(Editor's Note: This article is a follow-up to one written in late December about St. Louis' struggles to land an MLS franchise. If you haven't read that yet, it is highly recommended. This is Part 2 of the ongoing Soccer in St. Louis series.)
It's a half hour before kickoff and Matt Williams is not happy.
Williams is the General Manager of the Illinois Piasa (pronounced Pie-Uh-saw), an indoor soccer club that plays its home games at The Sports Academy in Glen Carbon, Illinois, just a short drive away from St. Louis.
The visiting Cincinnati Kings have just displayed a bit of gamesmanship: They curiously wore their away red shirts the night before during their home game with the Kansas Magic and now are planning on wearing their home black shirts on the road against the Piasa.
This forces Matt to call his father Jim, a part owner of the club, to pick up the Piasa road red shirts from Matt's house. "They're doing it on purpose," Matt says with confidence. He makes his thoughts known to, among others, the referees, his team's players and his family, most of whom play some role in the club. "If we're on the road, I'm up until 2am doing laundry if I have to."
Jim comes through with the shirts though with only minutes until kickoff. Because of the mix-up, defender Josh Boyd has to wear the #22 shirt instead of his usual #12. Josh takes it all in stride though, saying, "It's only a number." Perhaps slightly inspired by this, Boyd will later score the Piasa's first goal of the match.
The big centerpiece of the night, at least from a marketing perspective, is the return of Joe Reiniger. A 42-year-old St. Louis soccer legend, Reiniger has scored over 600 goals throughout his indoor career, playing for numerous clubs including the St. Louis Ambush and the St. Louis Steamers, two prior indoor clubs who have since folded.
Reiniger is currently the Piasa's head coach, but with a 3-7 record, the team needs goals and he still has the left foot to score them. The jersey mix-up means that Matt the GM has to rip the tag off a shirt for sale to have him wear for the match. Reiniger is listed as #21 in the box score, but there's no number on his back. This isn't really the biggest deal though, considering almost everyone in the arena knows who he is. He'll end up scoring two goals in his return.
Eventually, the match gets started without any real setbacks, and Matt cracks open a can of Bud Light with the intention of sitting down to watch the game with his family. It doesn't appear that Matt ever actually sits down though. When you're essentially running the show, it's hard to truly relax.
The Illinois Piasa are now in their second season as a member of the Professional Arena Soccer League (PASL-Pro), which is currently the second-largest indoor soccer league in the United States behind the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). Matt and his family originally founded the club in 2007 as a member of the Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL-Premier).
Matt says the club has stayed financially viable by selling tickets and keeping facility costs low. Most of the players have other jobs and none of them make more than $200 a game. In August 2011, 49% of the club was sold to Jason Cawvey, the owner of a Collinsville-area private security firm. When Cawvey abandoned the club in early December, the Piasa players hadn't been paid for three weeks. The Williams family was able to right the ship; however, and now the club is back to being owned primarily by them.
He also mentioned that the PASL as a whole does a good job of keeping its clubs in line so that there isn't as much turmoil as in leagues like the MISL. The Chicago Riot Soccer Club, which was run by former GM Peter Wilt, made it through one season in MISL before ceasing operations. Matt said he hopes the Riot will be able to compete in PASL-Pro during the 2012-2013 season.
The games in themselves are exciting, but certainly different from your typical different MLS game. There are pop hits and rock classics playing throughout the night, including during the game as opposed to just during timeouts. There are tons of promotions and giveaways; before the game Matt was rushing to get posters signed by the Piasa players to be given away to lucky fans.
But the Piasa has an advantage that most PASL-Pro clubs don't have: the St. Louligans.
The largest supporters group in St. Louis used to be the Eads Brigade. When St. Louis hosted the MLS SuperDraft in 2009, they sang, "All we want is a team to call our own" to the tune of the Beatles song, "Yellow Submarine" just outside the draft headquarters. After hopes of landing an MLS expansion club faded, the Eads Brigade slowly fell apart. Now the Louligans are the strongest soccer supporters in the area.
The St. Louligans (Or Louligans for short) are a collection of 7 different supporters groups that were active with AC St. Louis in the USSF D2 Pro League (also known as NASL) before they folded in January 2011. They went from having around 300 or so supporters when AC St. Louis started the ill-fated 2010 season to just around 75-100 supporters by season's end when it became apparent the club was something of a lost cause.
The 15-20 or so Louligans in attendance at the Piasa game though are showing no love for the Kings players. To say they are abusing the 6 cans for $10 beer special would be an understatement. At one point, The Sports Academy staff had to intervene to stop one of the members, Liz White, from jumping off a table and kicking another member in order to participate in the Louligans next podcast.
The organization seems to have a mischievous streak. The chants at the opposing players would probably get me banned from SB Nation if I posted them. After a game earlier this season, they covered the opposing team's van with Justin Bieber wrapping paper.
White previously was heavily involved in the St. Louis Athletica women's team, which competed in the Women's Professional Soccer league (WPS). Athletica boasted a roster that included US Women's National Team stars in midfielders Lindsay Tarpley and Shannon Boxx and goalkeeper Hope Solo. Despite this, the club shut down in the middle of the 2010 WPS season when brothers Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid pulled out of Athletica as well as AC St. Louis. AC St. Louis then proceeded to limp to the end of the 2010 season before folding as well.
Despite the heartbreak of losing two teams in the same year, White is still a proud member of the Louligans who says, "I wouldn't trade this for anything." She is now engaged to another member of the supporters group, Keith Mayfield.
Another member of the Louligans is Steve Rusnack, the man who invited me to check out the Piasa game after seeing my first article on St. Louis soccer. He is also the Piasa's Director of Media Relations. Among other projects, he's interested in trying to set up a regular season match-up between the Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City in St. Louis.
Also affiliated with the group is Mitch Morice who, when asked what his role with the Louligans is, laughed. "This is completely a dictatorship," he joked. "We have a ruling class and that's basically what it comes down to."
Morice then went on to elaborate: "There are a lot of people that want to pretend that this is something that it's not, that we're going to be like Section 8 (a Chicago Fire supporters group) or something," he said. "The people that make decisions are the people that show up every time"
During AC St. Louis' first and only season in 2010, one of the few bright spots was the Louligans coming together. There were previously about 7 different supporters groups that didn't really talk to another that eventually united under the Louligans. When AC St. Louis folded, the Louligans weren't ready to follow suit. They started supporting the St. Louis Lions of the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (USL PDL for short) in the summer and the Piasa in the winter.
If there's live soccer in St. Louis, regardless of the level, the Louligans want to be a part of it. "If there's beer and a good time to be had supporting a 9th grade team from St. Elizabeth (a private, all girls high school), we're going," joked Morice.
"I mean, St. Louis is such a soccer place, it's depressing to see this kind of stuff just fall apart on a money level," he said. "But the people are there, you've just got to get them to come. It's going to be our job."
The NASL (USSF D2 Pro League) "Experiment"
As I mentioned in the first article, not much is known about why MLS did not select St. Louis to receive a franchise through expansion. Morice seems to believe MLS used St. Louis as a way to motivate other cities the league wanted to have franchises to get their act together.
What we do know is that when the MLS dreams temporarily fell apart, Jeff Cooper (who was reached out to but did not respond by press time) kept his promise about bringing a professional soccer club to St. Louis. In 2009, when Nike sold the United Soccer Leagues (USL) to NuRock Soccer Holdings, nine clubs left the First Division to form the North American Soccer League: the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks FC, Miami FC, the Minnesota Thunder, the , the Rochester Rhinos, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the , and the AC St. Louis expansion group. Cooper, as well as Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid, who had bought a majority interest in AC St Louis, were some of the major players in the new league.
Once most of the legal issues between USL and NASL were resolved and the USSF D2 Pro League compromise was reached with clubs from both leagues competing against each other for the 2010 season, AC St. Louis first season began in April 2010. The honeymoon wouldn't last long.
One thing Morice says the fans were unaware of was how much of the club the Vaid brothers owned. When they faced accounting problems in London, they decided the benefits of keeping AC St. Louis were outweighed by those financial issues, they decided the club was no longer worth it, and in May 2010, they pulled out of AC St. Louis.
This left Jeff Cooper in a very precarious position. First, he shut down St. Louis Athletica, the WPS team. Then, he went about cutting costs from AC St. Louis, including selling captain Steve Ralston back to his previous club New England Revolution and firing head coach Claude Anelka, the brother of Chelsea FC striker.
At this point, the club's demise was inevitable. That moment officially came on January 17th, 2011. One of Morice's friends worked for AC St. Louis and even he didn't know all of the specifics of the club's folding. Morice said, "People were asking me, hey, your buddy works there, what happened, and I'm like, ‘He doesn't know.'"
While it may have only been a matter of time, the confusion over AC St. Louis' folding still left supporters dumbfounded. "It was literally just ‘Here today, gone tomorrow and everyone is just kind of looking around just going, ‘What the hell just happened?'" said Morice. "There was never an announcement, there was never a folding, there was literally just, well the NASL schedule came out and we're not on it."
Cooper said he planned to release a statement later that week, but this apparently never happened. He eventually transferred the Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park facilities in Fenton, Missouri, where AC St. Louis played their home games, to St. Louis Scott Gallagher (SLSG), one of the largest youth soccer organizations in the area. Terms of that deal were not disclosed.
There is definitely some humor to be found in the recipient of the soccer park. Morice summed it up best: "As soon as high school is over, that's it. It's a weird, weird town for that stuff." At the amateur and youth level, St. Louis is basically a soccer haven. High schools and youth clubs are everywhere. Even at the college level, Saint Louis University has won a record 10 NCAA Division I titles and has MLS-quality players such as (and barring a work permit controversy, future Bolton) defender Tim Ream. They also usually have the highest attendance figures in college soccer. So how does one bridge the gap between amateur soccer success and building the support for a professional franchise?midfielder , midfielder and former
Enter Tony Glavin.
Tony Glavin and the St. Louis Lions
Born in Glasgow, Glavin spent time playing for Scottish clubs including Queen's Park and Hamilton Academical before playing in the United States. His St. Louis roots come from playing with the St. Louis Steamers of the original MISL indoor league from 1980-1987. He eventually settled down in the St. Louis area, starting the Tony Glavin Soccer Club in 1994. In 2005, Glavin and his partners were awarded a USL franchise, which was named the St. Louis Lions.
The Lions began playing in the USL Premier Development League (PDL) in 2006. The club has grown slowly during that time, but according to Morice, Glavin has larger ambitions: "We had a meeting with him a couple of weeks ago, and every other word out of his mouth was, ‘I want to go USL Pro.'"
This isn't the first time Glavin has stated his intentions to move up in the soccer world. In December 2008, he first announced his intention for the team to turn professional and join the USL First Division in time for the 2010 season. Those plans were put on hold following the dispute between USL team owners and the subsequent formation of the new North American Soccer League. That could be another reason why the Louligans aren't the biggest fans of Jeff Cooper; they believe he may have hindered Glavin's attempts to build a professional club his way.
Morice says he believes Glavin's plan makes more sense than Cooper's because it allows for St. Louis to pay its dues as a soccer city instead of simply writing a big check to MLS. "Start small, work your way up, get the loyal people out," says Morice. "You cannot create loyalty, you cannot buy loyalty, you cannot fabricate it, it's something you have to earn and build."
And Morice is thankful that Glavin has reached out to the Louligans to keep them involved in the process. "There's definitely this two-way communication that you don't see anywhere else," says Morice. "This relationship is going to be awesome when it gets to grow and happen the way it's supposed to, but it's just going to take some time."
On the Soccer Skeptics
Morice says that skeptics of soccer in St. Louis actually do have a point. "They're not necessarily wrong. If you want to bring in that fourth team [to the St. Louis area along with the Cardinals, Rams and Blues], you have to do it right," he says. "You have to market it to the kids, you have to market to the hipsters, you have to market to the soccer fan, you have to figure out how to be something to everybody. It's going to take a lot of planning. It's going to take a lot of legwork, and that's just something that a lot of people aren't willing to do. They just want to throw a check at it, or whatever the case may be."
But Morice is optimistic and looks at other cities' success stories for inspiration. "Yeah, we can do it, yeah, we will do it," he says confidently. "I look at Portland, I look at Seattle, that's the way we're going to do it. We're not just going to have a ‘drop a second team in LA' kind of move. We're going to earn this the right way and show that we deserve it because we haven't shown we deserve it yet."
Chicago or Kansas City?
In the meantime though, St. Louis soccer supporters will have to try to get their MLS fix some other way. Morice mentioned that the Louligans made the four-hour road trip to visitnew stadium, Livestrong Park when it opened last season. Still he says he's disappointed that the club hasn't reached out to the St. Louis area more. "They do nothing to try to get us to come out there," he says.
Same goes for the Chicago Fire, who are just slightly further away from St. Louis distance-wise than Kansas City at around 5 hours by car. "How hard is it to send an e-mail to a (Scott) Gallagher or Tony Glavin or those different clubs?" Morice asks. "There's about six good-sized (youth) clubs in town, send something to them, just say, hey you ever want tickets or whatever, give us a call, but nothing ever happens."
Despite this, the Louligans are planning to make the trip to Chicago on Saturday, June 23rd when the Fire host the Columbus Crew. The beer may not be as cheap as at the Piasa games, but they should be able to find a way to enjoy themselves regardless.
A Perfect Ending
With just over two minutes left in the game, Piasa defender Justin McMillan scores a short-handed goal to take a 9-7 lead. A Cincinnati Kings player elbows one of the window boards in frustration and it shatters. Matt the GM says he's never seen anything like it.
Despite the delay, most of the fans stick around. With just over a minute left, Cincinnati goalie scores as an extra attacker to cut the Piasa lead to 9-8. With six seconds left, the Kings have a free kick on the edge of the box. Forward Allen Eller, who has received the worst of the Louligans heckling throughout the match lines up near their section. He points to the supporters and makes some kind of gesture. Not an offensive gesture such as flipping them the bird, but it is noticeable. Surely enough, the free kick is a pass for Eller, who now has a one-on-one with Piasa goalkeeper Greg Cook. All Eller has to do is blast it high and powerful over Cook's head to equalize the match and send it to overtime. Fortunately for the Piasa and unfortunately for Eller, his shot goes too high and the game is over. The Louligans are ecstatic. Eller drops down to his knees and covers his head in disgust. His Babe Ruth "calling his shot" moment has backfired.
The Piasa and the Kings meet again at The Sports Academy next Saturday, January 21st at 7:35pm. Who knows, maybe this time Cincinnati will bring the right jerseys.