St. Louis, The Future of Soccer and Growing a Pair

Everybody is jumping on the news that AC St. Louis (NASL/USSF2) and St. Louis Athetica (WPS) are teetering on the edge of insolvency as proof positive that Owner (and NASL Acting Commissioner) Jeff Cooper was never MLS Operator/Investor material to begin with and what a lucky/smart thing it was for the league to dump the St. Louis bid out with the rest of the weekly trash.

Well, perhaps.

But there are some other issues at play here and we need to be careful of putting two and two together and coming up with "a sack of potatoes".

One thing to bear in mind is of course the venue.

A little over a year ago, Anheuser-Busch - in the form of their new Belgian Overlords - announced to great fanfare that they were bestowing the Anheuser-Busch Center, also known as "Soccer Park", undoubtedly one of the finest in all the land, consistin of six primo outdoor fields and a 6200 seat stadium (and not coincidentally worth a small fortune in prime real estate alone) upon Cooper's umbrella organization, St. Louis Soccer United, AKA AC St. Louis.

It was heavily implied that the main reason they did this was to give a nudge to the STL MLS bid, and certainly the locals played it that way.

Not to cast aspersions on their motives, but to a lot of people it seemed more likey that what InBev was mostly doing was dumping costs.

And it appears that, perhaps, the plan to have the NASL side and the WPS side provde the traffic to pay the bills on the whole place may have been a bit optimistic.

Put another way, what at first appeared to be a gift from the gods may have turned out to be an albatross around SLSU's neck.

That aside, you also have to presume that the investment group behind the USSF2 team only vaguely resembled the MLS group.

I haven't seen a USL prospectus in a couple of years but the entrance fee used to be around a million bucks, not exactly pocket change but a far cry from the $35 million they were ready to pony up for an MLS side.

So it's not really fair to say "See? Cooper really didn't have the money" unless you can show that the two current teams combined has blown through maybe $30 mil.

That's a whole lot of lawn mowing and parking lot restriping.

In short, Cooper never made a secret of the fact that he was heading up a group of investors with himself as the chairman, not unlike Dave Checketts in Salt Lake, who does in fact have a few bucks but can't really carry the frieght like Uncle Phil Anschutz or Joe Roth can.

But it's obviously a far cry from the ownership group he had lined up for the MLS bid.

Apples and bowling balls.

Thirdly, let's be honest: who ever did anything but lose money on second division pro soccer in the US? Hell, as far as anyone can tell there's only one outfit in the US currently in the black in first division pro soccer.

The fact is that the landscape is littered with the corpses of USL 1 sides who have drowned in a sea of red ink over the years, and I'm not just talking about the Syracuse Salty Dogs.

In fact, our newest member, the Montreal Impact, went bankrupt as recently as 2001. Has anybody seen the LA Salsa, the Toronto Rockets, the Salt Lake Sting or the Boston Bolts around anyplace lately?

Say what you want about Columbus, but the Xoggz (stil the greatest "love it or hate it club name in US history) averaged under 1000 people per game in 1995 and the Crew averaged over 19,000 in 1996.

Now I can hear some of the "pedants" among you (that being the term a certain Toronto blogger uses to describe people who know something about professional soccer in the US prior to 2005) saying that none of those are direct corollaries, that every one of them is a special case in one way or another and doesn't apply here.

You're 100% correct. Wouldn't argue for a minute. I would, however, point out that we can say exactly the same thing about St. Louis.

Point being that Division II soccers' performance at the gate has never had a whole bunch to do with how MLS does, and it's really unfair to suggest that because AC St. Louis couldn't make it that therefore MLS wouldn't either.

We just don't know.

In any case, it appears now - if this was common knowledge then slap my ass and call me Sally - that Cooper actually sold majority interest in AC St. Louis to a couple of brothers from Europe sometime last Fall.

Anyway, USSF2, like USL1 before it, demanded a sizeable chunk of change in terms of a performance bond prior to any of the teams taking the field. The reason for this is, well, exactly the situation we see here; a team gets partway into the season, can't pay the bills and has to go dark. Tosses the whole league into chaos.

So there's not much chance that Steve Ralston will find himself unemployed again right away. And in fact, since nobody is saying anything beyond

“We’re aware of the situation in St. Louis. The League’s Owners continue to review and monitor the situation in conjunction with the US Soccer Federation.” - (WPS)

and

“(We) are aware of some challenges that are currently going on and we are diligently working through the situation."

We know pretty much nothing at all. Cooper and SLSU have been silent on the subject and, in one of the great ironies of this whole thing, NASL "Spokesman" Kartik Krishmeyer isn't talking. The one time somebody might actually give a crap what he has to say, and he's as silent as a tomb.

Much more worrisome is the situation with St. Louis Athletica.

According to KENN TOMACH (who it should be noted is still angry at me for disagreeing with his interpretation of a piece of business minutia that's almost entirely irrelevant, but I love him anyway) the Athletica is at the bottom of the league in attendance, averaging 3,027 fannies in seats over four home games, whihc is roughly 1000 customers shy of the league average.

However, in an 8 team league in a sport which has already lost Los Angeles after only one year and which most people predicted didn't have a snowballs' chance in hell anyway (the legacy of WUSA will live on long after Julie Foudy and Co. are eligible for Medicare) and which, more than anything else, desperately needs credibility as a viable business, this is ugly news.

Some people are talking about how FIFA requires a league to have 8 members and if SLA goes under the league will have to fold but they'll give Sunil Gulati all the leeway he asks for on this. They want this to work almost as badly as anyone else.

My main problem with this situation is that the chest-thumping New Leaders in Professional Soccer, the guys whose excrement we're constantly being spoon fed, the ones who want us to know that they're the true soccer centers of the continent, are still doing what they did for the first ten years of MLS:

Sitting on the sideline.

MLS begged Seattle and Toronto on bended knee to come into MLS back when we desperately needed them. But they preferred to sit back and wait until it appeared to be a sure thing and then came in loudly blowing their own horns about being the best soccer communities anywhere.

Well if that's true, where are your WPS teams?

Waiting ten years to see whether it's a risk is not how Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz built MLS into what it is today. They did it by putting their asses on the line. Big time.

WPS doesn't have those two guys. All they have is eight teams trying to make it on their own. They need strong owners with staying power, and they need them now, not in 2019.

It's time for a couple of teams to prove that their cities are what they say they are, instead of merely the opportunistic chickenshits they look like to the rest of us.

Put up or shut up and stop lecturing us on being the "Center of Soccer in North America".