NFL’s departure leaves St. Louis wide open for MLS’ taking

Years of rumors and speculation about the St. Louis Rams were finally put to rest last week as the NFL owners voted to allow owner Stan Kronke to move the team from the midwest to a brand-new stadium in Los Angeles. In one fell swoop, professional football returned to the nation’s No. 2 market while leaving a sizable population without a football team.

Now, a lot of people in St. Louis are crying foul and with good reason. But I’m choosing to not look at the negatives and instead focusing on the positives. Because, St. Louis, you’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.

Enter Major League Soccer.

MLS has continued to expand with no end really in sight. The league had set a cap at 24, but recently the board of governors has voted to eventually expand the league to 28 teams, opening up the race to a multitude of markets. And among those new potential is St. Louis, a city that has a great soccer history hidden underneath its baseball past.

And now, with the NFL completely vacating the area, likely for good, it’s time for MLS to plan for expansion in St. Louis to take advantage of this opportunity.

Believe it or not, St. Louis has had a storied soccer background. The city played host to one of the first professional soccer teams. In fact, that team averaged 7,000 people per game in it’s first season in 1967. There have also been many, many iterations of indoor soccer teams within the city’s limits as well. And many of those who have played on the U.S. men’s national team, including FC Dallas general manager Fernando Clavijo, have come through the Gateway to the West in one fashion or another.

But it’s not just the past that makes St. Louis a great soccer city. The city still supports soccer when it knows about it. Just over 43,000 fans showed up to Busch Stadium back in November to see the United States beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Countless more have shown up to U.S. women’s national team matches as well. And, while the USL’s St. Louis FC hasn’t quite gotten off the ground, if the city knows about a soccer team, it will support it.

And it’s imperative that the league takes full advantage of this opportunity. This is too good for the taking. There are plenty of eyeballs in the St. Louis market that can turn into fans and a St. Louis-Kansas City-Chicago rivalry might be a low key version of the Cascadia Cup (if Chicago can get its act in gear).

Of course, getting a team in St. Louis and doing it right won’t happen overnight. It’ll still be a few years before there’s a team along the Mississippi there. And that should be the case. The league should take its time making sure the ownership group is correct, the stadium is correct and that this will be a success.

But the league needs to strike while the iron is hot and start that process now. The NFL doesn’t care about St. Louis. It’s time MLS makes the city feel special again.