Penalty Kick

Faded soccer glory seen in a U.S. World Cup team without St. Louis talent

"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."

Pat McBride, also a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame and coach at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, says local players still excel but that they play in a far more competitive field.

"If there's a pool of 50 players who could be on the national team, I would say there's five or six who could be from St. Louis," says McBride. "This time around, those five or six are not in the final 22, the final roster."

Professional players from St. Louis such as Taylor Twellman, Matt McKeon, Steve Ralston and Brad Davis are all "right there," says McBride. "But it's a numbers game." As they do in baseball, Sun Belt states such as California and Texas have a competitive edge because the sport can be played almost year-round.

McBride played on U.S. World Cup teams in '68 and '72; neither qualified for the final field, for one reason:

"Mexico," he says, the country that the U.S. team this year defeated to become one of the World Cup's final eight survivors. "We couldn't get past Mexico. Now Mexico still is a big hurdle, but we're on the same par with them. It's a flip of the coin. If we go down to Mexico and win, it's not such a big shock. But I remember playing in Azteca Stadium and thinking, 'Shit, they must have thirteen guys. They're buzzing and running all over the place. They must have more than eleven.' They were a level ahead of us."

Clearly if a U.S. team were to compete on the international level, its base of talent couldn't just be dominated by one city. And the days of the U.S. team's being severely outmanned are over, says Keough, who remembers his 1950 squad's being such an underdog to England:

"The team we beat from England was so much better than us on paper it wasn't even funny. That's why I say our upset will never be duplicated, because I don't think two teams will ever play in the World Cup with that much space between them, with that good of a team playing that low of a team.

"They had to think we were a bunch of Humpty-Dumpties," says Keough. "We were a little bit more than that."

In the last 10 minutes of that game, played in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the U.S. team almost scored a second goal. "Frank Wallace of St. Louis escaped with the ball and almost got through," Keough recalls. "I would have had a hard time explaining how we won 2-0. I can't even explain how we won 1-0."

Back in the '70s, St. Louisans were so accustomed to seeing homegrown talent do well nationally that they weren't ready for the professional Stars of the North American Soccer League. The team's attempt to mix foreign players with local talent led to a xenophobic reaction from fans.

"The St. Louis soccer fan would say, 'I can go to Fairgrounds Park or Carondelet Park and see just as good a game.' That wasn't true, but it wasn't all a lie, either," says Keough. "The St. Louis soccer fan is different. No one said, 'I don't want to see those Cardinals play -- they don't have anybody from St. Louis on that team.' They never said that about the Cardinals, or the Blues, but they said it about soccer."

It's not that foreign stars were totally dissed by St. Louis fans. When Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, played at Busch Stadium in an exhibition match between Santos of Brazil and the Stars, the game drew more than 20,000 spectators. Pelé scored in that game, but Santos won 3-2 on a direct kick by another Brazilian one-namer, Pepe.

Meyer remembers that years later, after Pelé retired, local fans packed the soccer clinics he held in the city and in Florissant. The soccer legend stayed at the St. Mary Magdalen rectory on South Kingshighway. No, Meyer never put up a plaque reading, "Pelé slept here," but he claims he had a thank-you letter from Pelé bronzed.

The current professional league, Major League Soccer, probably won't be fielding a franchise in St. Louis anytime soon. McDermott says local ownership is needed. Robert R. Herman Stadium on the SLU campus could be remodeled as a venue for a MLS team, but it would take more than $5 million to make it into an acceptable 20,000-seat natural-turf stadium.

The MLS has survived, but it's not thriving. Every four years, the media mewls about why soccer hasn't taken off in the U.S. as it has on the rest of the planet. There are too few goals, the game is dominated by foreign players, it's too subtle, it's not violent enough -- take your pick.

All that may be true, but Short Cuts has its own theory. Yes, yes, America is ethnocentric, xenophobic and violent, but the real reason soccer doesn't sell well stateside is that America is fat.

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