New York, NY-- Major League Soccer has long been a league defined by eras. As St. Louis City SC enter the fray as the latest expansion club -- the league's 29th team -- change is now coming too fast to lump things into specific eras. And City SC want to break the mold of what an expansion club is supposed to look like.
Led by Carolyn Kindle and the league's first majority female ownership group, St. Louis look to bring a strong product on the field while also taking the community at large into account, given its rich history of soccer that dates as far back at the late 1800s. More recently, however, USL had Saint Louis FC until 2020 after the club folded due to COVID. The arrival of MLS in town brings new hope and Kindle appears to be on the right path with 60,000 season ticket deposits before they've even taken the pitch.
This is not the first ownership group to try to bring MLS to St. Louis, but due to Kindle's business background and unique local ties as president of Enterprise Holdings Foundation, she was able to put together a successful bid to bring a franchise to the city. That uniqueness will also translate into the matchday experience, which will debut when the side faces Charlotte FC in their home opener on Saturday, with Kindle hiring the league's first chief experience officer.
"We wanted to provide by far the best fan experience when you came down to the facility, whether gameday or matchday or non-matchday," Kindle said before the season kicked off. "To be able to hire somebody who could oversee not only how you create this experience, but how you build in the technology, which has become what everybody expects, was probably, in our opinion, the most efficient and yet most forward-thinking way of handling this."
Being able to ensure that anyone who makes a trip to the stadium enjoys it is important, but so is the on field product -- another area that makes this club unique. Being able to be the first expansion club to start play in MLS Next Pro before their first league season, St. Louis were able to develop cohesion on the pitch that certainly helped head coach Bradley Carnell win his team's opening match against Austin FC.
The performance of expansion clubs can be a mixed bag because everyone strives find the same kind of success as Atlanta United once had in their first season. Atlanta finished fourth in the East before losing in the first round of the playoffs. But the reality is that there's always the chance of struggling at the bottom of the table for the first few seasons -- much like FC Cincinnati or Minnesota United. Using the Next Pro experience in the right way could help avoid that. If things go well, St. Louis could forge a path that no doubt expansion team No. 30 would follow.
"They were amazing to work with. As soon as I left Toronto and joined Next Pro in December, [St. Louis] was one of the first meetings that I had when I met Carolyn [Kindle] and the ownership group," said former MLS player Ali Curtis, who's now MLS Next Pro's senior vice president of competition and operations.
"I think there are advantages and opportunities for those clubs that are coming into MLS to start in MLS Next Pro. Prior to that launch, you get a bit of a dry run, you get some experience, and there are some player transitional moments that are advantageous for clubs to take advantage of. Getting players in your system, in your market used to what's going on, used to the style of play. So in that sense, I think it's great and I thought St. Louis took full advantage of the platform."
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The experience in Next Pro has also helped St. Louis build a connection with the community, which is critical to Kindle's vision. Mill Creek Valley, a predominantly Black neighborhood where the club is located, was razed in the 1950s due to political tensions. Kindle and the club have been sure to honor the past by bringing in local artist Damon Davis to construct the "Pillars of the Valley" monument.
Displaying names and quotes from residents in the neighborhood, the monument will help educate people on the history of the area while showing the club's connection to the past as they try to help forge the future of the area. Kindle understands that the only way to come into an area as a sports team is by listening to the residents currently located in the area.
"What we're hearing is a lot of people saying, 'I didn't even know the story of Mill Creek Valley.' Even my parents' generation, I remember driving by that neighborhood, but I didn't know the history of it," Kindle said. "So we're using it as a way to sort of bring the community together and educate, but also understand that there are hard issues from the past that we have to acknowledge and that we need to be able to start having more open and comfortable conversations than usual."
If the club is able to continue focusing on working with the community while also honoring the past, it could be the start of a wonderful partnership. The key is maintaining that focus. Plenty of teams have come in with lofty promises that haven't reached the mark and St. Louis SC won't want to end up in the same boat. For instance, New York City FC have been without a true home since joining the league, playing home games at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees didn't have more pressing priorities. To finally secure a stadium, they'll need to leave the Bronx for a home in Queens. The Philadelphia Union saw how hard it was to honor those commitments as well with a waterfront development along the Delaware River in Chester that took 13 years to become a reality.
Kindle and the club are in for the long haul here, but with results on the pitch and pulling in the community for a great experience, the foundation is there for success in MLS. Success that could help break the mold of what expansion looks like.
St. Louis heads to Austin for its inaugural game before debuting Citypark against Charlotte on March 4