The Game That Became A Religion
Oct. 1, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
In the years between the Great Wars, the Roman Catholic parishes of St. Louis, Missouri took it on themselves to spread two doctrines to the boys in town: the word of Jesus Christ and the game of soccer.
The first one, the boys of St. Louis liked just fine. The second one took over their lives.
"The funny question here is `What parish do you belong to? North Side or South Side?" said Saint Louis University coach Dan Donigan. "It all goes back to those Catholic youth days, when the most competitive soccer was here in St. Louis."
For most of the last century, St. Louis was the peculiar home to perhaps the densest, if not best, soccer community in the country. Flush with recent immigrants who carried the game with them from the Old Country and local parishes that pushed the game with the zeal of missionaries, the Gateway produced some of the nation's finest talent.
As the balance of power in D-I Soccer moves toward the coasts, St. Louis takes pause this weekend to celebrate a town that many say represents the cradle of college soccer. The place whose namesake school, Saint Louis University, took home the first-ever NCAA Men's Soccer Championship in its first year as a varsity team, and 10 of the first 15 - still an NCAA all-time record for titles. And on Saturday, SLU commemorates 50 years of varsity soccer, dating back to that 1959 national champion team, with the unveiling of its Half-Century team.
A roster of 22 players and two coaches selected by the public will be honored at halftime of the Billikens' game with Clemson on Saturday night, featuring of some of the biggest names in the history of American soccer, let alone the town of St. Louis. (Click here for the release) From legendary coaches Bob Guelker and Harry Keough, both of whom won five national titles, to Hermann Trophy winners Al Trost and Mike Seerey, to current MLS players Jack Jewsbury, Brad Davis and Brian McBride, the team serves to connect today's game to its roots, nestled along the Mississippi.
"I've said publicly on many occasions that I think any degree of popularity and cache that the game currently has is directly attributable to what Saint Louis University started in 1958," said Bill McDermott, a Saint Louis Hall-of-Famer, longtime ESPN soccer commentator and man known locally as `Mr. Soccer'.
"I know it sounds grandiose," McDermott continued, "but with reference to the involvement with the NCAA, so many schools began to capitalize after they saw what Saint Louis University was doing with pretty much a newfound sport to other parts of the country. When so many cities saw what St. Louis was doing, thought they'd give it go."
What St. Louis was doing was waiting for kids to leave the cradle and, the moment they could walk, putting a soccer ball in front of their feet. According to the USA Soccer History Archives, whereas other towns had teams attached to ethnic social clubs, the city partitioned itself along parish lines, divided into districts by the Catholic Youth Council.
Church teams would battle other church teams from around the neighborhood. Northsiders took on Northsiders; Southsiders took on Southsiders. If you were good enough, you crossed the divide. And if you kept winning, you'd get out of St. Louis and take on teams other states.
At a time when immigration began to deepen the identity of the city and different ethnic groups first began to mix, soccer provided another language.
"The part of the city I grew up in, if you were Irish and Roman Catholic, you played soccer," McDermott said. "The majority of the makeup of our parish was Irish, but you indeed did play different ethnic groups, foremost of which was the Italians on the Hill."
So, McDermott said, people who grew up in St. Louis stayed in St. Louis. Except when they did things like defeat England, 1-0, as afterthought underdogs in the 1950 World Cup - a team immortalized by the film `The Game of Their Lives' and a team that drew five of its 11 players on the field from St. Louis. Since then, every World Cup team, ever, has had a player from the city.
But by and large, people who grew up in St. Louis went to Saint Louis University. And until schools like Michigan State, South Florida and Indiana started picking players out of the town, nobody could keep up with the Billikens.
"When we played other colleges, very few if any were all-American like we were," McDermott said. "I remember distinctly when we played the `69 final, we played the University of San Francisco. It was the proverbial Tower of Babel, every ethnicity player against all-American kids who all, astoundingly, grew up within five or 10 miles from the University."
Saint Louis hasn't won a title since 1973. But the culture hasn't changed. As the rest of the nation caught up to the preponderance of soccer talent in St. Louis, the Billikens have still retained local stars - the current SLU roster has 10 players from town.
More, Saint Louis University soccer hasn't exactly faded away, either. It's made the Tournament in each of the past three years, after missing it in 2004 and 2005, following a Round of 16 berth in 2003.
"We talk about history all the time, on a daily basis," said Donigan, a New Jersey native but now in his ninth year at the helm after four years as an assistant. "I'm not a Saint Louis guy but I like to believe I'm a Saint Louisan now. I have a motto with my team that's `Live up to the Legacy.' Live up to that what the guys before you have accomplished."
"[Saturday's] gonna hopefully be a day that everyone never forgets," Donigan said, noting that every player who's ever worn a Saint Louis jersey has been invited to parade onto the field. "We're looking to bring exposure to those that have laid the foundation for what Saint Louis University is all about today. Without those guys we're not who we are today."