Dominant era won't be seen again
The addition recently of three former St. Louis University Billikens to the ballot for the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York takes one back in time to the days when the Bills were a soccer dynasty. Though I wasn't around in those days (1959-1973), it's common knowledge the Bills were the best soccer team in the country, and to this day are still the winningest soccer program in NCAA history. However it's been a long time since the Bills were crowned champs and known as a soccer dynasty and it will probably be an even longer time before they are again.
But what enabled the Bills to capture ten NCAA Division I Soccer Championships in a fourteen-year period and why is it unlikely SLU, or any other program for that matter, will ever emulate the torrid pace of winning set by those anachronistic Bills?
Bill Donley, goalkeeper for SLU's 1967 championship team, said it was a unique time in major college sports as he recalled what it was like to be a part of such a special team. "St. Louis at that time was the biggest producer of top players in the country. Five out of the eleven starters on the team that shocked England in the World Cup were from St. Louis. When I was at SLU, we simply were better and more talented than anyone we ever played. They geared up for us and gave us their best game, but every time we took the field, we knew we had better players."
Donley recalled the unorthodox coaching methods he was subjected to his first year at SLU. Harry Keough, a member of the giant-killing U.S. World Cup Team, began coaching in 1967. "He was a great coach," Donley said. "He played in a World Cup, and then played pro ball in Europe. He learned to play the game differently than most people and he brought with him to SLU those skills. There were a few European coaches in the country at the time but they weren't exposed to the same advanced technical drills Harry was because he played at such a high level for the national team and in Europe. He ran his practices the way they did in Europe."
Another unique thing about the Bills during their dynastic years was the team makeup. "There were nineteen St. Louis boys and one Italian transfer on the team. You don't see that anymore do you now?" Donley asked with a chuckle. "St. Louis was producing the best players in the country and they all stayed right in their backyard to play for the Billikens. If you look at any of the college powerhouses of that day (Quincy, Southern Illinois University, even Michigan State), most were comprised of several St. Louis players. The coaches finally realized that in order to start winning, they needed to start recruiting St. Louis players. That's when they started stealing away some of our better players and the playing field became more level."
Asked if the Bills could ever return to their glory days and dominate college soccer in the manner they did between 1959 and 1973, Donley simply said, "No. It's a completely different era. I don't think anybody could do it again. It would be a real chore for Donnigan to emulate what we did thirty-five years ago."
Presently, the Bills are a far cry from creating another soccer dynasty. "Indiana is probably the closest thing to being a dynasty," said current Bills head coach Dan Donnigan. Consistency, rather than dynasty, would be a more apt characterization of the Hoosiers. They've achieved many incredible things, but the fact is, it's taken them over twenty-four years to win six National Championships. The Bills won ten in fourteen years.
"It's different than it was then," Donnigan said. "There's more teams with more better players than there were way back when St. Louis used to be the sole provider of top soccer players. Now they're everywhere. It's not just New Jersey or Southern California either, it's places like Nebraska and South Dakota. There's more parity than ever, even between the smaller schools and the IU's and UCLA's."
Recruiting is probably the major reason the Bills haven't won a title since 1973. SLU hasn't recruited well in its own back yard and they've suffered for it. In the last decade, players like Pat Noonan, Mike Ambersley, and Chris Klein opted to play at IU rather than SLU. Taylor Twellman went to Maryland. Kevin Hudson went to SMU and Mike Tranchilla went to Creighton. Throw several of these players in the mix at SLU and they might have won a title in the last decade.
Even though the Bills lost some of St. Louis' best players in recent years, they've attracted some top players from elsewhere; the problem is they couldn't hang onto them. "We pay the price for our recruiting, said Donnigan. I don't know a program that's lost as many players as we have to the pros in the last ten years. Just this year we lost Tim Ward and Will John. Next year we're set to lose another couple of guys. Two years ago we lost freshmen of the year Vedad Ibesevic to Paris-Saint. Germain."
Continuity is another reason SLU and every other top program in the country will not win like the Bills did thirty-five years ago. Any player with the aplomb of Brad Davis or Taylor Twellman is not going to stay in school to play college soccer when they could be plying their trade for MLS.
Donley said his team played fourteen games en route to the 1967 NCAA Crown. "Today it's much different," said Donnigan. "We play thirty odd games a year, and now there are conferences and rankings and strength of schedule that all play into whether or not you make the tournament. Traditionally, we play one of the toughest schedules in the nation. That can hurt or help us," Donnigan said, clearly frustrated. "Playing a tough schedule makes it more difficult for us to win every game, but it helps our ranking if we do well against the best teams in the country. At the same time, if we lose one or two games and a weaker team who plays a weaker schedule wins more games on their schedule, they're in and we're not. If we win our overtime game against IU earlier this year (a game in which the 1967 Bills were honored at half time), we're in the tournament."
It would be more than just a chore for Donnigan's Bills to achieve anything close to what Donley's Bills did over three decades ago. There are just too many mitigating factors today for a single coach to win so much in such a short period of time. It was a different time, a time in which one team dominated our nation's beautiful game, a time in which St. Louis was the soccer capital of the nation, and it's the only thing that makes me wish I were thirty-five years older.
Mike Stoll covers college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org