John Klein has spent the last few years playing at St. Louis University and he closely watched construction of the city’s nearby professional soccer stadium.
“I can remember when it was literally a hole in the ground,” Klein said after a January workout at the team’s practice facility in the shadow of the stadium known as CityPark.
“For this to be in Midtown, literally a 2 minute drive from my school, is just such a special thing.”
Klein is adding to the region’s rich soccer history as part of Major League Soccer’s expansion team, St. Louis City SC. He was one of the squad’s first draft selections.
“I thought man this would be a really good spot for me to go and stay with them. They know who I am. I had a little bit of a feeling, but I didn’t know for sure,” the Missouri native said.
He’s not on the top-level team’s roster yet, after signing a contract this week with City SC’s development squad, City 2.
Klein is the third generation to play for SLU, following his father and grandfather, who was on the school’s first national championship team in 1959.
“I definitely have a lot of St. Louis soccer history for me.”
For Klein and the thousands of soccer fans in the region, the wait for a top tier professional team to add to the city’s long history with the sport is over. St. Louis City SC plays its inaugural home match Saturday night.
The link to that heritage is a bonus for City SC, which has made it a priority to build solid community ties leading up to last weekend’s MLS debut and the first home match Saturday against Charlotte FC.
Team executives consider Klein to be a strong fit for the development pipeline.
“He’s such an intense, hardworking player. A player who’s all over you,” said Lutz Pfannenstiel, the team’s sporting director.
He’s in charge of putting together City SC’s roster and has a clear, intense vision for how the players should perform on the field.
“The other team should be worried,” Pfannenstiel said. “Because we are willing to eat them alive, we are willing to fight, we are willing to scratch and bite. And, this is how we want to define ourselves.”
Pfannenstiel brings a lot of experience to his job in St. Louis.
He started with Germany’s Under-17 national team in 1986 and retired as a player in 2011. He’s been a coach in Cuba and Namibia. Pfannenstiel was an executive with teams in Germany. He also worked as a commentator for soccer broadcasters like the BBC, CNN and ZDF in Germany.
Pfannenstiel is relying on that background to build a strong team in St. Louis. One of his first significant decisions was to avoid signing aging superstars from around the world.
“We want to have a young, dynamic, aggressive, hungry team out there, which gives the people in the stadium that Midwestern kind of touch,” he said.
That Midwestern touch goes beyond the decision to bring Klein into the system.
The team has signed two local players through its development pipeline. Seventeen-year old Miguel Perez was born in St. Louis and made his MLS debut last week. Columbia, Illinois native Caden Glover is on the team at only 15-years-old.
Michael Haffner is one of the fans eagerly anticipating the progress of the young, local talent. He’s a student of St. Louis soccer history and cites the success of SLU, the old St. Louis Stars and the recent St. Louis FC as a big reason why MLS should have been here sooner.
“I think a lot of fans are surprised that it’s taken as long as it has,” he said.
Fans have been waiting years for the arrival of MLS.
Voters in 2017 rejected a plan to direct $60 million into a stadium project. That effectively killed any hope of an expansion team until some deep-pocketed investors stepped up. The female-majority ownership group, led by Carolyn Kindle, put together a proposal that included a more attractive plan for a stadium. That prompted the league to award an expansion team in 2019.
It was supposed to start play last year, but was delayed by the pandemic.
There were also some setbacks last year in completing the stadium that will seat approximately 22,500 fans. But now it’s all ready to go and Haffner is excited about the first home contest.
“It’s going to feel surreal for me,” he said.
Haffner does some freelance writing for City SC and is an officer with the Saint Louis City Punks soccer supporters group.
He will be one of the fans packed into the north section of CityPark this weekend loudly and colorfully cheering for the home team.
Haffner says that atmosphere is a big part of the soccer experience.
“Hearing the chants. Seeing the flags waving. Hearing from all the different supporters groups chanting in unison. I think that’s what’s very special about soccer that you don’t always get with other sports.”
The expansion squad is in the league’s Western Conference along with teams from Dallas, Los Angeles and what is expected to be St. Louis’s biggest rival, Kansas City. City SC and Sporting Kansas City will play three times this year, including in May and September at CityPark.
Knocking off the main rival would be a strong showing for an inaugural season, but Haffner has higher hopes.
“I think if we can make it into the playoffs, that would be a success for the first year,” he said.
City SC is off to a good start to make Haffner’s playoff hopes a reality.
The team defeated Austin, which finished 2nd in the Western Conference last year, 3-2 in its first-ever MLS match last weekend in Texas.