Just for Kicks: St. Louis will field a new professional women's soccer team next spring

In these times of hope deferred, what with the Cardinals' late-season collapse and the Rams on their way to NFL infamy, St. Louisans must remember that baseball and football are mere distractions. At heart, St. Louis is a soccer town.

Granted, that heart may seem deeply buried, considering that it has been more than 30 years since the city last fielded a professional outdoor team. That all changes, though, next April when the new Women's Professional Soccer league kicks off its inaugural season in seven cities, including St. Louis.

"We're the best soccer city in North America," boasts Jeff Cooper, chairman of St. Louis Soccer United, the development company that has fought to bring back pro soccer back to town. "This is going to be the premier women's soccer league on the planet, with the best players in the world."

St. Louis has scored some of the game's biggest stars: forward Tina Ellertson, goalie Hope Solo and midfielder Lori Chalupny, a graduate of Webster Groves' Nerinx Hall High School. All three played on the U.S. national team that brought home a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in August.

"We couldn't be any more excited," says Cooper. "We had the goal of getting each of the three players we got. I don't think any other market can say that. It couldn't have gone any better."

It took Cooper and St. Louis Soccer United two years and an estimated $1 million in franchise fees to deliver a WPS team. Later this fall, they will apply to Major League Soccer — the fourteen-team men's league — for an expansion franchise and should hear MLS' decision early next year. MLS passed over St. Louis last year in favor of Philadelphia, but Cooper is an optimistic man. This past January, he secured funding for a $572 million, 18,500-seat stadium complex on 400 acres in Collinsville, slated to open in 2011.

The women's team, meanwhile, will have a temporary home at the soccer stadium at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which seats 3,500, and a coach in Jorge Barcellos, who led the Brazilian national team to a silver medal in Beijing. It will acquire more players in the league draft on October 6. The team will have no nickname and, at least for the first year, will be known simply as "St. Louis."

"If the fans come up with a nickname, we'll use it," says Cooper.

Barcellos agreed last month to move to St. Louis.

"When we heard Coach Barcellos was in the states, we made frantic calls to get him to come to St. Louis," says Cooper.

"This is a new challenge for me and it has been a dream of mine to work in this league," Barcellos writes in an e-mail from Brazil. "My interview with Jeff Cooper and Caryn Chasteen, team president, convinced me that this team is focused and determined to be the best in the league."

The other clincher in Barcellos' decision, explains Cooper, was St. Louis' extensive network of youth-league teams which will become a de facto farm system.

"We brought the three largest and best youth clubs in St. Louis together — Metro United, Scott Gallagher and the St. Louis Soccer Club — and merged them June 1," Cooper says. "That's about 8,000 kids.

"The pro players will be involved in the youth clubs and make sure the kids are getting world-class training and advice," continues Cooper, who played soccer for Granite City High School and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The pro teams will also have automatic rights to draft homegrown players once they're old enough.

For now, though, St. Louis will have to compete with other WPS teams to fill its 24-woman roster. The draft has several phases. The first divided up the U.S. women's national team, sending three players to each of the seven franchises: Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Washington and St. Louis. The allocations were based on a complicated system that took into account the preferences of both the teams and the players. Last week, each team drafted two top international players.

The San Francisco-based WPS has invited 128 players, both American and international, to participate in the general draft. There will be another round of drafts later this winter for college seniors who are forbidden by the NCAA to participate in a professional draft until their season is over. Finally, in February, there will be open tryouts in each city.

The season kicks off the first weekend in April. All games will be played on Saturday, culminating in the league championship at the end of August — which Cooper fully expects St. Louis to win.

The team faces one obstacle in its coach's inability to speak English. For the time being, an assistant coach will serve as Barcellos' interpreter. "I will be studying English every day," Barcellos says, "and will be interacting with people as much as possible so I can learn the language. I am excited to teach Portuguese to Jeff and Caryn."

St. Louis has a great soccer tradition, Cooper says. Half of the legendary 1950 national men's team that upset Great Britain in the World Cup hailed from St. Louis. Since then, every national men's and women's team has had at least one local player. Saint Louis University has won more soccer championships than any other school in the country.

Still, the city has never been able to hold on to a professional team. The St. Louis Raiders folded in 1953 and the St. Louis Stars left town in 1977. The fate of the St. Louis Steamers, the money-losing indoor team that cancelled its 2007 season, remains uncertain.

WPS is the second attempt to form a women's league. Five years ago, the Women's United Soccer Association went under due to lack of funds.

"Our challenge is to do things differently from the old WUSA," Cooper explains. "They spent money wildly and squandered an incredible chance. They spent money like NFL teams. We want to treat our team like a small business and keep an eye on the core product: winning soccer games on Saturday."

The model for the new women's league is MLS. "We think they've gotten it right," says Cooper. "They have higher attendance than the NHL. We're confident that model and our ownership group can sustain players' and administrators' salaries."

Barcellos this year will earn between $75,000 and $80,000, depending on bonuses, a relatively modest salary for a professional coach. Player salaries have not yet been determined, says Cooper.

Playing WPS soccer in St. Louis will be a full-time job. "The players have to understand that they are ambassadors for the game and for the franchise," Cooper says. "It's not just good enough to run around the field after games and give autographs and shake hands. Every minute of every day they serve as ambassadors. As players, they're inspiration, and they're aspirational as role models. I'm really excited for this to happen."