It was a perfect evening for St. Louis CITY SC, perhaps with the one exception that it was their opponent that scored all the goals at the opening of CITYPARK Stadium. Bayer Leverkusen won the game easily 3-0 thanks to goals by Callum Hudson-Odoi (36’) and Adam Hlozek (44’ & 51’).
Even though St. Louis CITY SC did not to get to score in their first match at their brand-new facility, the opening can still be considered a success. After all, 22,500 fans came out to braze the cold temperatures and even when the game was decided fans stuck around to celebrate the occasion.
“Let’s put it in perspective,” St. Louis CITY SC 2 head coach John Hackworth said in the post-game press conference. The perspective here has to be clear; St. Louis CITY SC fielded the team that played in MLS Next Pro last season and although the likes of Roman Bürki, Tomas Ostrak and João Klauss will feature for the club next year, the perspective is that the club was far from the finished project.
“Tonight, was so much more than that [then the result],” Hackworth said. “The buildup was so great, we launched the jersey in the morning, some fans have waited for over 30 years and then you get to play against a great opponent,” sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel added.
And that is perhaps where the worth of a friendly like that comes in for Bayer Leverkusen. The Bundesliga side travelled to the United States to increase the footprint of the club in a market where the club’s owner, Bayer AG, already had a presence thanks to their Corps Science headquarters.
Hence, coming to America, in general, and St. Louis, in particular, made sense for Die Werkself and the visit might very well to further cooperation between the two clubs. Leverkusen’s rival, Bayern Munich, has been pushing other Bundesliga teams to travel to the United States to further increase the footprint of the league in a market that will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
For Leverkusen then, this was an opportunity to leave a significant imprint on one of the hottest soccer markets in the United States. And opening the stadium of a club with a gigantic soccer fanbase will certainly help with that growth, the name Hudson-Odoi and Leverkusen will now be forever synonymous with the first goals being scored at that ground.
In fact, you could sense around the city—before, during and after the game—the excitement of having a team from one of the big four leagues visiting. Speaking with people from the Leverkusen camp, there was some doubt initially if a visit to a local market could move the needle, doubts that were quickly removed when the club arrived 48 hours before the game.
“When we first landed and we came out of [the terminal] we could see how enthusiastic the people were in giving us a warm welcome,” Leverkusen winger Hudson-Odoi said the day before the game. Indeed, several hundred St. Louis soccer fans had come out to the airport to greet the arrival of the Bundesliga side, creating an almost festive atmosphere.
“It was amazing, the atmosphere was very good,” defender Jonathan Tah said. “We also went to one of the college basketball games and people came up to us to ask us whether we were the guys that would be opening the stadium in St. Louis, everyone was really excited.”
The general excitement surrounding the game, the impact that a visit to soccer mad market like St. Louis had and will have going forward, should give Bundesliga clubs some indication on what they should do with their off time. For many years, teams in Germany have opted to travel to places like Spain, Switzerland and Austria for their training camps, those places, however, will not move the needle if the league wants to grow in key markets.
Going to the United States, therefore, is paramount for a league looking to catch up with the Premier League. The Leverkusen visit in St. Louis will help, as will the friendly between Stuttgart and Köln in Austin. But the Premier League is planning to play a mini-tournament in the USA next summer, highlighting that German football will have to build on the winter tours and continue to do more in what is the most important soccer frontier.
Manuel Veth is the host of the Bundesliga Gegenpressing Podcast and the Area Manager USA at Transfermarkt. He has also been published in the Guardian, Newsweek, Howler, Pro Soccer USA, and several other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @ManuelVeth