Sportswriter Matt Crossman was not prepared for the surprising spectacle he encountered on his first visit to watch St. Louis’ professional soccer team, CITY SC, play at CITYPARK. Matt’s first sign it was going to be a different day was the shoes.

The St. Louis CITY roster is made up of players from soccer-loving places around the world, including Switzerland, Germany, Ghana, Brazil, and right here in Missouri.
Photo credit: Nyara Williams

By Matt Crossman

As I walked around downtown St. Louis before the new St. Louis CITY major league soccer club’s first ever home game, I saw two men wearing identical, hot pink Adidas sneakers. I thought their matching shoes, so incandescently bright, were an inside joke. Then I saw another pair, and another, and another. I stopped counting at 12. Finally, at a tailgate party outside Schlafly’s near CITYPARK stadium, I asked someone about the pair on his feet. He told me they are the official shoes of the soccer team, and I learned the color is dubbed CITY Red.

Only in St. Louis, I thought, would fans wear shoes visible from space in support of the home team.

I had arrived at the stadium with my friend Mike in the hope of seeing a good game, eating good food, and enjoying a historic day. I didn’t expect to find myself turning into a fashion critic. Nor did I expect to discover myself as deeply rooted in a sense of home as any time in my adult life. But that’s what happened. Indeed, “only in St. Louis” became the day’s theme in ways simple and profound.

I arrived at CITYPARK eager to sample food curated by Niche Food Group’s Chef Gerard Craft, a James Beard award winner. The stadium has 25 vendors, all local, offering food from around the world that has been prepared by some of the best and most creative chefs in the city. I would have said yes even if it required wearing pink shoes.

CITYPARK puts an emphasis on offering 100-percent local food options at the stadium. While I didn’t expect to eat something from all 25, I didn’t rule it out, either.
Photo credit: Nyara Williams

I marveled at how the team conceived the experience of attending a game as a uniquely St. Louis event. The food, for instance, wasn’t unique to the opener; every game will be like a food festival.

Our hours-long feast started long before the game. We jumped in line at Balkan Treat Box, one of my favorite St. Louis restaurants. A concerned observer suggested Mike and I split the beef kebab. “Pace yourselves,” she cautioned.

I took that as a personal challenge. You think I can’t eat a whole one? I’ll show you! But then the cashier handed it over, and it looked to be as long and thick as my arm. I ripped the kebab in two and gave half to Mike.

I raised it to my mouth, dug my teeth into it and …

Little did I know that an epiphany was soon to follow.

Before I get into that, I have to tell you two stories: one about my years living in St. Louis, and another about that incredible day in downtown St. Louis celebrating food, soccer, and the very nature of St. Louis itself.

When I moved to St. Louis, I was struck by how people talked to each other. Conversations had so many insider references that it seemed like everybody knew everything and everyone. I felt like the only spouse at a high school reunion who didn’t go to that school (at which, of course, everyone would ask me where I went to high school.) Locals used “we” more than anywhere I’ve ever been. We’ve got Forest Park and a free zoo. We’re the best fans in baseball.

For years, I made fun of St. Louisans for being overbearingly self-referential, for their obsession with how the world sees them, and because their directions often included a line like, “turn left where the Kmart used to be.”

Underneath my mocking was jealousy. They had a deep-rooted connection that I lacked. For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in the same house in Michigan. Over the next 13 years, I bounced from St. Louis to Charlotte and back to St. Louis. My first time here, I remained an outsider, an observer rather than a participant, a travel writer on permanent assignment. But now, with two teenage daughters, roots growing stronger by the day, and a bumper crop of deep friendships, I have found myself saying there are no circumstances under which I would move away. I have found a home in a way I had sought since moving out of my parents’ house when I left for college.

I didn’t even realize all that was happening until I ate that kebab.

As a St. Louisan, I already dislike the Sporting Kansas City soccer team, although I know literally nothing about them, couldn’t name a player, and as far as I know, they’ve done nothing to deserve the dislike. They are Kansas City, so therefore they are a rival. At the same time, a true St. Louisan should be stoked that KC is a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup; I’m all kinds of excited about that.

St. Louis has long been a soccer town without a team, and now we—yeah, I said “we”—have one. I wanted to soak in that truly historic moment. Mike and I arrived downtown at noon, seven and a half hours before kickoff, so that we could get a tour of the stadium given by Matt Sebek, the team’s chief experience officer.

An early sign that this day would awaken my sense of being at home was the fact that Mike and I separately had numerous mutual friends with Matt. St. Louisans crave validation (that’s something else I mocked them for) and, unconsciously, I framed questions to Matt so that he would show how the stadium validated how cool St. Louis is. For example, I asked what kind of experience he hoped to create with the stadium, and I referenced how St. Louis Cardinals fans have the section numbers of Busch Stadium memorized, which I have not heard of in any of the major cities I’ve lived in or visited or written about as a sportswriter for more than two decades.

Attendees find both expected game-day fare, such as pizza and hot dogs, and more unique offerings, like kebabs, jerk chicken, and Dominican and Cuban empanadas.
Photo credit: Nyara Williams

I marveled at how the team conceived the experience of attending a game as a uniquely St. Louis event. The food, for instance, wasn’t unique to the opener; every game will be like a food festival. “We wanted to anchor it 100 percent local, which has never been done,” Sebek said. “We are able to give small business owners the opportunity to have a space inside the stadium and introduce them to new customers.”

Balkan Treat Box is one of those small businesses. When the team surveyed fans about what restaurants they wanted in the stadium, it ranked No. 1. The kebab’s tangy joy showed why.

With the kebab in my left hand and a fork in my right, I watched the mass of humanity gather in advance of the game. It looked like there were far more people than seats in the stadium. A sense of unusual calm amid the chaos descended on me as I entered the stadium, cheered the team to victory, and reminisced about it with Mike in the weeks that followed.

I understand now, in a way I didn’t before, that St. Louis has an unmistakable sense of place, and it was long past time for me to embrace it. We—yeah, I said “we,” again!—know who we are, and we are proud of it. It’s fitting this started at the soccer stadium because it is the “most St. Louis” place in the whole city. From the local vendors to the fans decked out in the home team’s gear to the well-orchestrated call-outs to the city’s history, everything about it positively screams St. Louis.

I need more of that in my life—that sense of familiarity, that sense of place, that sense of belonging. And, let’s be honest, I need more of that delicious food. I’m going to go to another game soon. To get there, I’ll turn left where the Kmart used to be.

SEE THE CITY Remaining 2023 Home Matches
St. Louis CITY SC is off to a winning start in the first half of its inaugural season, and there’s still a chance to catch a match in 2023. For tickets, fan gear, and more info, visit  

July 15 vs. Inter Miami CF

August 20 vs. Austin FC

August 30 vs. FC Dallas

September 20 vs. Los Angeles

Football Club

September 30 vs. Sporting

Kansas City

October 21 vs. Seattle Sounders


CF = Club Fútbol, FC = Football Club,

SC = Sporting or Soccer Club


Article originally published in theJuly/August 2023 issue of Missouri Life.