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St. Louis showed its deep soccer roots in a triumphant home MLS debut

St. Louis City SC supporters react during the team's inaugural home match against Charlotte FC at CITYPARK on March 4, 2023 in St. Louis. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)
St. Louis City SC supporters react during the team's inaugural home match against Charlotte FC at CITYPARK on March 4, 2023 in St. Louis. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

ST. LOUIS — Expectations. How much do they really matter?

As an expansion team in Major League Soccer that line is blurred. Franchises have shown success in their inaugural years as others have struggled. It’s that element between uncharted territory and trying to live up to a standard.

But absolutely nothing is new about soccer in St. Louis.

The history is rich — there are the 10 U.S. Open Cups and also the 1950 World Cup where five St. Louisans started for the USMNT in their 1-0 upset over England. Countless notable names in the U.S. soccer landscape have emerged from a city that was just yearning for a moment like Saturday’s home opener at CITYPARK. It has always been embedded in the culture, and St. Louis City SC has finally provided a chance to put that at the forefront for the world to see.

A sellout crowd of 22,423 showed up for the historic 3-1 win over Charlotte FC. It was a beautiful sight, but the game was truly not the most important.

“The result was always going to be secondary,” said head coach Bradley Carnell. “This was something that you can’t compare to Europe. I think we’ve set the bar really high — there’s not too many stadiums with this atmosphere. I can tell you that now.”

It has been a long time coming for this community, and the energy reflected that all weekend. As soon as you hop off a plane at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, the City SC banners greet you. Conversations at restaurants, on the train, at bars found ways to mention the anticipated event happening downtown.

“This is a community with soccer at its heart, and that doesn’t happen everywhere in MLS,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “We built a fan following and supporter culture in many cities in this country that had to learn about the game. In this city we delivered the game and next generation of what MLS is and can be.”

The day, and weekend, encompassed that growth perfectly. Throughout "The Lou" you’d be hard-pressed to find someone not in City gear. The appreciation for a team that had just played one official game so far was palpable. But a lot of these supporters have been here for years through the different tiers of soccer ranks that have led to St. Louis finally getting an MLS team.

“It’s so ingrained into our being in St. Louis. We’ve been doing this for 13 years at all four levels,” said Mitch Morice of the St. Louligans supporter group. “We’ve watched it grow, and to have this now with everybody that hadn’t shown up for the past 13 years showing up today is a good feeling.”

The homecoming wasn’t going to be ruined by Enzo Copetti’s 25th minute goal or his taunting the fans. City persisted on the field and was not only rewarded for it, but took over and made a statement. This isn’t a fluke.

“Two games, six goals — I can’t complain,” City striker João Klauss said with a smile. “Feels amazing. As an expansion team, everyone had some doubts in our team, but we always have this trust in each other. As I said in the beginning and I keep saying the same thing, we will be competitive against everyone.”

Once again, how much do expectations matter?

What was certain is that the Gateway City was going to support this team tremendously. St. Louis is synonymous with the MLB's Cardinals. Go down to Ballpark Village and the giant World Series trophy and banners remind you of it. Most recently, the NHL's Blues gave the city a reason to celebrate with their tremendous 2019 Stanley Cup season. This new team, for some reason, is distinct.

“I think it’s going to be just as big, if not bigger. It has the potential to be bigger than the Blues and Cardinals combined,” said fan Danny Hays, who was at the game with his 3- and 6-year-old sons. “We’ve wanted a soccer team for a long time. Being able to have it here at this level is a game-changer for St. Louis.”

“My kids play soccer, and they want to be out on that field one day. Today is once in a lifetime,” Hays told Yahoo Sports. “Hopefully it lets them have the drive to become as good as what they can be in soccer and anything else.”

The generational tradition creates a certain type of appreciation in the city for the sport.

Season ticket holder Tony Druger reminisced on a moment with St. Louis-born former USWNT player Lori Chalupny, who was at his fish fry taking pictures with kids and her Olympic medal after winning gold at the 2008 Olympics.

These types of stories are part of the fabric. To understand it grows that appreciation, and it’s no surprise why a star designated player like Klauss, who has played in five different countries, feels right at home.

“I want to be in a club that I can say that I’m home. Today when you play in front of these great fans with a lot of love from outside, I can tell you how good I’m feeling now,” he said after the game.

Midfielder Eduard Löwen, who buried the team’s first penalty kick ever, echoed the feeling.

“I’ve had so many games in great stadiums in Germany, but this was just different,” he said. “I’ve never played in a stadium with so much excitement and euphoria. It was a special moment.”

The support, including hours of pregaming, a march to the match and a stadium-wide tifo was part of the expected spectacle. What wasn’t necessarily anticipated was getting off to this start and looking convincingly good in the first official 180 minutes of play in franchise history. St. Louis is now 2-0 after opening its season with a 3-2 road win over Austin FC.

But what do expectations really matter?

“I don’t know where I read it or heard it, but some people doubted us for four victories,” said coach Carnell, sarcastically. “At least we’re halfway there, we’ll take it.”

MLS was always going to come to St. Louis, it was just a matter of time. For many, it might seem like it took too long, but the wait is over. Time to keep writing history.

And it’s probably going to be better than expected.