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St. Louis is a Soccer Town

St. Louis is a soccer town and always has been. The city boasts perhaps the richest soccer tradition of anywhere in America. The Saint Louis Billikens are the most successful college soccer program of all time, having won more NCAA championships than anyone. The Hermann Award, soccer’s Heisman equivalent, is named after SLU legend Robert Hermann and presented at the Missouri Athletic Club each year. Numerous national team members, including teenage sensation Josh Sargent, Taylor Twellman and SLU alum Tim Ream, have come from St. Louis.

Jack’s Pa (top right) and other members of the SLU team. Feature image courtesy of Brian Kunderman, SLU Athletics.

The legendary 1950 World Cup team that upset England 1-0, had 5 players from St. Louis, including goalie Frank Borghi, who collected the clean sheet. For most of the 20th century, the best soccer in America was found in the parks of St. Louis. One of the most treasured parts of my childhood was hearing all about it from my grandpa. Steve Murphy played soccer in St. Louis from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, and master storyteller that he is, had a bunch of stories  and I used to ask him to tell me these stories almost every time I visited as a kid (which was quite often). Now that St. Louis has an MLS team, it seems like a good time to share some of them. And my Pa played at SLU, making it Relevant(ish) Offseason Content™ for A10Talk.

In 1958, he was on the first ever soccer team at Saint Louis University, which he calls the “best team he ever played on by far”. The year was a test run of sorts, to see if it was worth it to establish a varsity soccer program at SLU. The team only lost one game, and made clear that soccer and Saint Louis University went together like peanut butter and jelly.

“We were literally playing for the success at varsity soccer at Saint Louis U.,” he said. “In fact, it was a club team, and Saint Louis U made it a varsity sport retroactively.”

The 1958 team paved the way for the 1959 squad to win the first ever NCAA Championship, and to win 10 National Championship between 1959 and 1974, still the most of any school in the NCAA.

My all-time favorite story is the one where my grandpa scored on Frank Borghi. The best players in England couldn’t do it, but Pa did. I’ve heard the story hundred of times, maybe even thousands, and it never gets old.

“We were scheduled to play St. Ambrose in, I believe, the Johnny Marie Tournament of Champions, and Joe (Berra) said, ‘You guys have a game against St. Ambrose, will you even show up?’ and I said ‘We’re gonna show up, and we’ll do well with ourselves,’” Pa said.

He was actually running late to the game, because it was Wednesday night and he had a class for his Masters degree.

“Sal Noto was the manager, and he was all excited and motioned me to come over quick. So I go over and he says ‘Ray Foster scored a goal, but he got hurt, you go in for Foster’, so I went in for Ray Foster.”

Usually Pa was a midfielder and didn’t score much, but he was playing “inside right”, which is equivalent to a striker in today’s game. Shortly after, Jerry Barrett, who was on the left wing, found himself with the ball.

“Jerry latches onto a ball way over on the left side of the field, carries the ball down the wing, beats one of St. Ambrose’s fullbacks and puts a beautiful cross on the ground, and it comes squirting across. Billy Schumacher and I see the ball and it was bouncing, I caught it on the bounce, right on the shoestrings and I looked up, and by the time I looked up it was already in the net, and Frank Borghi was just looking at me (laughs)

Pa’s team managed to pull out the 3-1 upset, and business wasn’t quite done.

“That was probably the most exciting day of my life, and of course, I quickly got in my car and drove to The Hill, and went to Joe Bull’s Tavern where Joe Berra was sitting along with most of the team, and said “Hi Joe! What’s new” and he just said ‘Sit down’, and he said to the bartender, ‘Get him a drink’”

During the late 50s and early 60s, my grandpa and Billy O’Brien, his friend and teammate at SLU, would go watch St. Ambrose practice. St. Ambrose was the parish team in the Hill, St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood, and 1950 World Cup starters Charlie Columbo, Frank “Pee Wee “Wallace, Geno Parani and Borghi all played on the team at the time.

“There was always a ball lying around and we’d go off and kick the ball back and forth, and Frank would come over and ask ‘Can I warm up with you?’ which was a big thrill because he was a hero to us, he was a hero to everyone in St. Louis who knew anything about soccer, but as a soccer player just to get his attention and work with him was cool,” Pa said. “And he’d stand between us and we’d shoot it a little away from him, but close enough that he could handle the ball, and if it went by him, Billy would shoot, and if Billy’s shot went by him, it’d go to me. He stopped most of them, but that’s how he warmed up.”

“Frank Borghi was one of the nicest men who ever lived,” Pa said.

I’ve come to realize it’s not just the contents of the stories that are special. It’s the way he tells the stories,  and the small details of things he enjoyed so much, and the sense of community within St. Louis soccer. Soccer in St. Louis isn’t a new thing, it’s a tradition that’s been around far before football and basketball truly took hold in the national consciousness. Other places often are trying to play catch-up in establishing a foothold for soccer in communities outside of a sport you play in grade school and then quit. Soccer has the type of generational tradition that just isn’t present elsewhere in America, and the MLS team is a great addition to that tradition.

Hopefully it’ll spawn a few stories that means as much to some people as my grandpa’s stories mean to me.