-I've been keeping an eye on the local group's effort to acquire an MLS (Major League Soccer)team for quite a while. My attention was first drawn to the subject a number of months ago when I wrote on this blog about the ridiculous stance taken by a local sports talk show host. Attorney Jeff Cooper, who is heading the local effort by St. Louis Soccer United to acquire a team and build a new stadium in Collinsville, was told, in so many words, by this nimrod that he was stupid for trying to locate the team in Illinois. "Not many potential ticket buyers will cross the river to support soccer", he was told. Oh boy! This kind of thinking has gotten my blood boiling for as long as I can remember.
When, in Pele's name, are we ever going to get beyond the fact that a river runs through the middle of our metro area? When are Missouri people in this market going to ever get off the "high horse" and realize that the Illinois portion of the St. Louis market is the fastest growing segment of the area...and has much more potential for development and growth than the tapped-out "Show Me" segment? When is the design of our license plates going to stop designating us as "foreigners" on the opposite side of the river from which we live? For the sake of bringing an exciting new sports element to our community and economy, we had better get over it.
Cooper, who unfortunately for me I've never met, is someone with a very real, but very ambitious, dream. The dream now includes bringing not only a pro soccer team to life in our metro, but also a 400-million dollar development to be built just off I-255 near Collinsville. The development includes an 18,500 seat soccer stadium, 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, and some 1,600 homes. Essentially, we're talking about a soccer-themed St. Louis-suburb that would be in Collinsville's jurisdiction.
As for the location, where else in the St. Louis area would you put such a development? The infrastructure is, for the most part, already there at I-255 and Horseshoe Lake Road. It's very centrally-located for most people in this market. But, there will be many who, because it's not in Missouri, will say it's ill-conceived. Yes...just because we're talking about it being in Illinois. No other reason. Parochialism..pure and simple. Please, brothers and sisters of Missouri, get over it.
Many thought locating a minor-league baseball team in Sauget was a disaster waiting to happen. But, my friends, the Gateway Grizzlies have been setting Frontier League attendance records right-and-left since their new stadium opened in '03. "Oh nobody will cross the river to go to one of those games"...the critics said. Well, if you examine who buys tickets regularly, you'll find a goodly portion would be from South County. Other parts of the Missouri side are represented strongly as well. Why? Value. The product and the park are attractive. The concessions are priced fairly. Being right off I-255 makes it accessible to anyone. Crossing a bridge to get to the park isn't as big a deal as the "experts" might think. If "The Cooper Quest" can duplicate the Grizzlies Family, Friends and Fun model, soccer will not only survive, but thrive here...IMHO.
Many Missourians cross a bridge for numerous reasons to find that doing so is well worth it...just as those of us from Illinois have done for years. Eckert's Orchards...school at SIUE or SWIC...The Shrine...Fast Eddie's...Gateway Center...the list goes on. Many things on the Illinois side are not only enjoyable but aren't nearly as far away as perceived for whomever wants to enjoy them. The river tends to be a barrier in our minds, more than in actuality.
I tend to wonder if the leaders in Collinsville will be wise enough to participate in the funding for the project. (They had a chance to have the Grizzlies before they located in Sauget back in '02) Collinsville's loss...Sauget's gain. But if the funding details can be worked out, Collinsville would become the soccer capital of the Midwest...and St. Louis (long touting itself as the soccer capital of the United States) would again have a real opportunity to crow such a marketing line. Yes, St. Louis...not Collinsville...not "over there"...not Illinois...but St. Louis. Note that Collinsville's logo doesn't contain a picture of Abe Lincoln or the Sears Tower...but the Gateway Arch. People in the Metro-East consider themselves as residents of St. Louis, whether Missourians like it or not. We're Cardinals fans, Blues fans and Rams fans too. Whether or not Mr. Cooper's idea for soccer in St. Louis is a good one...and I think it is...the concept shouldn't be shot down by which side of the old river the team chooses to do business.
As far as the sport itself is concerned, you can make your own judgment on that. But soccer seems to me to be inching closer to the point where it's on most people's radar, if not a favorote sport. I think we're one American-born superstar away from the sport busting out. That might be Freddy Adu when he plays in the next World Cup. But, no matter your opinion on the sport or whether you have interest in seeing a game, you have to be pulling for a dreamer like Jeff Cooper, and his associates, to "get 'er done".
As for me, some of my fondest memories as a sports fan come from watching Stars games at Francis Field back in the 70's. The defunct North American Soccer League was one of our country's attempts at taking soccer to the level of interest it holds on the rest of our planet. It didn't work that time. But the product was good. The players were fun to watch. And the atmosphere at those NASL games was the best I've ever seen in sports. It would be nice to think that the St. Louis Soccer United effort would end up providing such a great experience for a new generation of soccer fans and establish an outlet for soccer passion here for decades to come.