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MLS expansion to St. Louis pushes city’s USL Championship team to cease operations

(Credit: Mark Guthrel/Saint Louis FC)

  • Saint Louis FC to fold at end of 2020 season ahead of arrival of St. Louis City in 2023
  • Financial impact of Covid-19 and absence of buyers forces hand of USL team owners
  • Two-year absence of professional soccer in city could hamper St. Louis City’s debut

The imminent arrival of a Major League Soccer expansion team to St. Louis, Missouri, has in large part led to the city’s United Soccer League Championship franchise Saint Louis FC deciding to cease operations at the end of the 2020 season.

Due to the devastating financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the absence of any suitors for the second-tier club, Saint Louis FC executives decided it did not make any sense for the team to continue beyond the current campaign.

It means the city – which is widely considered the spiritual home of soccer in the United States – will be without a professional team for two years prior to the arrival of St. Louis City SC in MLS in 2023.

Saint Louis FC was formed in 2014 and a year later began play in the then third-tier USL, which was awarded second-tier status in 2017 and rebranded as the USL Championship in 2018.

The team plays home games at the 5,500-seat West Community Stadium at the World Wide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri. In 2019, Saint Louis FC averaged 4,532 fans per game, which was around the league average.

Despite ownership links between the city’s MLS and USL teams, St. Louis City opted against absorbing Saint Louis FC into its organization. Such a move would have helped continue the growth of the sport in the local market in the short term and foster relationships with the USL club’s passionate supporters’ group, the St. Louligans.

Saint Louis FC is owned and operated by St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club, a leading youth soccer organization which is run by World Wide Technology chief executive and former St. Louis University standout player Jim Kavanaugh, who is a minority investor in St. Louis City as well as a part-owner of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues.

The decision to cease operations also raises broader questions as to whether some US cities are big enough to house both USL and MLS teams as they compete for the same fans, commercial partners, and local media visibility.

USL recently said in a statement: “Since joining the USL Championship in May of 2014, Saint Louis FC has been a force for good in the Saint Louis soccer community. While it’s with disappointment that we must move forward without the Club in 2021, its contributions to both the growth of our sport and the culture around it will not be forgotten.”

SportBusiness spoke to Saint Louis FC president Patrick Barry about the impact of the coronavirus crisis and arrival of MLS team St. Louis City on the club.

Why was the decision made to shut down Saint Louis FC?

It was a combination of a lot of things. The pandemic certainly played a really big role and the future of soccer in the city is headed towards MLS, and so from an organizational standpoint we just didn’t see the benefit in continuing to invest in this team and this market even though it did great things over the past six years.

Why now, and not at the end of the 2022 season before the arrival of St. Louis City in MLS?

Selfishly, from our organization’s perspective there was really no reason to continue for two more years to invest without a quality exit plan, which is not in place. So for us it was more a financial decision to end it now and start to focus on our core business of youth soccer and we’ll hand off professional soccer to others.

Do you think it was inevitable that this decision would happen once St. Louis was awarded an MLS expansion team?

I don’t think it was inevitable. I think that there were certainly options and opportunities to try to find a path forward for this club but unfortunately due to the pandemic and overall timing that wasn’t possible in this situation.

Did you explore selling the team to St. Louis City or another ownership group who would then relocate the franchise?

We were open to transferring the franchise to someone to keep it in St. Louis but it never materialized.

Do you think some momentum will be lost in the city in the absence of professional soccer for two years?

I hope not. I think that chance exists but St. Louis City now has a challenge in front of them for the next two years to keep momentum and grow even more momentum. We’re hoping they do that.

What steps are being taken to try to ensure that Saint Louis FC fans will support St. Louis City in MLS going forward?

I think there are some things in the works to try to make sure that St. Louis City welcomes all fans and hope those continue and I hope they build a really wide, strong fanbase. But they do have a lot of work in front of them.

Do you think some Saint Louis FC staff members, or any other club assets, will move over to St. Louis City?

I think there’s a ton of interest in that. But with the delay until 2023, I think only time will tell. Timing is difficult in a lot of ways and that includes any interest in the staff or anything like that.

Are you concerned that some other cities which have both USL and MLS teams will suffer the same fate?

Not that I’m aware of today, but certainly the pandemic has put a financial strain on our industry. I know all the teams in our league are trying to figure out a way to get through 2020, and then have a really good plan for 2021 not knowing what the impact is going to be.

How do you look back on Saint Louis FC – what will its legacy be?

In my opinion, the legacy of the club is reigniting soccer in St. Louis and setting the stage for what is going to come in the next few years. Though I don’t think that was our intent from the beginning, it’s clearly what happened and Saint Louis FC absolutely laid the foundation for the next generation of soccer in St. Louis. We’re very, very proud of that.

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