Sunday, February 25, 2024

St. Louis CITY SC brings Major League Soccer and new stadium to Downtown West

by Michael Oliver

St. Louis CITY SC, the new professional soccer franchise, will help realize a long-held dream of bringing Major League Soccer (MLS) to St. Louis, Missouri, with a new, custom stadium campus set to open in 2022. The endeavor is driven by a world-class team with strong ties to the city.

Heeding the Past

Many US sports fans will have heard of “the miracle on ice” – the real-life tale of an overmatched, underdog US hockey team’s improbable victory over the Russian juggernaut, on the former’s way to a gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Fewer fans, however, are aware of an even more improbable victory – a miracle on grass, if you will – that occurred some 30 years earlier on a soccer pitch in Brazil, where what many perceived as a ragtag team of misfits, led by five players from St. Louis, Missouri, upended the mighty English soccer team one to nil, during the 1950 World Cup. Lending to the unlikelihood of that US victory was the fact that the US players were all part-timers: each had a “day job,” and one poor fellow was reportedly even denied the time off from his job to play in the World Cup! “It was just after the war and jobs were tough to come by,” a teammate explained.

Additionally, the team had exactly one practice session together before embarking on their epic journey. Little wonder that the result of the game sent a shock wave through the global soccer community. Bobby Thompson’s home run to win the 1951 National League Pennant has been described, with splendid baseball hyperbole, as “the shot heard ‘round the world,” but given the international nature of soccer (with roughly 3.5 billion soccer fans worldwide) that description would have been far more aptly applied to the shot that produced the winning goal in Brazil.

A few years after the miracle on grass, in 1955 – and only a few miles distance from the St. Louis soccer players’ rugged home field – another team was just forming that would go on to international renown while calling St. Louis home. Founded by George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum, HOK would grow in depth and breadth to become a leading architectural and interior design firm, with offices in 24 cities spanning three continents. HOK remains deeply engaged with the St. Louis community and, in what might be seen as a moment of historical convergence, was contracted by the ownership group of St. Louis CITY SC, the new professional soccer franchise awarded to St. Louis, to design the city’s new soccer district.

You see, the miracle on grass, while impressive, even historic, was just a single indication of a much larger phenomenon: the love affair between St. Louis and soccer. This relationship spans more than 100 years and gives credence to St. Louis as America’s first soccer capital. The immigrants who helped build this city brought their favorite sport with them. Soccer was widely adopted by the city’s school systems, public and private. The love affair is also reflected in the numerous national championships of St. Louis University and in the many iterations of professional soccer in St. Louis. Many players produced here have gone on to fame and fortune in Europe and the MLS.

In Real Time

Today, HOK is in the process of building a cutting edge, first-class soccer stadium campus, complete with a 22,500-seat, soccer-specific stadium, a practice facility, with both natural and artificial grass pitches, an elaborate training facility, a fan pavilion with a café, and a team shop, green areas and other outdoor spaces as well as an academy program for young, promising players. Working with HOK is Julie Snow, co-founder of Snow Kreilich Architects. The design team is collaborating closely with CITY sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel, a world renowned figure in this area. Groundbreaking was in February 2020 and the project is reported on track for a 2022 completion.

A standout aspect of the project is that it will be a multi-purpose MLS campus, with its stadium, training facility, practice fields and headquarters all in the same centralized location. Add the other amenities – including a team-friendly locker room and hydrotherapy equipment, dining offerings designed to improve the health and fitness of players and staff, and a headquarters building – and you have the recipe for what augurs to be an extraordinary experience for the thousands of soccer fans in St. Louis, fans who believe, by the way, that St. Louis should have nothing less.

Other St. Louis notables are at the core of this venture to ensure St. Louis now takes its rightful place in the US soccer universe, such as Carolyn Kindle Betz of the prominent Taylor family. As CEO of St. Louis CITY SC, Betz is leading the only majority female-led ownership group in Major League Soccer. She is also President of the Enterprise Holdings Foundation, the charitable arm of Enterprise Holdings Inc. Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of St. Louis based World Wide Technology is a minority investor.

The venue is being designed to accommodate a wide range of events and activities in addition to soccer, such as concerts, tournaments, corporate events and private gatherings. This inclusivity is being physically represented in a design that is characterized by St. Louis CITY SC as having “no back door or back of house.” Thus, “all four sides of the stadium will be open and inclusive,” resulting in “a fully integrated urban design and an inviting experience for all in the St. Louis region and beyond.”

The emerging stadium district will be a new visitor destination, well located among a panoply of existing attractions that make St. Louis a place to visit. The soccer campus will occupy 31 acres, on either side (north and south) of Market Street between 20th and 22nd Streets, with the stadium just north of Market and the training and practice facilities, the fan pavilion and team store, and the team headquarters just south. (Market Street is a central, east-to-west thoroughfare of approximately 1.5 miles that divides downtown St. Louis roughly in half.) Looking east along the Market Street corridor we see the nearby Union Station – the historic train station redeveloped as a family leisure and hotel complex by Lodging Hospitality Management with a new observation wheel and aquarium, the Thea Award-honored Grand Hall Experience and more in the works. Sharing space at 16th Street are the resplendent Stifel Theater (a restoration of the historic Kiel Auditorium), and the Enterprise Center, home of the recently crowned Stanley Cup Champion, the St. Louis Blues hockey team.

Continuing east and with a slight jog south takes you to New Busch Stadium, the home of the beloved and always competitive St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. A block further east on Market Street, heading toward the Mississippi River, is the famous Old Courthouse, where the 1846 Dred Scott case was tried. The Old Courthouse, currently under restoration, is part of the complex dominated by the internationally known Gateway Arch, which at 630 feet is the tallest monument in the US and boasts a refreshed and expanded Gateway Mall and reimagined underground museum. Beyond the river’s edge, riverboats still ply the waters of the Mississippi, from brief excursions and tours to trips from St. Louis to the French Quarter of New Orleans.

To the west, a 10-minute ride by car or Metrolink, is the upscale Central West End neighborhood which leads to Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the US (it is one-third larger than Central Park in NYC), with its natural settings, and its first-rate cultural amenities, including the St. Louis Zoo (undergoing a major expansion), the St. Louis Art Museum, the 11,000-seat Muny open-air theater; the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Science Center. Hospitality offerings at either end of this swath of attractions include the Chase Park Plaza in the Central West End, the Hyatt Regency at the Arch, the Hilton St. Louis Downtown, and the St. Louis Union Station Hotel.

At Home in Tomorrow

All this adds up to significant, continued downtown revitalization and a unique visitor destination mix in an historic Midwestern city with sports, culture, hospitality and dining all within easy reach – that St. Louis CITY SC will complement. The soccer stadium campus in Downtown West expands the downtown district two full blocks, providing as some call it, a bookend with the Gateway Mall, while connecting by its proximity the western amenities of Forest Park, the Central West End, and the Grand Center Arts District (theaters, galleries and nightlife) to the Market Street corridor.

But the owners, the developers, the architects and the planners are not just looking east and west, north and south, as their goals of connectivity and inclusivity demand; they are looking deeply into St. Louis’s past, drawing inspiration from its history and pointing that inspiration directly at the future. “St. Louis is a city on the rise,” says Kindle Betz.

In sports, when an announcer, for example, seems to be rooting for one team over another, or leaning so heavily in one team’s favor he or she is in danger of tipping over, that person is called a “homer.” As a St. Louisan born and raised, and a soccer fan, I may fairly be accused of having toppled from my stool entirely. But let’s be clear about this perspective, for it is shared by many in this city. We St. Louisans have seen our city go through a great deal in the last few decades – some of it good and some of it much less so – and we have heard a lot of promises.

St. Louis is an old city, but there seems to be new energy flowing through its arteries. To date, the soccer stadium itself, as well as the rest of the campus south of Market Street, are beginning to take their shape, as the Mortenson, Alberrici, L.Keeley joint construction venture has been working steadily through a difficult winter to hit the deadline of the summer of 2022; they are reportedly right on schedule. Missouri is called the show-me state; well, we’re being shown a revitalized downtown – with a new Downtown West aspect crowned by a unique sports attraction.

One wonders, at times, what those St. Louis players from 1950, practicing on the lunar terrain of old Virgo Park (today, known as Berra Park – no, not named for Yogi Berra, but an unrelated politician), would have said if they could but stroll around the St.Louis CITY SC pitch. Would their 1950s selves merely stare in awe at their surroundings, like Shoeless Joe in “Field of Dreams”?

In fact, like Shoeless Joe, those heroes of long ago did have a belated moment in the sun when, in 2005, a movie based on their extraordinary story was brought to the big screen: “The Game of Their Lives.” The movie focuses heavily on the five players from St. Louis, all starters on the team. Speaking about the film and those players’ return from the World Cup, Bette, the daughter of goalkeeper, Frank Borghi, who stopped the British attack over and over again, to preserve the 1-to-0 victory, said, “These guys came home to no fanfare 50 years ago. And who would have thought this would happen 50 years later. It’s kind of like divine justice.” No one disputed her. And now, 70 years on from that historic day in Brazil, with the St. Louis CITY SC team on the brink of emergence, she may well be right again.

All renderings courtesy St. Louis CITY SC

Michael Oliver
Michael Oliver
Contributing writer Michael Oliver comes to us by way of academia, as a retired literature and philosophy professor whose teaching career lasted some 28 years. Prior to the classroom, his early training and work were in engineering, which took him from nuclear missile silos in North Dakota to the Rhine River, where he worked as a ship’s engineer. Michael brings his dual background and range of experience to write about technology and other subjects for InPark.

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