The Legacy Series spotlights individuals who have had a hand (and foot) in shaping St. Louis into America’s first soccer capital.
Bill McDermott: 50 Years as Mr. Soccer
By Michael Haffner
You don’t get the name Mr. Soccer just by knowing St. Louis soccer history. You don’t get Bob Costas calling you Mr. Soccer because you’re the most enthusiastic person talking about soccer in the 1970s. Bill McDermott is Mr. Soccer because both his knowledge and love of the game make him one of the great storytellers of soccer. It almost makes writing about him seem like a fruitless venture because whatever you write is never going to capture his story better than he could tell it himself. But then again, Mr. Soccer would never tell his story when there are so many others to tell.
When talking about one of the best and most underrated teams he’s ever watched (the 1974 Polish National Team), he doesn’t pluck names out of the air like a magician — the names are fired off like train pistons moving the conversation at a breakneck speed. Seconds later he rattles off the starting lineup of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team without a single pause. Later, he lists the starting date of the 1994 World Cup (June 17 at Soldier Field in Chicago) and what teams played in the opening match. And it’s not just the fact that he recites players, teams, and dates so efficiently that makes listening to McDermott’s stories so rewarding. It’s his acute word choices in every story that make him not just an impressive storyteller, but they serve as a reminder of why he truly is, Mr. Soccer.
Taking the Elevator to Success
Soccer fans in St. Louis might recognize his voice more so than his name. Bill McDermott has been the voice of soccer on KMOX and the announcer for St. Louis University soccer since 1972. He’s been a part of World Cup, Olympic, and MLS coverage for five decades. He’s discussed, interviewed, and analyzed some of the best players in the world, on both the local and international stage. And he’s played with such greats as Al Trost (“Trost is the best I’ve ever played with,” he quickly responds) and played under legendary coach Harry Keough. The man knows the game in ways that few could compete with.
The fact that McDermott isn’t more of a household name in St. Louis sports says more about how the sport is still growing on a national level than sports fans in St. Louis as a whole. As both McDermott and previously Ty Keough have pointed out, soccer in the United States wasn’t a regular conversation 20 years ago. “The seminal event for the sport in our country is when the World Cup came to the United States in 1994. It was then that people really understood the sport: that this wasn’t a city versus a city… but a country versus a country.” By the time McDermott covered that World Cup, he was already over 20 years into a storied career serving as the St. Louis voice that brought the international sport to the local and national stage.
“Soccer is the great unifier of cultures and people from all over the world. It’s always been soccer and will always be soccer.” And it was soccer that served as a bridge that united his budding career in art after going to school in Chicago and his love of the game. Marvin Mann contacted McDermott to do the public address announcement at the home games and serve as the color analyst on the television games for a new soccer team in St. Louis. But first, they needed a logo. “The only stipulation was that it had to have a steamboat in the logo, and it couldn’t look like the logo of Boatmen’s Bank which also had a steamboat.” What McDermott created for the St. Louis Steamers became a symbol of pride throughout St. Louis in the 1980s and one to be feared by rival teams throughout the Major Indoor Soccer League.
However, it was a chance elevator conversation that changed the course of his life. While going up the elevator to interview for an artist position at an advertising agency in St. Louis, McDermott suddenly found himself very aware of the voices he was among. “I used to listen to Jack Carney every morning, and occasionally Bob [Costas] would jump in. So, I introduced myself and asked if they could listen to my tapes sometime and give me some tips.” Bob Costas obliged but openly admitted that he didn’t know a thing about soccer. Just like that, this kid out of art school with little broadcast experience began a relationship with Bob Costas that paved the way to solidifying his reputation as Mr. Soccer.
Developing a Voice for Soccer
Bill McDermott’s greatest skill is his instinctive approach. He speaks with such knowledge and confidence that he never misses a beat, punctuating each story with details that make you think they happened yesterday – not 20 or even 40 years ago. If you’re a soccer fan, you don’t dare interrupt him because you never know where his story may take you. It’s a skill he learned from the legendary sports commentator that solidified his nickname.
Radio station KASP was the precursor of 590 The Fan in St. Louis. Rick Wallace was a host on the channel in the 1970s and was the first one to give McDermott the title of Mr. Soccer. However, it was Bob Costas who famously carried it on. That’s not all McDermott picked up from Costas over the years. There were many tips passed on from Costas early on that helped McDermott develop his professional voice, and in turn, resulted in a lasting friendship between the two that remains to this day.
“He gave me a lot of great advice that I still use today. Be yourself… Remember that you’re on television… Always split your commentary 50/50 between new listeners and more experienced fans who don’t need as much explanation. But most importantly, he taught me how to interact with someone else in the booth.”
Finding a way to explain the fundamentals of soccer is easier said than done. Especially, the style of soccer that’s played today. “The only thing that’s common between what I played and what’s played now is the shape of the ball.” Soccer is an ever-evolving sport, and it takes a desire to continue to learn more which McDermott has demonstrated after all these years.
One of the pieces of advice he got early on is “don’t be obvious about the obvious.” It seems like a… well… obvious bit of advice, but it speaks to how a broadcaster has to put into words the elements of the game that we often don’t see. McDermott recounts a story about what the father of the great Pat McBride said to his son, the future St. Louis University legend. “Watch how Harry Keough plays. Watch how he does it with such ease. He plays the game differently because he sees the game differently.” Harry Keough imparted this idea of seeing the game differently on McDermott and his teammates starting in 1967 as the head coach of the St. Louis University Men’s soccer team. That team would go on to the National Championship that year and be awarded co-champion because of a draw, before then going on to win it again in 1969 under Harry Keough.
50 Years of Calling the Shots
This year marks 50 years of being on the microphone in the press box at Robert R. Hermann Stadium. When asked if St. Louis University will be doing anything special for him this season, he admits with a sheepish grin, “They always find a way to surprise me and do something without me knowing about it.”
It’s hard to surprise a man who has seen it all. From covering his first World Cup in Mexico in 1970 to serving as a color commentator for the 1994 and 1998 World Cups to interviewing legends like Pelé, McDermott has served as the storyteller for so many generations of players all over the world and at St Louis University. Some of the greats have played before him at Hermann Stadium, from Brian McBride to Bosnian phenom Vedad Ibisevic. And if the recent MLS Draft is any indication (5 players who played in St. Louis were drafted this year), St. Louis is home to many future soccer stars.
“It’s inevitable that we are going to see a new era of soccer greats from St. Louis.” As he notes, St. Louis CITY SC will be a big part of this new era because of how they are currently developing talent right in our communities, and that will only increase in the years to come. “I’ve seen how important soccer is to a country’s culture. St. Louis CITY SC is a vital part of our community.”
Starting in 1996, we’ve seen the MLS grow in many ways, and what St. Louis CITY SC is doing right now is unlike anything we’ve seen in the league before. “What they have created is unprecedented. Having your stadium, training facilities, and corporate offices all in one centralized downtown campus. Your different academy teams training next to the professional team. This hardly ever happens anywhere in the world. This is the future of the sport.”
Bill McDermott is the man that bridges soccer’s past and future in St. Louis. If he didn’t already have a fitting nickname, one could call him The Great Unifier. He’s the voice that has united players, teams, countries, and fans, in St. Louis and abroad. It’s his stories and commentary that help all of us better understand the game and why soccer will always be more than just soccer. And it’s his love and pride in this city’s contributions to the sport that defines the type of man he is when he gets behind the microphone. That’s not something you see in a nickname, but it’s something you feel when you hear his voice. “If calling me Mr. Soccer gets St. Louis recognized and more exposure, then I’m all for that.”