Pardon Steve Trittschuh if he has more than soccer on his mind Friday night when he brings his Colorado Springs Switchbacks to the World Wide Technology Soccer Park for a USL match with St. Louis FC.
The game is an opportunity for the Switchbacks’ head coach and Granite City native to reconnect with old friends, revisit a field with many memories from his playing career, and perhaps come away with another victory for one of the hottest teams in the USL.
“I can’t wait to get back there and see everybody,” Trittschuh said by telephone from Colorado.
“Everybody” includes St. Louis FC owner and former Steamers teammate Jim Kavanaugh, St. Louis FC head coach Dale Schilly, and a host of other friends and relatives. “It’s going to be cool,” Trittschuh said. “There are a lot of connections, and my mom’s coming over, too.”
To his many friends around town, Trittschuh is a guy they used to hang with, or play with, or play for. He played at now-defunct Granite City North High School and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and with the indoor Steamers and Ambush. He coached as an assistant at SIU-E.
To those who follow U.S. soccer, Trittschuh also has the distinction of being a key figure in the recent history of the sport in this country.
Today, it’s almost taken for granted that the United States will qualify for the World Cup. When Trittschuh finished his final season at SIU-E in 1986, the United States had not qualified for the tournament since five St. Louisans helped the Americans upend England 1-0 in 1950.
Trittschuh and those of his era turned all that around. A defender, Trittschuh played on the 1988 Olympic team, and on the U.S team that qualified for the 1990 World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Trittschuh is the first of three native St. Louisans who have played for the U.S. in the World Cup since 1990, preceding Mike Sorber in 1994 and Brad Davis in 2014. Trittschuh appeared 37 times for the United States from 1987-1995.
Steve Trittschuh recognized the figure slowly approaching the American locker room beneath Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. This was June of 1990, the middle of the World Cup, and everyone knew the silhouette of Italy’s best player, Roberto Baggio, with bushy curls piled on his head. But why was Baggio here? Why was he outside the locker room of the team Italy had just beaten 1-0? And why was he clutching what appeared to be … his game shorts?
“Hey,” Baggio said to Trittschuh, changing just inside the door.
“Hey,” Trittschuh replied.
An awkward silence filled the space between them until Trittschuh realized what was happening. Baggio, perhaps the greatest player of his time, was asking a 25-year-old defender from Granite City, Illinois, to trade pants.
“I had Baggio’s shorts forever, man,” Trittschuh said one recent morning as he prepared to coach his Colorado Springs Switchbacks of the United Soccer League. “It was the coolest thing.”
His 1990 World Cup performance led to Trittschuh becoming the first American to appear in what is today’s UEFA Champions League while playing for Sparta of Prague. In 1996, he signed with the brand-new Colorado Rapids in brand-new Major League Soccer. He retired as a player in 2001 in Tampa and returned to Denver as a Rapids’ assistant coach the next year. He stayed in Colorado after his final year as a Rapids assistant in 2006.
Today, Trittschuh helps blaze new trails in the reconstituted USL, which comprises the third division of North American soccer and plans to apply for second-division status next year. He signed on as the expansion Switchbacks’ head coach a year ago, and has been busy ever since building a team from scratch in his first professional head-coaching job.
“There were some other things that came along in the last few years, but nothing really felt right,” Trittschuh said of other coaching opportunities. “I sat down with the Switchbacks’ ownership and their plan and vision felt good to me. I really wanted it.”
Using his many connections with soccer in North America — his American pro playing career included stints in Montreal, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Denver, as well as St. Louis, and he was an academy and youth coach — Trittschuh has assembled a team on a roll. The Switchbacks have won their last four USL matches, stand fifth in the 12-team Western Conference, and are second in the 24-team USL in goals per game (2.08).
The Switchbacks feature two players with six goals apiece. Thirty-three-year-old midfielder Luke Vercollone, the team’s first signing, is tied for second in the USL with 19 points on six goals and seven assists. Twenty-four-year-old forward Miguel Gonzalez is tied for fifth in the USL with 15 points on six goals and three assists.
Friday’s game figures to be a classic match of a high-scoring team versus a stingy defense. St. Louis FC is sixth in the USL in fewest goals per game, 1.18. Unbeaten in their last four USL games — all ties — St. Louis FC has scored exactly the same number of goals (13) as they have allowed. (St. Louis FC and the Switchbacks both lost their fourth-round U.S. Open Cup games against MLS opponents Wednesday night. St. Louis lost 1-0 at Sporting Kansas City and the Switchbacks fell 4-1 at the Rapids.)
Trittschuh’s presence Friday night is the second time in as many USL games for St. Louis FC that the opposing head coach has St. Louis roots. Bill Becher, who grew up in St. Louis and played at Lewis and Clark Community College, brought his Harrisburg, Pa., Islanders to the Soccer Park last Saturday for a game that ended in a 1-1- draw.
Trittschuh’s presence makes for an interesting sidelight, especially to the over-40 crowd who remember his impact on St. Louis soccer from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. He was a high school All-American at Granite City North under the coaching of U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Bob Kehoe. Trittschuh was one of the first East Side players signed by SIU-Edwardsville, near the end of an era when St. Louis U., SIU-E and Quincy dominated college soccer with St. Louis players. He started all four seasons at SIU-E and was a second-team All-American.
“Steve was one of the best natural athletes that I have ever coached,” said Ed Huneke, who succeeded U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Bob Guelker at SIU-E after Guelker’s passing about six months before Trittschuh’s senior season. “Just as important, he was a commited, hard worker. When you combine such, you have the formula for a very accomplished player.”
Trittschuh crossed paths with Schilly when Schilly was an assistant coach at SIU-E, and with Kavanaugh as teammates on the indoor Steamers and the outdoor Busch Seniors. “I enjoyed playing with Steve on the Steamers and our old Busch club team,” Kavanaugh said. “He was a very good player and a great guy on and off the field.”
Trittschuh played on the NPSL champion Ambush in 1994-95, the only time a St. Louis team has won a professional indoor or outdoor league title. Trittschuh also played in numerous Olympic and World Cup qualifiers at the Soccer Park.
“I’ve talked to Jim and Dale since they announced the team there, but I don’t know when the last time was that I was back there,” Trittschuh said. “It’s going to be kind of special coming back there.”
Game time is 7:30 pm Friday at World Wide Technology Soccer Park. Tickets are available. The game will be played regardless of the weather.
This story contributed by Dave Lange, author of Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital, published in August 2011 by Reedy Press.
Previous contributions to this site include STLFC Host Des Moines in 1st US Open Cup match and stories from the USWNT visit in April, including “Perfection #STLsoccerCity” along with Lori, Becky and their JB Marine Club Coach Mike Gauvain.