Gateway to Nowhere (plus the latest Chaves news)

Hopes of St. Louis landing an MLS franchise are fading fast.

For those who might not be aware, I moved from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri this past November to start a new job. Overall, I don’t have a lot of complaints. There are a few things Chicago have that St. Louis doesn’t: good pizza, a legitimate subway station, and oh yeah, an MLS franchise. The last of them isn’t for a lack of trying.

As I mentioned in my column last week, most of the recent MLS expansions have been relative no-brainers. The fan support was there, the stadium was there and a solid owner was in place.

The first one of those criteria seems to be filled. Soccer at the amateur level runs deep in St. Louis and the neighboring suburbs both in Missouri and on the Illinois side of the border. This goes back a while. For example, most of the USA 1950 World Cup team that defeated England 1-0 in one of the biggest upsets in soccer history was from St. Louis.

In order to answer the last two parts, I have to set the stage a bit and go out of order after the break.

For the longest time, despite the widespread acceptance of soccer in St. Louis, there really wasn’t anyone spearheading a campaign to bring an MLS club to the Gateway city. When a St. Louis area lawyer named Jeff Cooper first asked MLS commissioner about whether there was a group already working to MLS to the area, he was told there wasn’t. Almost from that point forward, Jeff Cooper became the new face of St. Louis soccer.

And man, did they want it. In September 2007, just across the state line in Collinsville, Illinois, the city council agreed to help a consortium led by Cooper named St. Louis Soccer United (SLSU) build a $400 million multi-purpose stadium that would begin hosting an MLS team in 2009. Cooper believed the race for MLS team #16 was between St. Louis and Philadelphia. He also believed the runner-up would likely be selected as team #17.

So. So. So. Close. Like "Which Anheuser-Busch product should be on our shirt?" close.

On February 28th 2008, MLS selected Philadelphia as the 16th team that would begin playing in 2010. In the official press release, Garber said "St. Louis is one of the leading candidates we are considering and we are hopeful that all elements will come together soon for the city to join the League." As you can see, that quote is quite ambiguous.

Now here’s the part where things get tricky. There was never really an official announcement saying that St. Louis would NOT receive an MLS franchise. But it appears that MLS was concerned with the financial backing of the club and suggested that Cooper find more investors. As far as I can tell, this never happened. The unofficial dagger came in March 2009 when Vancouver and Portland were named the 17th and 18th franchises, respectively.

Cooper fought hard. There’s no doubt about that. He proved that St. Louis had all of the elements for a successful MLS franchise besides the money. Now this is the part where if we had a time machine, we would go back and either convince Cooper to let someone else try to bring soccer to St. Louis. Or kidnap him. Because this is where things get ugly.

In the Fall of 2009, Cooper sold his majority stake in St. Louis Soccer United to brothers Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid from London, who prompted renamed the club Athletic Club St. Louis.

AC St. Louis planned to play in the newly-formed North American Soccer League. This was problematic, as the United States Soccer Foundation did not sanction the new league. Eventually, the USSF came up with the interim D2 Pro League. Perhaps in part because their desire to be heavily involved with the new NASL was hindered by this, the Vaid brothers pulled out of the club in May 2010, just a month into the club’s first season. For the 2010 season, anything AC St. Louis did that was remotely positive ended up looking like a mixture of a Greek tragedy and a Three Stooges sketch:

Good: In February 2010, the club signed former Revs midfielder and St. Louis native Steve Ralston as their first-ever player and captain.

Bad: That June, after playing a grand total of two games, Ralston returned to the Revs when the club was in financial crisis.

Good: The club hired Claude Anelka, the older brother of current Chelsea FC striker Nicolas Anelka as the club’s first head coach.

Bad: The club starts out 1-7-1 and Anelka is fired before the end of the season (also a cost-cutting move)

And my personal favorite:

Good: They opened Anheuser-Busch (Predictable, I know) Park in Fenton, Missouri on April 17, 2010 to a fairly large crowd of 5,965.

Bad: One of their players didn't have the necessary papers to be allowed to play, so the team played the first 30 minutes of the game with just 10 players while the player returned to the team hotel to get his paperwork. By the time he got back to the stadium, AC St. Louis was behind 2-0. They ended up losing 2-1.

The club limped to an 11th place finish. In the offseason, Cooper was unable to find a permanent owner and the club folded in January 2011. Two of the players on AC St Louis’ final roster, midfielder Michael Vidiera and goalie Alec Dufty, eventually joined the Chicago Fire.

It was a sad way for St. Louis soccer dreams to come to an end. All that’s left now is the USL PDL is the St. Louis Lions, which actually hasn’t done too badly due to a connection with Scottish giant Celtic FC.

But any chance of an MLS franchise seems to be in hold at the moment. With other cities putting together bids for MLS club #20, St. Louis isn’t really in the mix at all. They need a new hero.

The problem with owning an MLS club (or any sports franchise for that matter) is that it’s not just a business. Sure, clubs can be profitable, but there are many easier ways to make money than run a sports team. In order to succeed, the owner has to be committed to the success of the club.

For example, Andrew Hauptman of Andell Holdings purchased the Chicago Fire soccer club in 2007 for initial reasons that aren’t completely known even to this day. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the experience has been different than he expected it would be (Tweed posted an article last February which, even in hindsight, expresses some of that potential confusion). The first press conference Hauptman had was when the club announced Frank Klopas as the permanent head coach just over a month ago. It appears as if he’s now committed to contributing more to the club day-to-day activities, which can only be considered a good thing.

St. Louis currently has three major sports teams. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball club is the only one with a truly stable ownership group. The St. Louis Blues hockey team is currently searching for a new owner. Stan Kroenke bought the St. Louis Rams in 2010, which means he now owns the Rams, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Rapids, the Colorado Avalanche and is the majority stakeholder of Arsenal FC in North London. So the Rams aren’t really his #1 priority. If Kroenke was interested in being part of a potential St. Louis MLS franchise, he’d probably have to sell at least the Rapids.

So who is the next person to step up and attempt to lead St. Louis to an MLS franchise? Who knows. If someone does try though, they should realize that they wouldn’t be alone.

Diego, where did you go?

Who should be calling whom? It seems like something you might hear in a teenage relationship.

According to FutbolMLS.com, MLS’ Spanish-language website, Fire forward Diego Chaves is waiting on a phone call from head coach Frank Klopas.

Here’s at least a close translation:

"It worries me, but I have some expectation the situation because we were supposed to speak before leaving the United States and there would me an offer. Since I left I have not received any calls or messages, so it is quite complicated Chicago, and would almost ruled out."

Apologies on the poor syntax, but the gist of it seems to be that Chaves is on his way out of Chicago, and not by his choice. According to Chaves, his contract expires Saturday, December 31, 2011.

When Frank Klopas had his interim head coach tag removed in early November, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman was not originally clear at the press conference about whether Klopas would continue to have some of his former Technical Director duties. Eventually, Hauptman admitted that someone else would be brought in for that role.

But since Hauptman said that, there’s been no news about who the new TD will be. When discussing whether it was a bad thing that Klopas has apparently not spoken with Chaves, you have to wonder if contacting soon-to-be-out-of-contract players is part of his new job description.

It's a shame because I was truly hoping Chaves would be the first player in MLS (and all sports I suppose) history to sign a contract in which he would only be a member of the club for the first and last months of the season. Oh well.

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