer in the United States. It all started there in 1907 with the St. Louis Soccer League – the only fully professional soccer league in the United States at the time. For the past century the area has been one of the hotbeds of soccer in the country, even when the sport’s popularity was nothing like it is today.

Numerous indoor soccer leagues have spackled the St. Louis cityscape, creating a rich soccer culture. Many United States international soccer players call St. Louis their home and it is no wonder why with how many leagues the city provides. St. Louis University accounts for 10 NCAA championships and St. Louis FC, the cities soccer representation in the USL, has consistently averaged in the top five in attendance since the club’s founding in 2014.

Even though MLS has exponentially grown in popularity, the birthplace of soccer in the United States has been devoid of a presence or promise in St. Louis up until recently. MLS commissioner Don Garber last week made official MLS’ plans to expand to 28 teams at some point, and the Gateway to the West hopes to be among those entering the league.

Previous attempts for MLS in St. Louis haven’t gone far, but there is tremendous optimism that this bid will be successful where others have failed. The reasoning for this is simple. Not only has the Rams’ exodus added a heightened sense of urgency, but this time around, the entire city has united. Owners from current professional franchises have joined the St. Louis Sports Commission, St. Louis’ USL team - St. Louis FC - to form MLS2STL, a group aiming to bring MLS to the city.

One member of MLS2STL took the time to speak with FourFourTwo about the newest expansion effort and what has changed since the departure of the Rams. Jim Woodcock, who co-leads the sports division of the global FleishmanHillard public relations firm, has as much history in the game as the city. He says efforts to bring MLS to town have ramped up since the NFL’s St. Louis Ram left for Los Angeles earlier this year.

“[MLS2STL] surfaced organically and over time as the Rams effort evolved,” he told FourFourTwo. The group always had MLS in their plans along with the riverfront stadium for the St. Louis Rams. “When the NFL effort concluded, the soccer support group that included Jim Kavanaugh as well as the top team executives with the St. Louis Blues and St. Louis Cardinals, among others, took a more permanent shape and became the exploratory group that we have today.”

Still, the group’s emergence as a significant player the MLS expansion effort visibly intensified following the departure of the Rams. Yet, Woodcock was very adamant that losing the Rams was not the ideal outcome. He even went so far as to say that effort was well underway while the city struggled to keep hold of the Rams.

“We wanted to keep the Rams.  Losing the Rams was not a blessing in any way to our community,” he said. “ The outcome, however, unquestionably resulted in a completely different profile for St. Louis as an MLS expansion franchise market. It’s fair to say our candidacy has been enhanced.  But I cannot emphasize enough that MLS was always a focal point in our NFL stadium efforts to keep the Rams here in St. Louis.  We didn’t instantly become an attractive soccer market because we lost the NFL, but the attraction admittedly may be greater today.”

It’s almost as if MLS2STL has turned the bereavement into productivity, turning the sadness of a departure into the enthusiasm of a new arrival. What then, is the next step for St. Louis, and more specifically, MLS2STL?

“The MLS2STL Group was formed to explore and advance the city’s candidacy to be awarded a Major League Soccer expansion franchise,” Woodcock said.  “What this does is signal to a potential owner, or owners, that there is a group here in St. Louis, recognized by the league office, that is committed to the arrival of an MLS expansion franchise in St. Louis.”

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. women and men played at Busch Stadium last year. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

The optimism surrounding the move is aided by the visible dedication of MLS Commissioner Don Garber to work with the city. “We have enjoyed a productive and open dialogue with Commissioner Garber and his staff for well over a year,” Woodcock noted. “Commissioner Garber met with community leaders from every walk of life and business.  He met with the news media.  He met with fans.  And the communications pipeline has remained open and active ever since.”

By 2019, Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Miami should all have joined MLS to take the total to 24 and from there, the rest of the 28 slots look to be pretty set as well. San Antonio and Sacramento look to be next in line, but after that, it is St. Louis making significant progress.

The city has shown a tremendous love for soccer of all brands. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been six friendlies and qualifiers that have all pulled in crowds of over 30,000 fans each.

In August of 2013, 54,184 fans piled into the Edwards Jones Dome for Real Madrid vs. Inter Milan. Busch Stadium, the home of the Cardinals, hosted a U.S. men’s national team qualifier in November in front of 43,433 fans, as well as a U.S. women’s national team game last April in front of 35,817 fans.

Despite the encouraging metrics, Woodcock was clear that there was still plenty of work to be done.

“We’re optimistic that we will be successful in time,” he said. “Nothing is a given here, but we are in the best position to see this come to fruition as we have been in years.  And we do know one thing for certain – St. Louis is deserving and ready for Major League Soccer.”   

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