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How St. Louis City SC is scoring a fan base months before its first MLS season kicks off

Construction surrounds St. Louis City S.C.’s Centene Field on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Midtown. The team is slated to play its first game in 2023.
Brent Jones
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Construction surrounds St. Louis City S.C.’s Centene Field on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Midtown. The team is slated to play its first game in 2023.

Anticipation among the region’s soccer fans is building toward early next year, when St. Louis City SC will play its first Major League Soccer game after the ownership group was awarded an expansion team three years ago this month. The team was supposed to start this year, but the pandemic pushed it to 2023.

The delay is not draining the enthusiasm of the St. Louligans supporters group. Many were out Saturday night in Edwardsville to watch the development team, City2, take on Chicago, armed with a steady drumbeat and chants echoing all over the field.

Superfan Mitch Morice has been at some City2 games and jokingly describes himself as the “Louligan Extraordinaire.” He wasn’t convinced a few years ago that St. Louis would be home to an MLS team.

“Once the stadium started happening, I think it really became real,” he said while standing outside the shiny-new 22,500-seat, soccer-specific venue going up in the city’s Downtown West area. He says the stadium is helping some who might have been skeptical about St. Louis landing another pro sports franchise get on board.

”You see people who maybe weren’t interested a year ago or two years ago that had hurt feelings about the way things had gone, they’re coming around to say, no, this is something to be a part of.” A previous plan for a taxpayer-funded stadium was rejected in 2017. After that, some deep-pocketed private investors eventually came forward to secure a stadium and expansion franchise.

As they wait for the first game, the club is busy reaching into communities to become part of the city’s rich soccer culture and expand that passion into other parts of St. Louis.

“We're building these relationships and going into the community in an organic and authentic way that makes St. Louisans more than just fans of City SC,” said Khalia Collier, vice president of community relations. She’s been part of the St. Louis sports scene for years — she’s the owner of the women’s basketball team, the St. Louis Surge — and has long been a soccer supporter.

“I'm born and raised here in St. Louis. My first sport was soccer. My first introduction to soccer was YMCA bitty-ball,” she said.

St. Louis City 2 midfielder Célio Antonio Pompeu Pinheiro Martins (11) goes airborne while trying to keep control of the ball from Chicago Fire 2 defender Kyle Bebej (2) on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, during a matchup at Ralph Korte Stadium in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis City 2 midfielder Célio Antonio Pompeu Pinheiro Martins (11) goes airborne while trying to keep control of the ball from Chicago Fire 2 defender Kyle Bebej (2) on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, during a matchup at Ralph Korte Stadium in Edwardsville.

City SC has formed a partnership with the Gateway Region YMCA to give children from pre-kindergarten through 6th grade the chance to play soccer. Those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in Missouri receive a discount.

The team also has a free initiative to teach children about the sport and life skills.

“We especially want to reach the kids where the parents are not able, or [don’t have] the financial power to support the kids to go on the big travel teams,” said Director of Regional Training and Education Sascha Bauer.

The club wants to build a player pipeline in the region reaching from youth soccer all the way to the big MLS squad. Most children going through the programs will not play top-level soccer in North America. But another goal is to connect them to something bigger — “seeing the club as a part of their family and where they were able to grow in various areas, having great experiences and building friendships for life,” Bauer said.

Ethan Akenbrandt, 20, of St. Charles, center, cheers on St. Louis City 2 alongside Em Brunson, 22, of Warrenton, left, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, during a matchup against Chicago Fire 2 at Ralph Korte Stadium in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Ethan Akenbrandt, 20, of St. Charles, center, cheers on St. Louis City 2 alongside Em Brunson, 22, of Warrenton, left, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, during a matchup against Chicago Fire 2 at Ralph Korte Stadium in Edwardsville.

Along with building youth programs, City SC has supported women-owned businesses, hosted a COVID-19 vaccination event and helped set up a Futsal Court in Marquette Park. Futsal is a soccer-based game played outside on a hard surface.

It also selected local rapper Mvstermind to be the club’s director of musical experience. He will be in charge of finding music from local artists for games and events in another effort to develop strong ties to the community.

“This allows us to build the actual platform that this city needs for artists, for our budding talent, to be able to display this not just to only our city but to the world,” Mvstermind told St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis earlier this year. 

Community support will be an essential part of whether City SC will be a success. The team’s performance on the field will be vital as well, especially against the team that could be City SC’s biggest rival.

“Personally, I gotta go with Kansas City. They've got some fans that are very obnoxious and create an environment that's hostile,” Louligan Morice said, imagining what the first matchup in the new stadium might be, though the club’s 2023 schedule has not yet been announced.

“We want them to come here and see what we can do on our stage.”

City SC’s inaugural season will begin in late February or early March.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Wayne Pratt is a veteran journalist who has made stops at radio stations, wire services and websites throughout North America. He comes to St. Louis Public Radio from Indianapolis, where he was assistant managing editor at Inside Indiana Business. Wayne also launched a local news operation at NPR member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, and spent time as a correspondent for a network of more than 800 stations. His career has included positions in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Ontario and Phoenix, Arizona. Wayne grew up near Ottawa, Ontario and moved to the United States in the mid-90s on a dare. Soon after, he met his wife and has been in the U.S. ever since.
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