February 21, 2018
For a few years in the 1980s, St. Louis was the most soccer-mad city in America thanks to a team called the Steamers.
The Steamers battle the New York Arrows in 1981.
The St. Louis Steamers were formed when the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) added 5 expansion teams for the 1979/1980 season, its second. The MISL had started the previous season with six teams, however, the Cincinnati Kids folded and the Pittsburgh Spirit took two years off, returning in 1981.
The Steamers arrival marked the return of pro soccer to St. Louis after a two-year absence. The St. Louis Stars, who played in the outdoor North American Soccer League, had moved to Anaheim, California following the 1977 season to become the California Surf. The Stars left because they were unable to secure a cost-effective lease at old Busch Stadium. Their departure wasn’t due to a lack of fan support; St. Louis was filled with soccer fans as The Steamers soon found out.
The Steamers first game drew over 18,000 fans to the St. Louis Arena (at the time called the Checkerdome). Interestingly, it was not the first indoor soccer game played in the arena. In 1971, the Stars hosted the NASL Professional Hoc-Soc Tournament which featured the home team and 3 other sides from the outdoor league (Dallas, Rochester, and Washington) playing six-a-side soccer much like the MISL would pioneer 7 years later.
The Steamers finished their first season tied for last place in the Central Division along with the also soon-to-be-popular Cleveland Force. The team finished first in attendance, though, drawing 14,000 fans a game. The team with the next best attendance, the Buffalo Stallions, drew 8,500. Part of the Steamers drawing power was the fact that the roster was roughly 80 percent St. Louis area natives. This was a strategy that had also been employed by the Stars with great success, though an influx of foreign players into the NASL in the mid-‘70s would cause the Stars to be less competitive.
In the MISL, the 16-man roster of every team had to have at least 12 players from North America. This helped the Steamers stay competitive and in their second season, they reached the playoffs. The team received a boost off the pitch when former St. Louis baseball great Stan Musial joined the Steamers ownership group in time for the start of their second season.
Popular Steamers goalie Slobi Ilijevski was one of the few players not from the St. Louis area.
The organization drew attention not only for their winning ways but the fanfare that accompanied the team introductions before each game. Dry ice, laser lights, and loud music were all part of the mix. Such theatrics became common in the MISL and soon expanded to other pro sports.
In the meantime, the team kept winning and the fans kept coming. For four years the Steamers outdrew the NHL’s Blues despite that team making the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of those years.
The Steamers best season on the field and at the gate was the 1981/1982 campaign. They posted their best-ever record, 28-16, and again fought their way to the MISL Championship where they fell to the New York Arrows, just as they had the previous season. Average attendance reached over 17,000, which would be the best in league history. Indeed, during that season they outdrew every other team in North America, save for the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers.
They would make the playoffs the next four seasons and return to the championship game in 1984 but would succumb to the Baltimore Blast. In 1986/1987 and 1987/1988 seasons the team posted losing records for the first time since their inaugural run in 1979, and attendance dwindled to around 6,000 fans per game. The Steamers last game was played on April 15, 1988, before a crowd of 4,839 fans in the arena.
After a year absence, the MISL returned to town with the debut of the St. Louis Storm. They lasted until 1992 when the entire league folded. In their last two seasons, though, the Storm led the league in attendance with over 10,000 fans turning out for each game during their final year.
The following year, the Tulsa Ambush of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) came to town. As the St. Louis Ambush the team made the playoffs almost every year of their existence and were near the top in attendance, leading the league in that department for 3 straight years starting in 1994. The Ambush folded in the spring of 2000. In the fall of that year, the second St. Louis Steamers were established and began play in the World Indoor Soccer League (WISL) before moving to the second MISL following a merger of those two leagues. Those Steamers lasted until 2006. In 2013, the Ambush name was revived for a squad in the third incarnation of the MISL. They joined the Major Arena Soccer League in 2014 after MISL III suspended operations. That team is still playing today in suburban St. Charles.
If you’re scoring along at home, here is a list of St. Louis soccer teams starting with the outdoor Stars:
Stars (NASL, 1968-1977)
Steamers (MISL, 1979-1988)
Storm (MISL, 1989-1992)
Ambush (NPSL, 1992-2000)
Steamers (WISL/MISL II, 2000-2006)
Ambush (MISL III/MASL, 2013-present)
Below, the Steamers take on the Wichita Wings in 1981:
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