A City, A College, And A Soccer Dynasty
St Louis University (“SLU”) ruled college soccer from the late 1950’s through the early 1970’s, winning ten Division I titles, the most of any school. Rich in the game’s heritage the Billikens were fueled by home grown talent, producing a championship run that ended when soccer moved from a localized sport to the wider national stage.
SLU started their soccer drive in 1959, the same year the NCAA sanctioned the sport as an interscholastic program. Eight colleges made the playoffs and SLU stormed through the tournament with at least a 3-point spread in every match. They beat the University of Bridgeport 5-2 at the Final, taking home the NCAA’s first soccer title.
The following year they defeated the Maryland Terrapins 3-2 and the year after that, they were runner-up against the West-Chester Golden Rams. SLU triumphed again in ‘62 and in ‘63 when the number of teams doubled. Clearly, there was something special about the boys from St Louis.
On the national level, American soccer in the mid-20th century hovered below the radar. The sport was a localized recreation, fueled by the passion of immigrants and organized by community leaders. St Louis was fortunate to have both.
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi river, the city hosted the first Olympics in the U.S. as part of the World’s Fair in 1904. In the soccer event, Canadians took gold but two clubs from St Louis walked off with silver and bronze: Christian Brothers College and St Rose Parish, respectively.
At the opening rounds of the 1950 World Cup, the U.S. squad defeated powerhouse England 1-0 in one of the greatest upsets in Cup history. The news sent shock waves around the country and across the ocean. Five players on the American roster hailed from St Louis and of those, four came from the same Hill neighborhood.
The city was no stranger to sports like baseball, basketball or football. But for areas that housed first and second-generation Americans, soccer was king. Raised in working class, immigrant and Catholic families, the young men who took to the pitch played a rough, aggressive and competitive game.
The archdiocese of St Louis, populated with Irish and Italian priests, created the most organized soccer league in the country. Monsignor Louis F. Meyer, known as the "Soccer Priest", remarked that in the seminary “we were ordained with the bible in one hand and with a pair of soccer shoes in the other”.
It was neighborhood versus neighborhood, parish versus parish, and north side versus south side. At stake were bragging rights for the best team in the city. Local employers also formed their own squads. Kutis Funeral Home sponsored a club of weekend cleat warriors that won 6 national amateur titles, helping to put St Louis soccer on the map.
The hotbed of home-grown talent was a natural feeder for SLU, a commuter school that took advantage of the area’s soccer stars without offering scholarships. Student players supplied their own shoes and were treated with only 50 cents a day for meals.
Under their first two coaches, Bob Guelker and Harry Keough, the Billikens grew into a dynasty that set the bar for collegiate soccer. Reaching their peak in ‘65, they posted their 5th national victory and delivered a perfect 14-0 season.
But two years on, it became clear that soccer was emerging from the shadows. More schools were entering the program, recruiting talent from around the country and especially from St. Louis. The field had become more competitive.
The Billikens lost the quarter-finals in ’66 and posted a 5-3-1 record in ’67, though still making the Final. Playing Michigan State for first place, SLU faced a team that fielded eight of their own native St Louisans. Inclement weather forced the game to be canceled with a 0-0 draw.
SLU was still producing results even though its traditional farm system was now generating players for the diaspora. The Billikens defeated San Francisco in ’69 and overtook UCLA’s heavy foreign contingency in ’70, ’72, and ’73.
But ’73 was the end of the line. It was also the year when Jerry Yeagley founded the Indiana Hoosiers varsity soccer program, currently ranked second behind SLU with eight championships.
Since St Louis was one of his fertile recruiting grounds, it’s not a surprise that Yeagley went on to claim six titles and become the winningest coach in Division I soccer.
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