1968 Kansas City Spurs (NASL)

A Rivalry's Roots: Pro soccer history between Kansas City and St. Louis dates back to 1968

Tuesday's match between Sporting Kansas City and St. Louis FC in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will write a new chapter in the rivalry shared among the sports teams, past and present, in two cities separated by 250 miles on Interstate 70. 

For the first time in Sporting KC's 20-year history, a competitive match will feature a St. Louis opponent. 

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Sure, the club played -- and twice defeated -- AC St. Louis in a Supporters' Showdown exhibition series in 2010. The "inaugural" event lasted one year, as did AC St. Louis before folding.

A season earlier, Manager Peter Vermes drafted Matt Besler and Graham Zusi from inside the St. Louis Convention Center. Then kicked off his squad's 2009 SuperLiga campaign by playing Mexican club Atlas FC at Hermann Stadium on the campus of Saint Louis University.

And St. Louisians have been no strangers to KC's roster in the past two decades. The No. 1 pick in the first-ever college draft brought Matt McKeon to Kansas City for six seasons. Two years later, KC selected another De Smet Jesuit High School product, Chris Klein, fourth overall. Both were key members during the 2000 season that culminated with Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup titles.

But for all intents and purposes, Tuesday's meeting -- in a single-elimination knockout setting no less -- will be the first of its kind for professional outdoor soccer in nearly 50 years. One would have to go all the way back to the days of the Kansas City Spurs and St. Louis Stars in the North American Soccer League to find teams representing both sides of the Show-Me State going toe-to-toe.

So before the score is settled at Sporting Park, let us look back at the original clash of cross-state rivals in not only an earlier era for the sport, but also the Kansas City-St. Louis rivalry that has since grown into all areas of competition...even this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee.


The year: 1968. Long before the Royals and Cardinals first played in the 1985 World Series. Before the Comets and Steamers thrilled indoor soccer fans from 1981 onward. Before the shortlived NHL days of the Kansas City Scouts, who picked up their first home win against the St. Louis Blues in 1974 at Kemper Arena. And months before the Chiefs -- led by head coach Hank Stram and future Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Jan Stenerud, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier and Emmitt Thomas -- prevailed 13-10 over the Cardinals in the Governor's Cup debut.

It was in many ways a transformational and tragic year in the United States. The Boeing 747 was introduced; 60 minutes debuted on CBS; the Big Mac, costing $0.49, became available nationwide. The Beatles and Rolling Stones topped the musical charts.

The country also mourned the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. America's involvement peaked in the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon won the Presidential election.

Closer to home, construction began on Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium at the Truman Sports Complex. The St. Louis Arch was dedicated on the bank of the Mississippi River.

And the North American Soccer League was born with 17 teams, including the Kansas City Spurs and St. Louis Stars in the Western Conference's Gulf Division alongside the Houston Stars and Dallas Tornado. 

The launch of the Spurs was front-page news in the Kansas City Times morning newspaper on January 4...

"Eight Kansas City businessmen, led by John Latshaw, have reached an agreement in principle with the ownership of the Chicago Spurs to buy a controlling interest in the club and move it here…Latshaw and Al Kaczmarek, one of two present owners, reached an agreement yesterday with a majority of the city council on a lease to enable the club to play at the Municipal Stadium."

The venue, located at 22nd Street and Baltimore Avenue until its demolition in 1976, first opened in 1923 and had been largely rebuilt in 1955. Three different baseball clubs (Blues, Monarchs and Athletics) had called it home, along with two NFL teams (Cowboys and Chiefs) prior to the Spurs arrival...whose timing accompanied the loss of professional baseball in Kansas City.

After 13 seasons in KC, the Athletics moved to Oakland following the 1967 season and the Royals expansion franchise would not begin play at Municipal Stadium until 1969.

“Suddenly the long, empty summer ahead for Kansas City sports fans is not so barren - they have a professional soccer team." - Soccer Can Help Ease A Baseball-less Year | Jan. 10, 1968 (Kansas City Times)

“This most popular game in the world is a fine addition to the Kansas City sports calendar.” - Into City’s Baseball Gap Comes Lively Soccer | April 6, 1968 (Kansas City Times)

The Spurs first introduced two players -- Willie Roy and Gino De Robertis -- on Jan. 8 in a press conference held at the Chamber of Commerce. The 22-year-old Roy was the reigning NASL Rookie of the Year and, though born in Germany, would be the only American on the team. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1989 having scored nine goals in 20 appearances for the U.S. MNT.

The late Janos Bedl served as the Spurs head coach for their first two seasons in Kansas City. A Hungarian, Bedl spoke six languages -- albeit not English -- and led the squad on an overseas exhibition tour prior to convening for their first day of training in Kansas City on Feb. 5 at Pembroke-Country Day High School (5131 State Line Road). 

“I’ve seen the front pages of the papers in Holland and Belgium (where the team played exhibition games). One of them said, ‘Kansas City, Soccer Capital of the World,’ and then had a question mark. It can be without the question mark.” - John Latshaw | April 5, 1968 (Kansas City Times)
 

The sensational claim above came from the team's president during a "Meet the Spurs" kickoff luncheon held a day earlier in the grand ballroom at the Hotel Muehlebach, which coincidentally celebrates its 100th year of business in 2015. An estimated crowd of 700 people attended, including the team's Cowboy Joe mascot and Mayor Ilus Davis.

"We already know this is the greatest sports town in the country. I think this type of turnout just demonstrates again the enthusiastic support Kansas Citians have always given their professional teams. And we certainly want to welcome the newest — the Kansas City Spurs — and wish them every success.” - Mayor Ilus Davis | April 5, 1968 (Kansas City Times)

A reported 1,020 season tickets were bought on the Spurs first day of business from the team offices at 910 Pennsylvania en route to more than 2,500 total season tickets sold. Single-game ticket prices ranged from $1.50 to $5.50 while children under 12 were granted half-price admission.

The Spurs were scheduled to play 16 home games in their inaugural season with the first coming on April 7 against the St. Louis Stars. However, after beginning the campaign with a 3-0 loss to the San Diego Toros on March 31 at Balboa Stadium, the team's first two home matches were ultimately postponed in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination on April 4.

Amidst concerns over local riots, the Spurs home opener was played on Easter Sunday with 4,397 fans in attendance for a 1-1 draw against the Houston Stars. The Kansas City Times, which went to great lengths to explain and depict soccer's rules for their readers, led with the following front-page headline: "Soccer Fans Have a Lively Time."

A second straight win followed, by a 5-2 scoreline over the Chicago Mustangs on April 21, before the Kansas City Spurs and St. Louis Stars squared off for the first time on April 27 on Municipal Stadium's 110-yard by 67-yard pitch. The match was the first of 23 NASL games nationally televised on CBS in 1968 with the commentary of Jack Whitaker (play-by-play) and Mario Machado (analyst) sent to 196 stations across the country.

The TV audience, along with 6,188 in attendance, witnessed the Kansas City Spurs earn an emphatic 4-0 victory with two goals from Ernie "The Gun" Winchester -- who had been cleared to play by FIFA earlier in the week -- to go along with strikes from Roy and Eric Barber (pictured below with Pele). The match also went into the record books as the first shutout in team history.

RECAPS: Sedalia Democrat | Associated Press

Winchester and Barber, both now deceased, would be among the team's leading scorers in 1968. Barber, who served as captain after Pat O'Connor broke his leg in a preseason friendly, netted 17 times and added nine assists. Winchester, acquired from Aberdeen in Scotland, contributed 10 goals and six assists.

The Saint Louis side was coached by Rudi Gutendorf and featured three Saint Louis University stars, including U.S. MNT players Carl Gentile (6 caps) and Pat McBride (5 caps). The latter was a 1964 Olympian and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1994.

Following the match, a column in the Kansas City Times remarked: "These could indeed be the golden days of Kansas City soccer.” The prediction would fatefully miss the mark, though not before a series of noteworthy short-term successes.

The Spurs led the North American Soccer League in attendance with more than 160,000 ticket holders for 16 home games and three international matches -- headlined by Santos FC and Brazilian legend Pele on July 4 at Municipal Stadium, in addition to visits from Dunfermline (Scotland) and Borussia Dortmund (Germany). The team's results slipped in the second half of the season, leading the Times to speculate: "The Spurs are headed for one of the beautiful choke jobs of all time as they stagger down the stretch…”

Two days later, the Spurs prevailed 1-0 over the St. Louis Stars at Busch Stadium in the fourth and final regular season meeting between the teams. The Spurs would finish in first place, however fell in double overtime against Pacific Division champions San Diego Toros in the second leg of the Western Conference home-and-away series at Balboa Stadium on Sept. 16 to end the season one stage shy of the final.

The NASL suspended play on Nov. 1 -- two days before KC hosted the U.S. MNT for the first time in a World Cup qualifier at Municipal Stadium -- and eventually returned with Kansas City and St. Louis serving as two of the five teams for the 1969 season. The Spurs brought a league championship to Kansas City as first-place finishers (no postseason was held), however folded on Feb. 4, 1971 after a brief three-year run (1970 team photo) that left a lasting local legacy at all levels of the game.


Tuesday's match between Sporting Kansas City (MLS) and St. Louis FC (USL) will kick off at 7:30 p.m. CT at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. A limited number of tickets are available via Ticketmaster.com and the match is included as Special Game A in season ticket packages.

Sporting Kansas City will provide a live stream, presented by Sprint, on SportingKC.com and additional in-game updates can be found by following @SKCGameday on Twitter.

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