The St. Louis Lions are entering their seventh season at the highest level of amateur soccer. Midfielder Pat Kelly believes the club can improve on last season.
(Editor's Note: This article is a follow-up to two articles written in December 2011 and this past January about St. Louis' struggles to land an MLS franchise. If you haven't read those yet, it is highly recommended. This is Part 3 of the ongoing Soccer in St. Louis series.)
Having lived here for just about 5 months now, I can say one thing about for certain about the St. Louis area: it's a much-divided place. As numerous people including baseball announcer Joe Buck have said at one point: The first question people ask when meeting each other here is, "What high school did you go to?"
To generalize, South County is fairly middle class, West County is wealthier, and North County is generally a more impoverished area. Those on the Missouri side basically ignore Collinsville, Granite City, Belleville and other cities on the Illinois side of the border. Regardless, the metro area is comprised of nine Missouri and eight Illinois counties and has a combined population of over 2.8 million.
As far as sports are concerned, the only team St. Louisans rally around in an almost unanimous fashion every year are the St. Louis Cardinals. They have the history, the beautiful downtown stadium and a fan base that is up there with the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Chicago Cubs as far as pure devotion goes.
Now, one might argue that the city has rallied about the St. Louis Blues as they made the NHL playoffs this year. In general though, the city gets behind the Blues and the NFL Rams only when they're performing well. Make no mistake about it: it's a Cardinals town. Any sports franchise attempting to gain their footing here will have to deal with that.
St. Charles, Missouri is located about 25 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis. It's probably the most stereotypically suburban region of what is an incredibly large metropolitan area. The city of St. Charles has a population of about 65,000 and St. Charles County is around 360,000 in total. In order to succeed in the long-term, the St. Louis Lions will have to capture not only the St. Charles County area, but also draw fans in from across the greater St. Louis area.
The fact that the Lions are entering their seventh-straight season is, in itself, remarkable when you consider how long other soccer clubs in the area have lasted. The indoor Steamers and Ambush were able to have some sustained success before eventually closing up shop. At the outdoor level though, the women's club Saint Louis Athletica folded during the middle of their second Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) season. AC St. Louis limped through one miserable North American Soccer League (NASL) season.
(For a more expanded history of St. Louis soccer, I highly recommend Soccer Made in St. Louis, Dave Lange's book on the subject)
One big difference between the Lions and the aforementioned clubs is that the Lions are not a professional club. They are part of the USL (United Soccer Leagues) Premier Development League, the top men's amateur league in North America. Henceforth, they do not directly pay their players. This has allowed them to keep their costs relatively low.
So on a Sunday night in April, the 2012 Lions season is on the verge of beginning. Their first exhibition match is on the road in St. Charles against nearby Lindenwood University and their Lions. (For everyone's sanity, I'll refer to the PDL club as the Lions and the college team as Lindenwood) The Tony Glavin Soccer Complex is in the smaller nearby town of Cottleville, but they've chosen to play this free admission match at Lindenwood as a chance to give fans in the area a chance to see the team.
At around 5:30pm, the man that numerous people have described as the best chance of bringing professional soccer to the area arrives. Tony Glavin hops out of his SUV and I immediately walk up to greet him. His accent is distinct, but also reflects the fact that he first came to America in 1978.
Along with Michael Harshbarger, the Lions Director of Marketing and Sales, I help Tony grab soccer balls and other equipment out of the back of his SUV. Tony then gathers some of his players mingling in the parking lot and heads into the Lindenwood facility. As is commonplace in the world of minor league athletics, the Lions visiting dressing room leaves much to be desired. To best describe it, it looks like a mid-sized college classroom. Lindenwood Head Coach Carl Hutter lets us know that the players should probably use a bathroom across the hallway to get dressed for the sake of privacy.
More Lions players filter in and it appears that a lot of them are meeting for the first time. The Lions have held a few practices as well as open tryouts, but this will be the first time that most of the team will be together in the same place. They were supposed to scrimmage with two other colleges the day before, but those matches were rained out. As a result, Glavin, who is also the head coach, has 21 players tonight, more than he hoped for, which could make it more difficult for him to evaluate each player. Other players are still away at various colleges.
Most of the players are either still in college or have recently graduated. According to PDL rules, there can be a maximum of eight players over the age of 23 on each club's 26-man roster. (Lions General Manager Jim Shipley will later tell me about how the rules allow Glavin himself is able to insert himself into the game if he really wanted to, as he did during the club's third season) In addition, each roster must have at least three players under the age of 18.
As he is adjusting his roster for the extra players and deciding what numbers the players will wear, I start chatting with Tony about the history of the club and what his long-term vision is.
Glavin started his academy in 1994, but the Lions started their first season in the PDL in 2006. He believes the PDL has given him the opportunity to build a consistent, sustainable club.
"I think there's definitely a lot more continuity to the league since we've been involved," said Glavin. "I think the overall quality of the organizations have gotten better."
As far as marketing the club goes, Tony says the club has had to overcome some of the problems with building a club that appeals to the entire city.
"St. Louis has been rich in the history of the game," says Glavin. "But a lot of the old-timers would say, ‘Well, we don't have to pay to go see a game; we can go down to the park and watch high-quality soccer' and that was kind of the mentality of the city."
Despite this, the fact that Tony's academy has been around since 1994 speaks to the ability to build the sport in the area. Tony says his philosophy says been about more than wins and losses.
"My main focus was player development from day one and that has always been our main focus," says Glavin. "We were one of the original clubs in the area that started that."
Glavin says the club has resisted attempts by other clubs in the area to join with them.
"There were three different times when the Scott Gallagher club (now St. Louis Scott Gallagher) approached me about merging with them," he said. "I just felt that wasn't the right thing for my club to do."
Glavin has expressed his interest in eventually moving up to USL-Pro, the top professional league in USL and the 3rd highest level of competition in the United States behind MLS and the NASL (North American Soccer League).
"We're starting to move forward, we've laid the groundwork to try and put things together," said Glavin on the Lions potentially moving up to USL-Pro. "My goal is that in three years, hopefully we'll be able to have something by then."
Finally, I asked Tony about the possibility of a Major League Soccer franchise and here is his unedited response:
"Well, obviously that's the ultimate goal. Whether we can pull that off, I don't know, definitely not now. But, I think, if by positioning ourselves with the USL, then hypothetically in three years time, let's say we have a USL-Pro team. I think the goal has to be where you've got to have a plan, likely a five-year plan, and can we can take this team to build a solid foundation and a solid franchise for St. Louis. And then the connection is, you have a PDL team, and then maybe a youth program with the goal that, maybe, potentially, a large investor can come along and take that to the next level. So ultimately that's the goal, it's not that we don't want to see MLS, we definitely would love to see it at a high level. I don't know that tomorrow that can happen in St. Louis. I think it would be unrealistic right now unless you're talking, maybe some billionaire coming in, and saying ‘we're going to do everything.'"
(Note: On the surface, this sounds a bit pessimistic. In the next couple of weeks though, Hot Time in Old Town hopes to have more exclusive information about what some of the other plans are to bring professional soccer to St. Louis. The aforementioned Dave Lange of Soccer Made in St. Louis also recently wrote about St. Louis Scott Gallagher's plans to renovate Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri that could lead to the return of a pro team, though likely not at the MLS level)
From there, I asked Tony more about the Lions' partnership with Celtic Football Club in Glasgow, Scotland. "They basically opened the doors to show us show they way their academy," said Glavin. "It was a good insight to see how a big club runs an academy."
I followed-up with a question about potentially partnering with Celtic to bring a professional club stateside, in a similar manner to Chivas USA and Chivas de Guadalajara.
"If they want to see potential here, then maybe, but I don't know of anything," said Glavin. "It's just too early in that relationship to say how far that can go."
Shortly after our conversation, most of the players have arrived and Tony addresses the club and announces the starting lineups.
Since it's the club first match playing together, Tony advises the club to not try to do much tonight.
"Keep it simple, "says Tony. "When we have the ball, let's keep it."
He shows the elements of being a hands-off coach in terms of letting the players determine what works best for them. "If I see anything, I may adjust it in the game, but other than that, go for it," he says.
Towards the end of the pre-game talk, returning defender Alen Bradaric opens up a 5-Hour Energy to almost incredulous looks from everyone else in the room.
"Medicine," says Bradaric.
"Okay," deadpans Glavin, while almost everyone else in the room breaks out laughing.
About a half hour before the scheduled kickoff, the team leaves the locker room to walk over the field. I walk over with Michael, the Marketing and Sales Director who is also carrying other equipment with him. Earlier, I asked him what other full-time employees were employed with the Lions and the soccer complex.
"You're looking at him," he said. "Me and Tony."
Harshbarger joined the club in January 2011 after finishing a Masters degree in Sport Management at Indiana State University. I asked him what working for a minor league team was like.
"I get to do a little bit of everything, and a lot of some stuff," he said. "It's been great experience and it's a lot of fun and well as being challenging."
Since we've entered the windowless locker room, we've been fairly oblivious to the storm brewing outside. Just minutes earlier, about 300 miles north of us in Chicago, the Fire just had their first weather delay during a match with the Houston Dynamo. And when the Lions eventually take the field to start warming up, they aren't outside for more than five minutes before the first lightning strikes. Immediately, a Lindenwood field representative instructs everyone to leave the field and head back to the locker room.
While we're waiting to hear if the Lions will be able to get the game in, I have the opportunity to speak with Jim Shipley, the Lions General Manager.
Shipley has been around since the formation of the club, and he says he's seen the club progress during that time. Still, breaking into the St. Louis market has constantly been the biggest challenge.
"There's more attention being given to us elsewhere in the United States than there is in the local area," says Shipley. "But at the same time, we're being more aggressive and pushing our name out there and branding it in the St. Louis market through the supporters and more people are becoming aware of us."
Shipley admits that financial restraints have hindered the club's progress as well. "If we had a $300,000 budget for advertising, everybody would hear about us and we would be more visible, but it's just not there."
As far as luring investors for a potential move to the professional ranks, Shipley echoes the cautious sentiments of Glavin.
"You have to go through the process of explaining what you really want as opposed to somebody wanting to jump so fast that it wrecks everything," said Shipley. "We all want to be at that pro level, but you have to build it right and makes sure that it's the right group of investors who all share the same goal."
Tony asks his players how late they'll be able to play. Since some of them are only in town for the weekend, the urgency to get some kind of action in is building.
(Please click here for Part Two of this article.)