“We Played Soccer Before You Were a State”

Our own Stuart Hultgren took the away game weekend to pen this history of St. Louis and the US Open Cup. Saint Louis FC joins the tournament on May 15th in Des Moines.

Before MLS, before David Beckham, even before Pele and the star-studded National American Soccer League, there was the Saint Louis Soccer League and the U.S. Open Cup.

“We played soccer before you were a state.”

The origins of the U.S. Open Cup date back to the founding of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) in 1913. Soccer as a sport was on the rise around the world and every nation was organizing their own governing bodies. In 1914, the USSF used its governing power to found the U.S. Open Cup (then known as the National Challenge Cup). For years this competition would serve as the de facto soccer championship in the United States.

Since 1914—through two World Wars and the endless founding and folding of domestic leagues—the U.S. Open Cup has persisted and is the second-longest continuous domestic cup competition in the world. The tournament itself is open to all affiliated amateur and professional clubs in the United States.

The first soccer competitions in St. Louis date back to 1890 when the first citywide leagues began forming. As the sport’s popularity grew, so did the prominence of the teams, and in 1907, the Saint Louis Soccer League (SLSL) formed. For a while during its existence, the SLSL was the only fully professional league in the country. Most of the league’s teams were sponsored by local businesses, with names like Scullin Steel, Ben Millers, Vesper Buick, and amusingly enough, Pants Store Football Club, behind the clubs.

St. Louis’s first foray into the Open Cup began in 1918, as members of the SLSL took on teams in Chicago and Cleveland in the initial rounds of the tournament. At first, the St. Louis clubs struggled against their eastern counterparts, but in 1920, Ben Millers, a club sponsored by a local hat company, shocked the national soccer community by beating Fore River to become the first club outside of the northeast to win an Open Cup. With the Ben Millers’ victory, St. Louis clubs became an established force in the Open Cup, with clubs appearing in the next five Open Cup finals and winning one of them.

1920 Ben Millers Team, courtesy Wikipedia

For a while, the Saint Louis Soccer League boomed even through the Great Depression as St. Louis and Chicago clubs fought for regional supremacy. In the early 1930s, Stix, Baer and Fuller FC became the first club to win three consecutive Open Cups. The league expanded to include teams from Chicago and Cleveland before internal strife led to its collapse in 1939, ending the first golden era of Saint Louis soccer.

In the years following World War II, a new league, the St. Louis Major Soccer League was founded. Nearly instantly it ushered St. Louis back to the forefront of soccer in the United States. Lead by St. Simpkins-Ford and St. Louis Kutis S.C., St. Louis clubs captured a further three Open Cup titles in the 1950s. Their regional success garnered the attention of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which picked mostly St. Louisans to represent the U.S. National Team in the 1950 World Cup, the nation’s first World Cup appearance in 16 years. In one of the sport’s all-time upsets, the amateur U.S. team defeated World Cup favorites, England, 1-0.

Kutis S.C.’s title in 1957 heralded the end of St. Louis’s title runs in the Open Cup for several decades. Saint Louis remained an integral focus of the sport in the United States, with Saint Louis University becoming the nation’s first collegiate powerhouse. St. Louisans still made up the core of the U.S. National Team, but local clubs faded from prominence in the Open Cup.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the St. Louis Stars represented the city in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and was the only NASL team that fielded a team of mostly local players. However, the NASL forgoed competing in the Open Cup during its existence, so the Stars were not able to add to the city’s tally of eight titles.

After narrowly losing in the finals in 1983 and 1985, Kutis S.C. ended the title drought with an Open Cup victory in 1986. St. Louis’s last title came in 1988 when the forebears of Scott Gallagher/Saint Louis FC, the Busch Seniors, beat Greek-American A.C. at Soccer Park in front of a crowd of 6,200. The Busch Seniors squad was led by two current members of WorldWide Technologies’ executive team, Joe Koenig and Tim Loughman. Several other players, such as Greg Makowski, were Scott Gallagher alumni who regularly featured on the U.S. National Team in the 1980s.

Busch Seniors, 1988 Team Photo Courtesy of STLToday/Joe Olwig

The period after the 1980s were wrought with turmoil as the Open Cup was first dominated by West Coast teams, and then after 1996, MLS teams.

“Ten thousand lakes and no Open Cups!”

2015 ushered in  the modern era of the U.S. Open Cup for St. Louis: It was the inaugural season of Saint Louis FC. Calling back to a bygone era, native St. Louisans led the team to beat Des Moines Menace at home, earning the opportunity to face future MLS team Minnesota United at home.

Heavy underdogs, Saint Louis FC battled back from an early second half deficit to force penalty kicks. Saint Louis converted their first three penalties as Minnesota missed two of their first three. Anticipation grew as future MLS star Christian Ramirez came to the penalty spot for Minnesota. His shot beat the Saint Louis goalie but missed the net as fans rushed the field in elation.

After the victory, Saint Louis FC next faced MLS’ Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park. A sold-out crowd of 19,298 attended the fourth-round matchup in the first competitive match between the two soccer cities in modern memory.

A crowd of over 500 visiting fans drowned out the home fans as an outmatched Saint Louis FC defended desperately against Sporting KC’s attacks. In the end, it was World Cup veteran Graham Zusi who scored the winning goal for Sporting, running over to the away fans and shushing them as he celebrated. In 2018, Zusi recounted the moment, saying it was the only moment as a professional that he’s reacted to traveling fans. Saint Louis had lost, but the moment was everything the U.S. Open Cup should be.

In the years since, no moment has quite matched the game against Sporting KC. The 2017 Open Cup came close, with Saint Louis FC knocking off a pair of amateur clubs and facing off against MLS’ Chicago Fire at Soccer Park. Despite an even match, it was a wondergoal by the Fire that sank St. Louis’s hopes.

Now we find ourselves in 2019, with Saint Louis FC entering the U.S. Open Cup and traveling to Des Moines to once again face the Menace. Saint Louis FC hopes to add to the region’s 10 Open Cup titles, which trails only New York City and Los Angeles.

No matter the result, St. Louis’s place in U.S. Open Cup history is wrapped in glory.

Louigans representing the STL Open Cup Champions. Courtesy of Will Bramlett.

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