The Legacy Series spotlights individuals who have had a hand (and foot) in shaping St. Louis into America’s first soccer capital.
Al Trost: A Proven St. Louis Star
Written by Michael Haffner
Al Trost won’t admit it, but he might be afraid he’ll be forgotten. “I haven’t gotten my call yet about tickets.” Like so many soccer fans in St. Louis, he’s waiting to hear about season tickets — more patiently than some — and to see professional soccer return in 2023. You can see in his jovial demeanor and huge smile that there’s no frustration or ill will when he says that. There’s only excitement in his eyes. He’s just passionate about the game. Like so many of us.
And yet, there’s something else to his words that comes through. Subtle words and phrases hang in the air at times waiting to be grasped. It’s not that he wants to be recognized. He just doesn’t want the past to be forgotten. It’s why he’s constantly mentioning his old teammates by name in our conversations. It’s why he states he’s pushing hard for fellow St. Louisan, Bill McDermott, to be admitted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Even though soccer as a whole is always evolving, he doesn’t want people to forget about where the sport evolved from.
St. Louis isn’t defined by one soccer player or team, as this series has illustrated. There’s not a single moment, shot, or individual legacy that we put on a pedestal above all others. For decades, new players have stepped into the local, national, and international spotlight, representing St. Louis with a sense of pride that only those who grew up here can truly understand.
“There’s a long tradition and history of great teams from St. Louis. Some that came before me… and some that came after me.”
Al Trost knows this all too well. Many players make up our history. Yet, there aren’t many that are as highly regarded among his peers and sports journalists as Al Trost. In a previous interview in this series, Bill McDermott called him “the best player he ever played with.” It’s a compliment that causes Trost to get a little choked up. And that is just one of the countless accolades that have been given to Trost over the years. You wouldn’t think a two-time NCAA Champion, Olympian, premier player in the NASL, and captain for the U.S. Men’s National Team would be so humbled by a single comment. Then again, Al Trost knows what it takes to put St. Louis on the international map – and what it means to the legacy of players from this city.
Finding Inspiration in Your Own Backyard
Growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s, you couldn’t simply turn on the TV and watch a soccer match. You didn’t have access to watch the top international stars compete. So, Trost did what every St. Louis kid could do at that time: you look to the greats in your hometown.
“I grew up watching Pat McBride. He is 6 years older than me. Same age as my older brother. I saw how good Pat became and how much he enjoyed the game. I thought, ‘I could do that’.”
Trost grew up with five older brothers that he followed around in his early soccer days. At that time, CYC (Catholic Youth Council) was created for the community and that’s all there was if you wanted to play youth soccer for a team. Many of these teams were coached by dads from the community who passed on what they had learned about the sport over the years. This is why Dave Berwin made such an impression on Trost’s life when he was 14.
“Dave Berwin was the most influential coach I had. He was ahead of his time in developing players. His techniques and tactics were far above most of the dads that were coaching at that time.”
Trost eventually followed in McBride’s footsteps – also a midfielder – by playing soccer at Saint Louis University from 1967–1970, even matching his mentor’s legacy by winning two National Championships at SLU. Additionally, he was a First Team All-American and two-time Hermann Trophy recipient (college soccer’s version of the Heisman), making him only one of two players from St. Louis who have won the Hermann twice. In Trost’s final two years at SLU, their team only lost a single match.
To no one’s surprise, the U.S. Soccer Federation took note of Trost’s accomplishments, along with the SLU teammate who also won the Hermann twice, Mike Seerey. It was the first time the Federation really invested in holding tryouts and getting players from across the United States that had the experience and skills to compete. The investment paid off as this was the first time the USMNT qualified for the Olympic Games – the team that previously played in 1956 was invited to participate.
In 1972, the U.S. went to its first Olympics in twelve years. There were six St. Louisans on that Olympic team, including Trost. Arriving in Munich for the Games is a moment that will live forever in their memories, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village on September 5, 1972, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine hostages. “Our balcony was right across the way from where it took place,” Trost describes when addressing the tragedy.
The U.S. team went on to be eliminated from the Games by a stacked West Germany team, but the core of the defeated team was strong enough to keep together by the Federation in the years that followed. Trost moved forward as the Team Captain and delivered one of the most talked-about moments in that era of U.S. soccer.
Earning His Star Status
An end-to-end midfielder is how Trost was always described. A term he also uses to describe a current St Louis CITY2 player. “AJ Palozzolo is a good box-to-box player. I’m glad he came back to St. Louis.” For the USMNT, Trost typically played as an attacking midfielder. What he lacked in goals, he more than made up for in his timing and placement of passes. “I felt like I had a knack in knowing where to be at the right time. Who to pass to at the right time. I wasn’t gonna beat every player with moves, but I could outrun them.”
And yet, there is one goal that many think of when they talk about Trost’s career. In fact, it’s considered one of the best in U.S. Soccer history.
Poland had just won the Gold Medal in Munich, and the team had all their stars ready for action in an international friendly against the United States on August 12, 1973. As if that weren’t intimidating enough, what made it even more so was that the match was in front of a large Polish crowd. Yet, it was Trost who stunned and silenced the crowd 37 mins into the match.
“A lot of people give me credit for that goal and how I hit it, but there was more to it.” A long ball was sent into Gene Geimer, a St. Louisan who set up Trost, and someone who deserves much of the credit in Trost’s eyes. “Gene kinda flicked it down to me off a header. He laid it off to me perfectly and I just caught a ride.” It was a half-volley hit from well outside the box that ended up buried in the upper 90. As perfect of a shot as you’re ever going to see.
The U.S. Men’s National Team beat Poland 1-0. The Gold Medalists were taken down.
In the years that followed, Trost continued to serve as captain for the National Team while also helping serve as one of the stars of a newly formed professional soccer league in the United States. When the NPSL (National Professional Soccer League) emerged in 1967, a city flooded with emerging soccer talent was treated to its first professional soccer team, the St. Louis Stars. A year later, the league was renamed the NASL (National American Soccer League) after merging with a rival league. St. Louis’ McBride and other Americans were supplemented with international stars from Yugoslavia and English National Team stars, like John Sewell and Peter Bonetti. When Trost joined the Stars in 1973, they were soaring in popularity after making it to the finals the year before. Once again playing as an attacking mid, Trost excelled at his role. “We had a striker up top, Denny Vaninger. He was always my target. So good in the air. I knew he was gonna win any challenge.” But the team struggled in the years that followed, culminating in the team moving to California in 1977 and rebranding as the California Surf.
“When the move was announced, I and a few others decided to move with the team. It was the first time I made a decision to become a full-time soccer player. We were actually there to market the game. You had a California surf culture. We went to business functions and camps at school to get the groundwork set up.” It was a part of the full-time soccer gig that was unexpected, but Trost admits with a smile, “I actually liked it.”
In his seven years in the NASL playing for the Stars, Surf, and finally the Seattle Sounders, Trost scored 38 goals and had 24 assists. Meanwhile, Trost was reaching a breaking point with the USMNT. “Walt Chyzowych was brought in to create a nucleus of American talent and get them experience on an international level for the 1978 Games. We took various trips to South America and Europe. At one point I was gone for 9 weeks.” Trost, who was married with kids was realizing that he’d rather create memories with his kids while in their younger years more so than to head back to the Olympics. It was at this point that he admitted to himself, “I think I’ve had enough.”
Passing the Ball to the Next Generation
In between sharing stories of the past, Trost beams while talking about his grandkids and the high school kids he taught and coached for so long. Seeing the joy he gets from talking about them speaks to not only his love of being a teacher, coach, and mentor, but provides deeper meaning to him earlier mentioning all the “great players that came after him.”
In 1995, Trost began a celebrated career at Parkway South High School, leading the boys’ and girls’ soccer programs. “When I got older and started teaching and coaching high school, I loved it. I don’t regret any of that. I just loved it… but it was time.”
After 23 years as an influence on the Parkway Patriots’ players and students, Trost officially retired in 2016. Now, when not traveling to visit his grandkids out of town, he’s often seen visiting his old stomping grounds. “I still love going to the boys’ and girls’ high school games.”
Like so many anticipating 2023, the future of professional soccer in St. Louis is promising in his eyes. “I really admire the [St. Louis CITY SC] owners. I think the team is gonna do well initially. I really do. What Lutz is doing is so important. They want to build a program that’s really well organized, and they have a plan in place of how to do it. And they have the time to build this so they can start off well. I hope [Roman] Bürki works out well. He reminds me of how we got Peter Bonetti and that worked out really well for us.”
Despite the many changes to the sport in the decades since Trost first played, it’s easy for him to see and draw the comparisons between the old and the new guard. Sure, he acknowledges the changes in training techniques and the benefits of in-game technology, but there’s so much that still rings true. Styles of play. The physical strains. The passion for the game. The legacy of the sport in St. Louis.
“There were a lot of good players way before…” he pauses to think about it. After a moment, he emphasizes his sentiment again. “Way before the nation grabbed onto it. It was kinda sad to see the rest of the nation catch up and pass us by. That was hard to take. But now we’re here.”
The nation did finally catch up. And legends like Al Trost eventually got the credit they deserved. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2006, alongside Alexi Lalas and others that year. Three years later, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inducted him into their 2009 Class. Finally, Trost was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Yet, he still waits for an opportunity to see the next generation of soccer stars and potential hall of famers. So, he will wait. Patiently waiting for his call for season tickets. “I’m on the list, I think. We’ll see,” he says with nervous laughter.
The game may carry on. The style of play may evolve. But we don’t move on from the rich tradition of soccer in St. Louis. There’s a level of pride and love that Al Trost represents. He’s the eager fan excited about the future; the icon who celebrates our city’s soccer past; and the positive example of how to be a leader for a new developing team. And all that amounts to someone that you don’t easily forget.
“When I started playing professionally, I felt like I had something to prove. That Americans could play the game. I wanted to compete against these top-form international players coming over here.” He pauses for a second to think about the challenge he set out for himself all those years ago, “I think I did that.”