“Soccer Made in St. Louis” A History and a Celebration

by Gerry Wittmann

Soccer Made in St. Louis” is the title of a new book by Dave Lange about the history of the beautiful game in my hometown — a history that stretches back to 1875.  The publication of Dave’s book was also the cause for a celebration of St. Louis soccer, held at the Missouri History Museum earlier this month.  The event attracted some of the oustanding players, coaches and writers who have made St. Louis soccer unique in American culture. For those who feel this article may be a bit off-topic for the Bundesliga Fanatic, let me assure those that there is a definite connection between soccer made in St. Louis and soccer made in Germany.

Many soccer dignitaries were in attendance for the event, including U.S. Soccer Federation CEO and Secretary General Dan Flynn (an interview with Mr. Flynn from that evening can be found here); Harry Keough and Frank Borghi, the defender and goalkeeper of the USMNT that upset England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil; U.S. Soccer Hall of Famers Pat McBride and Al Trost, both players in the original NASL and U.S. internationals and Lori Chalupny, who has over 90 caps for the USWNT and may be one of the most versatile players to ever don the U.S. kit.  The common background for all these individuals, and the many other famed former players and coaches in attendance, is that they all were born and grew up in St. Louis.  Tony Glavin, a former NASL player who played against Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and many other great internationals in the old NASL after coming to the U.S. as a teenager from Glasgow, was also there.  Tony came to St. Louis on a five-month contract to play for the MISL indoor St. Louis Steamers — thirty plus years later he’s still here, contributing to the community with his youth soccer organization that includes the Premier Development League’s St. Louis Lions.

The Fanatic and friend Dave Trotter (of the OwnGoalNetwork’s Ligue 1 Talk) were privileged to attend this event and get a chance to speak before and after the panel discussion with so many of these greats (and of course get autographs).  I’d already had a chance to interview Dave Lange beforehand, and thus had the opportunity to converse with the soccer stars who were and are among the true pioneers of the game in the U.S.   All were gracious, humorous and humble as humanly possible…. but the biggest thrill was meeting Harry Keough and Frank Borghi.  They played semipro soccer locally after World War II (an era when there was no national professional league in the U.S.) before and after the miracle they helped create in Belo Horizonte in 1950, beating an English side that boasted such stars as Stanley Mortensen, Roy Bentley, Billy Wright, Sir Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews (who sat the game out…substitutions were not allowed at that time).

Keough and Borghi are now octagenarians, but lively with a twinkle in their eyes.   That their achievement went almost unnoticed is part of the story — the New York Times wouldn’t print the result against England, feeling it was a mistake, and no American journalist covered the match except for St. Louis newspaperman Dent McSkimming, who took vacation and was in Brazil on his own time.  Six St. Louisans were part of the US squad that went to Brazil, and five started the match (PeeWee Wallace, Charlie Colombo and Gino Pariani along with Keough and Borghi –Bob Annis was the other USMNT member from St. Louis).  These players were all great athletes AND great soccer players, some of whom had played in the 1948 London Olympics (receiving a 9-0 spanking from Italy in the process).

It’s often overlooked that in the 1950 World Cup the Americans held a 1-0 lead over Spain (on a Gino Pariani goal) until the 80th minute in their first group match before surrendering three late goals to lose 3-1.  (The U.S. lost their final 1950 World Cup group match to Chile 5-2).  Although luck was certainly with the Americans on that June day in Belo Horizonte against the English giants, the Americans weren’t just lucky misfits — rather they just didn’t have a national forum to demonstrate their talents and a league that could pay them enough to be full-time professionals.  American forward John Souza was named to the 1950 World Cup All-Star team by Brazilian sports newspaper Mundo Esportivo.  Keough went on to coach St. Louis University to five national championships in the 1960s while working full-time for the U.S. Postal Service, while Borghi, who earned a Purple Heart for his valor during World War II,  played soccer and baseball while he worked in the mortuary business.

The development of these players did not occur in a vacuum.  Dave’s book outlines the history of the game here, from the first newspaper report recognizing a game that vaguely looked like soccer in 1875 to the development of the dominant local St. Leo’s team in the first decade of the 1900s.  A British all-star team, the Pilgrims, played exhibitions against St. Louis teams in 1905 and 1909, promoted by Thomas Cahill, who later moved to New York to found the American Soccer League in the 1920s and head the FIFA authorized U.S. Soccer Federation.

Bill Abstein

Bill Abstein

Professionalism soon won out over amateur teams in St. Louis as it did all over the world, and St. Leo’s began paying some players a percentage of the gate (including fullback “Big” Bill Abstein, who also played first base for the 1909 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates –  the favorite baseball team of Tor author Uli Hesse).  Corporate sponsorship of teams began after World War I, and the emergence of famed U.S. Open Cup (then known as the National Challenge Cup) champions such as the Ben Millers, Scullin Steel, Stix Baer and Fuller, and later the Simpkins Ford and Kutis clubs from St. Louis battled with other famed teams from the Northeast such as Bethlehem Steel.  But players were never paid enough that they didn’t need full-time employment elsewhere.  And unlike many teams in the Northeast, St. Louis teams were mainly made of American players, not those imported from England and Scotland.

Dave Lange’s book tells the story of American soccer in St. Louis better much better than I ever could, and along with Dave Wangerin’s “Soccer in a Football World,” are must-reads for anyone who thinks the beautiful game has no roots in the United States.  I will leave you with some facts gleaned from “Soccer Made in St. Louis.”

- Between 1951 and 1970, German clubs 1. FC Nurnberg, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Augsberg, Eintracht Frankfurt and a “North German All-Star” team played friendlies in May and June against St. Louis semipro and CYC All Star teams.  Eintracht Frankfurt (1951),  Nurnberg (1955) and Schwaben Augsberg (1956) lost in these friendlies.  Hertha Berlin played a friendly against the NASL St. Louis Stars in May, 1970, winning 4-2. (Oh where have you gone, German clubs that toured the States)?

- Bayern Munich triumphed over the St. Louis White Star team coached by Yugoslavian

George Mihaljevic

George Mihaljevic

George Mihaljevic in a 1966 friendly 11-2.  The coach had been captain of the Junior Yugoslavian National Team at the age of 16 in 1953, and played professionally in Germany, Austria and Switzerland before coming to the U.S.  White Star were Missouri Open and Amateur Cup champions in 1965-1966.  In 1967 Mihaljevic studied under the tutelage of Hennes Weisweiler, renowned Coach and Professor at the Koln Sporthochschule  before opening his own soccer school in St. Louis, which is today run by George’s son Joe as the Mihaljevic Soccer Club- Top Gun in Folsom, California.  HOFer Pat McBride, the first American player drafted in the NPSL (a year before it merged to form the NASL), was a member of Mihaljevic’s White Star club.

- Koblenz native Rudi Gutendorf coached the NASL Stars in 1968.  He received his coaching license in Germany in 1953 under the tutelage of the famed Sepp Herberger, who brought West Germany its first World Cup trophy in 1954.   German players who played for the Stars in the late 1960s and early 1970s include Rudi Kolbl (VfB Stuttgart), Joe Fuhrman (FC Koln), Eric Hahn (Bayern Munich, Allemania Aachen), Kaiserslautern’s Wilhelm Wrenger and German-Americans Willy Roy (who moved from Germany to Chicago at the age of six) and Orest Banach (born in Neu-Ulm, he earned four US international caps), although the makeup of the first Stars’ clubs was heavy on Polish and Yugoslavian players before the team began featuring a mostly American lineup a few years later.

- The Ben Millers Hat Company team, which defeated the Fore River Shipyard team of Quincy, Massachusetts in the 1920 US Open Cup final to give St. Louis its first official national champion, consisted of all St. Louis players.  Fore River had eleven Englishman on their squad.

- Harry Ratican, the star forward born in St. Louis in 1894, played for such famed American clubs as Ben Millers, Bethlehem Steel (Pennsylvania), Todd Shipyards and the Robins Dry Dock teams from Brooklyn, New York, and the Fall River (Massachusetts) teams.  He also coached soccer at West Point Military Academy between 1922 and 1927 and was on the St. Louis All Star team that toured Sweden between August 1 and September 15, 1920.  That team played 14 matches in Stockholm, Helsingborg, Gothenborg and other locations, with crowds sometimes numbering over 25,000 – the St. Louisans won 7, drew 5 and lost only twice.

1930s greats Billy Gonsalves (L) and Bert Patenaude

-Billy Gonsalves, perhaps the greatest American player ever, played in St. Louis for teams Stix, Baer and Fuller, Shamrocks, Central Breweries and others after leaving the East in 1933.  Already established as a top player with with the Fall River and New Bedford clubs in the East, Gonsalves played in St. Louis until 1938 when he joined the Chicago Manhatten Beer team.  Gonsalves was a big (6’2, 210 pounds) forward from Providence, Rhode Island who many observers felt could have played for any international team in the world.  Despite offers from European and South American clubs, he stayed in the United States, played professionally from the age of 19 until the age of 44.  Gonsalves scored three goals for the New York Yankees/Fall Rivers Marksmen in 1931 at Boston’s Fenway Park in a 4-3 win over Celtic, which had just won the Scottish FA Cup.  Harry Keough’s older brother Billy, who also had a distinguished playing career, said that Gonsalves’ shot was so powerful that once launched a shot that hit a goalpost, resulting in the ball bouncing back to the midfield line, and on another occasion knocked a player unconscious with a free kick.  Gonsalves played for the US in the first two World Cups of 1930 and 1934, scoring a goal in six matches.  It’s also said of the handsome star that he never received a yellow card in his 25 years of professional play.

- Other famed clubs that played local teams in St. Louis: Pre-World War II – Sparta Prague (Czechoslovakia), Botafogo (Brazil), Hakoah (Austria), Nacional (Uruguay), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Palestine), Audax (Chile), Atlante (Mexico);  Post World War II – Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Plymouth Argyle, Wolverhampton, Coventry City, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United (England), Celtic, Dundee United, Kilmarnock (Scotland), Santos (Brazil), Besiktas (Turkey), Djugarden and Jonkopping (Sweden), Sochaux (France) and Vazim (Portugal).

DSC02116

Tim Ream at USMNT practice in June

- Although much of the rest of the country has caught up with St. Louis and the Northeast as soccer hotbeds, St. Louis continues to produce international players, such as defender Tim Ream of the New York RedBulls and Becky Sauerbrunn, who started for the USWNT in Germany in the semifinal match of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  Currently St. Louisans in MLS include Ream, Will Bruin and Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Tom Heinemann (Columbus Crew), Matt Pickens (Colorado Rapids), Pat Noonan (Seattle Sounders) and such recently retired MLS stars and internationals as Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and Chris Klein.   Mike Ambersley is one of the top scorers in the current NASL with FC Tampa Bay while Jack Traynor and Eric Ustruck were a part of the USL PRO 2011 champion Orlando City SC.   Hoffenheim star forward Vedad Ibisevic played in St. Louis during his teens at Roosevelt High School and for a year at St. Louis University before heading to Europe to play professionally.  St. Louisan Frankie Simek has played for Sheffield Wednesday and is currently with Carlisle United in England.

- Like their St. Louis male counterparts who currently play professional soccer, today’s female professionals such as Chalupny and Sauerbrunn stand on the shoulders of St. Louis pioneers in women’s soccer such as sisters Jan and Joan Gettemeyer and former goalkeeper Ruth Harker, who were also in attendance at the event.  The Gettemeyer’s played for the University of Missouri-St. Louis team that featured in the first collegiate women’s national tournament in the early 1980s, while Ms. Harker was selected to the first U.S. Women’s National team squad in 1985.

- Scullin Steel, who reached the National Challenge Cup finals in three consecutive years in the early 1920s, are the first reported team to wear numbers on their jerseys, doing so in the 1923 Cup final.  English sides Arsenal and Chelsea appeared with numbers on their kit briefly in 1928, but quickly abandoned the practice.

“Soccer Made in St. Louis” is available on Amazon.com.  St. Louisan Bill McDermott, a fine player and TV analyst in his own right, did the graphic work on Dave’s book.  The story of the 1950 U.S. World Cup squad was chronicled by Geoffrey Douglas in “The Game of Their Lives.”  The book was made into a motion picture of the same name, later re-titled as “The Miracle Match.”

USMNT

1950 US World Cup team

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Author:Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder and CEO of Bundesliga Fanatic LLC. Gerry is also a regular contributor to IMSoccer News and co-host of the IMS NASL podcast.
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