Soccer, as a spectator sport, remains a tough sell in the United States -- even after the American team's miraculous World Cup run in 2002. Even the most popular Major League Soccer teams are thrilled to draw about as many people as the Milwaukee Brewers attract on a rainy Wednesday. Saint Louis University fields one of the best men's teams in the country for crowds that could fit into one section of Busch Stadium -- and SLU is among the top-drawing programs in the NCAA.
But the beautiful game thrives as a participant sport, outranking baseball and softball combined. From the lush soccer-plexes of the suburbs to the ragged lots of Little Bosnia, every weekend finds St. Louis alive with soccer. Passion for the game doesn't come stadium-size, in the form of bloody mob violence and mass chanting, but more intimately, in hard tackles and airborne-header duels between anonymous neighbors.
That passion boiled over at least once during last year's Street Soccer Cup USA. The tournament's pressure-cooker version of the game (ten-minute four-on-four matches, played on a walled blacktop field that's around one-twentieth the size of a standard outdoor field) only intensifies the competitiveness and emotion inherent in soccer. During the rough-and-tumble men's semifinal between some sleek west county hotshots and a gang of southside Bosnians, somebody threw one elbow too many, and the place erupted. Even a couple of partisan spectators vaulted the wall to join the fray. When the ref called the match in favor of the suburbanites, further recriminations ensued. Such high drama rendered the final almost superfluous.
Even when street soccer matches don't degenerate into such ugly (but exciting!) chaos, the format provides thrills for spectators, emphasizing speed, precision, technique and lots of scoring. The tournament kicks off on Sunday, July 18, at 9 a.m. at St. Louis Union Station (20th and Market streets). Registration for players officially closed on Monday, July 12, but there may be room for last-minute teams in any age division, from under-six to over-thirty. The registration fee for a team of five is $145. Call 314-514-8050 or visit www.streetsoccercup.com.