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To see how far St. Louis has slipped in the nation's soccer hierarchy, it helps to look past the recent reminder that the U.S. team in this year's World Cup has no local players.
The Billikens started the '63 season with a 9-0 run, but by late October head coach Bob Guelkerwas worried. His team seemed flat and was about to play national power Michigan State on the Spartans' home turf. Guelker was looking for a practice game.
So he dialed up Kenrick Seminary.
The NCAA champs went to the wooded campus in Shrewsbury and played an improvised squad of priests and college seminarians. St. Louis University lost. The score was 3-1 or 3-2 -- it wasn't recorded -- but no one telling this tale doubts the winner or admits to being surprised by the result.
That the nation's best college team was beaten by an ad hoc side of Catholic clergy shows both the quality and the roots of St. Louis soccer. In those days, St. Louis was the Bethlehem of American soccer, decades before the sport spread to the rest of the country.
"When we priests were ordained, we left the seminary with a Bible and a pair of soccer shoes," says Monsignor Lou Meyer, former head of the Catholic Youth Council athletic league.
The Billikens lost that next game to Michigan State 4-3, but they finished their season with a 13-1-0 record. By the end of the year, John Paul XXIII was dead and Kennedy had been assassinated. That December, SLU beat Navy 3-0 to win another championship.
The NCAA started national tournaments in 1959. The Billikens won ten titles in the first fifteen years. During that span, SLU was to collegiate soccer what UCLA was to basketball -- a dynasty.
St. Louis was also dominant in America's early World Cup efforts, dating back to 1950, when a U.S. team of amateurs defeated heavily favored England 1-0, the last shutout by a U.S. team in World Cup play before Monday's 2-0 win over Mexico.
Six of the eleven starters on that American side were from this city. The goalie for that game was Frank Borghi, who still lives in South City. The United States competed in the preliminary rounds of the World Cup after that but would not qualify again for the final field until 1990.
The St. Louis presence on the nation's entry to the World Cup has faded with time -- this year's team has almost no connection to the city. U.S. team member Brian McBride, who scored a goal in the win over Mexico, played at SLU but is from suburban Chicago. Meyer sums up the ebb of St. Louis' soccer eminence in what sounds like a slogan civic boosters might adopt for the entire city.
"I don't think we're losing enthusiasm," he says of the rest of the country's lapping St. Louis in soccer. "We're just losing numbers."
Meyer should know. He was named assistant director of the CYC in 1947 and was its director from 1960-78. Meyer and other priests promoted soccer teams at the parish level, with each parish fielding a team, drawing talent from its defined boundaries.
Economics were a factor.
"It's a cheap-uniform sport. In the early days, we kicked soccer in tennis shoes, any kind of a shoe," says Meyer. "Soccer was such a cheap sport, it was natural for the parishes."
In other American cities, soccer was played mostly by first- and second-generation Americans. In cities with larger immigrant populations, soccer was seen as a foreign sport. In St. Louis, it was seen as Catholic. The parochial schools formed the CYC leagues, and, for many years, public high schools didn't even field teams.
Harry Keough, former SLU coach and player on the 1950 U.S. team that beat England in the World Cup, says that when local amateur teams traveled to Chicago or elsewhere for a game, they ended up playing the toughest talent those towns had to offer, which was always some team from an organization such as the Polish Falcons or a team of Mexicans or newly arrived Europeans.
In those other cities, the influx of immigrants has been ongoing, with Hispanic and Asian soccer talent adding a fresh layer to the descendants of those who hit American shores in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Until the 1990s flood of Bosnian immigrants, St. Louis didn't benefit from new generations of foreign soccer players.
"Our foreign era was way, way back compared to other places," says Keough. "Brian McBride comes from Arlington, outside of Chicago. I'm sure there wasn't a soccer player in Arlington in my time."
As soccer has sprawled into the suburbs, the sport's advantages have fueled its popularity: The rules are simple, there is little need for equipment and the risk of injury is low. Once the sport caught on in warmer climates, the odds of St. Louis' retaining its dominance decreased.
"This is the birthplace of popularity of the sport in the United States," says Bill McDermott, former SLU player and frequent ESPN soccer commentator. "They took the St. Louis blueprint, with the grade-school and select-team program. Now everyone has caught up and, to some degree, passed us."
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