The history of soccer in the United States is impossible to tell without highlighting St. Louis’ contributions to the sport. From the city’s role in the Olympics to the Open Cup-winning teams to the St. Louis native dominated World Cup team, which stunned fans all around the globe in 1950 when they upset a dominant English squad, St. Louis has undeniably been a part of the fabric of soccer culture in the United States.
But with all that considered, one could easily make the case that the crown jewel of St. Louis soccer is the Saint Louis University Billikens. Between the men’s and women’s teams, the program has won 10 NCAA national championships, 24 conference championships, has made 52 NCAA tournament appearances, and an alumni list that rivals any major program in the country.
The Billikens ruled the NCAA through the ’50s and into the late ’70s, but have been rather pedestrian in more recent years. This is not to say that both the men and women haven’t been successful — the men’s team have made 10 NCAA tournament appearances in the last twenty years and have received votes in the preseason rankings for the upcoming 2020/2021 season, and the women just last season had their best year in the program’s 23-year history and are expected to at least match or exceed that mark in the upcoming season.
But it seems there is a new guy coming to town in the very near future. A neighbor to the Billikens that will fundamentally change the landscape and the future of St. Louis soccer.
After years of hard work and disappointment, the MLS will be coming to St. Louis, welcoming a club in 2022. While this won’t be the first or the only professional side in St. Louis, it will certainly be the largest and is projected to become the most prominent. The MLA represents the peak of soccer in the United States to this point and, by being involved in the organization, it legitimizes St. Louis as a ‘Soccer City’. Having such a prominent neighbor in sport moving in next door will ultimately spell change for the Billikens. Where others might be scared of this change, Billikens Men’s coach Kevin Kalish sees this change as exciting rather than disruptive.
“Having MLS in St. Louis will be monumental and have an immediate impact on program” Billikens Head Men’s Soccer Coach Kevin Kalish told me after a preseason exhibition game last Sunday against Wisconsin. “With the proposed stadium less than a mile away from campus, it will be right in our backyard.”
Kalish knows first hand how the impact the professional game is. A member of the Billiken Hall of Fame, Kalish was drafted in the 3rd round of the MLS Draft in 1999 by the Kansas City Wizards (the club has since rebranded to Sporting KC), kicking off his professional career before moving to the coaches box.
The MLS is the fastest growing professional sports league in North America, and should the rumors be true, they will soon be the largest league in terms of the number of franchises as well. The MLS has proven to be a culture changer for cities all over the nation. The expansion of Atlanta and Minnesota into the MLS has sparked massive soccer fandom and growth in the city’s youth programs. Both cities with dramatically less Soccer History Soccer Canada has credited the creation of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps as key reasons why the national program has made major strides in recent years.
The St. Louis area has had a taste of this already, with SLU directly benefiting from it this season. Saint Louis FC, who has played in the second division of American Professional Soccer System since their inception in 2014 (and well before that as St Louis Scott Gallagher) has brought a dominant and legitimate academy and development program to youth soccer in St Louis. The fruits of that labor, and relationship with STLFC, has paid dividends for the Bills as 10 current Billikens are products of Scott Gallagher and STLFC. The promotion of soccer in St. Louis going forward, with an MLS club will only help feed and improve the pipeline of talent to SLU.
The Billikens also see this as an opportunity to help push their current and future players into the professional ranks. Being one of the most prominent soccer programs in the country, a number of Billikens in recent years have been fortunate enough to make the jump to MLS or been taken in the annual MLS Super Draft. 31 Billikens have been taken in the super draft since 1996 with the most recent being Lennart Hein just last year. Coach Kalish sees the incoming franchise as an opportunity to raise exposure for his guys, “We are recruiting the best players in the country to SLU, many of which will look to move on to MLS so having that additional exposure in your home market will only help that process”.
The Billikens are excited to welcome their new neighbor to the LOU. Having additional top tier exposure just down the street has the opportunity to promote the program to a degree that has yet to exist up to this point. While it will be a few years until the yet-to-be-named STL franchise takes the field. But a rising tide lifts all ships, and this is undoubtedly a strong step forward for the Saint Louis University Billikens and for soccer in St. Louis.