Penalty Kick

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

Jun 19, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

Go back to 1963, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House, Pope John XXIII was in the Vatican and St. Louis University was the national champion in soccer.

The Billikens started the '63 season with a 9-0 run, but by late October head coach Bob Guelker was 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."

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.

Chubby Americans who try to watch these games have no one to look at and subconsciously say: "That could be me." Baseball has Tony Gwynn and David Wells. Football has Orlando Pace and almost any other lineman.

This is a country known for beer bellies, butt cleavage, love handles and mother lodes of cellulite. Try to imagine most Americans playing soccer without risking a coronary.

Because of this passing interest in the sport, there isn't decent media coverage. Keough's son Ty Keough is part of the only broadcast team ESPN sent to Korea and Japan for the World Cup. Both the younger Keough and Jack Edwards do good work on the ground, broadcasting games. For the other games on ESPN and ESPN2, the commentators are back in Bristol, Connecticut, watching the game on a monitor.

As national interest and participation in soccer have surged, local soccer fortunes have declined. SLU teams are consistently ranked in the top 10, but the university's last NCAA soccer title came in 1973. The high schools feeding Kenrick Seminary, Prep South and Prep North, have long since closed. The seminary's soccer field has been replaced with a nursing home.

The stakes and the rewards in soccer have gotten higher.

"I can't tell you how much money they spent preparing this national team and how much money they spent over the years isolating players and getting them into the under-seventeen group and playing in the world tournament, then the under-twenty group," says Keough.

No, Keough can't say how much money it took to get the U.S. to the current level of competitiveness, but it's lot more cash than needed for a pickup game with priests.