St. Louis United FC - A little bit of historyAs recently as the early 1990s, soccer was still a rarity on U.S. television, with major matches shown on second-tier cable stations or during preempted, overnight slots. But with the World Cup's presence in the United States in 1994 and the arrival of Major League Soccer soon thereafter, the long, slow ascent of soccer on U.S. television was well underway.
In St. Louis, a city without an MLS team but with a long, storied history of excellence in the sport, fans gathered for important international matches at sports bars scattered all over town. But in 2002, a more organized shape began to form that coalesced around an initial core of a dozen folks who watched soccer at OB Clark's in Brentwood. A short-lived move to Grassi's West followed, after which the newly dubbed STL United FC (the FC for "football club") was born, and the scene moved back to OB's.
That relationship would change one more time. Recently, the club moved its viewing base to Barrister's, in the heart of Clayton. And on May 22, the venue was rocking, with over 200 people spilling out onto the street for the Champions League final; so many were in attendance, in fact, that a couple dozen walked to nearby Kilkenny's for the action.
Many of those remaining were dressed in the gear of their favored team, some wrapped in flags and plenty of them vocal in their support for one of the two squads, English giants Chelsea and Manchester United.
"I think that maybe 100 were Manchester United fans, from all over the world, including Mongolia," says Tom Schwarz, the group's lead organizer. "Maybe 50 or 60 were for Chelsea. The balance was neutral. And I'd say that half of the Chelsea fans were people that just hate "Man U."
Despite the partisan crowd, the fans were well-behaved, despite more than a few verbal jabs flying, especially in the packed bar area. The crowd generally is more subdued in the back of the house, though cheers greeted the best moments of action loud enough that people walked out of neighboring businesses to peek at what was causing the fuss.
"I actually loved that about the game," says Schwarz. "That's something like the excitement level of being at a big game. It's like being in a full house and the Cardinals do something dramatic. More so, maybe, because there are relatively fewer scoring chances in soccer. When Chelsea was threatening and Peter Cech made those saves . that was amazing. And to have some (packed) games like that are important for the commercial aspect."
True enough, when the soccer crowd's in full force, business is up at Barrister's, so much so that the grill's staff is forced to shimmy through the yelling and cheering throng. Barrister's was a "soccer bar" before the STL United crew rolled in, largely because owner and chef Jason Tilford is still an active player at age 36. The walls are filled with framed jerseys and photos, and the ceiling's covered with team scarves.
But Tilford says that his own family has close ties to the family that owned OB's, meaning that he never fully wanted to snare the group away from the Brentwood home base.
"I had friends who came in a lot," he says. "And I knew they were part of a group and the group watched soccer at Clark's. ... One day, Tom called me out of the blue. That was a very lucky day. We had wanted them for a while, but I never wanted to be aggressive in bringing them in."
Schwarz notes, though, that Barrister's, now four years into its operation, was willing to go the extra mile. While the bar and patio have only eight TVs, all are tuned into soccer during important game days, with most every cable package offering soccer available.
"It's about loyalty," Schwarz says. "To me, the whole thing is about building loyalty, just like in building a business. How are we going to build the club? I think [the Champions League final] was as big as anything we've done in building the club."
The next test for both Barrister's and the STL United FC gang is the European championship, in which national teams play each other, it runs from June 7 through 29.
Tilford figures, "The bigger the match, the bigger the crowd. And there are some really nice match-ups during the group play."
And even during smaller outings, the soccer talk is convivial and fun.
"Those days are good because of the conversation," Schwarz says. "And that's what you get there; the conversation is great. I really do learn about the game on those days. But there's nothing like the excitement of the big ones."
This article was written by Thomas Crone and was originally published in the West End Word in May of 2008