By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, December 31, 2015
As a youngster, growing up playing for St. Louis Scott Gallagher, Sam Fink was no stranger to the World Wide Technology Soccer Park.
What awaited him as a member of Saint Louis FC when the club hosted its home opener against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds this past April, though, was something that he’ll carry for a long time.
“It was special,” Fink said this month. “I grew up playing in that place, and I’d never seen it filled. I’d never seen so many fans there, so the first time I walked out onto the field I got chills, because it’s amazing the support that St. Louis has, and the support we got this year.
“The city just has a thirst for soccer, and for good soccer, and so to see that place come alive this year was a true blessing, not only because I was a player but also because I’m from St. Louis and it’s really cool to see the sport growing in the community I grew up in.”
As the local standout who became one of the club’s key players over the course of Saint Louis FC’s inaugural season, Fink understandably became a fan favorite. One of only two players in the USL to play every minute of every game in the regular season, the 6-foot-2 center back returned home after a stellar career for Wake Forest to begin his professional career.
The captain for the Demon Deacons in his senior season, Fink was appreciative of the competition he got to face in his time at Wake. This offseason, he got the chance to return to campus to see his former teammates in action again as the Demon Deacons won the ACC regular season title.
“It was a real blessing,” Fink said of his college career. “I played against some of the best young players in MLS now. Some of my best friends are those guys. It was a really, really great experience. Not only are you developing as a soccer player, but you’re also getting to go to the Virginias, to the Carolinas, to the Marylands every year, who have great fan bases, have great fields, play great soccer, so every season there was something new, but it was always fun.”
Fink had to draw on his experiences from Wake as he made the transition to the professional ranks with STLFC. On the field, the club’s inaugural season was a trying one, as a young squad had to battle through disappointing early results to find its identity and rhythm.
“It was tough, especially early in the season,” Fink said. “Toward the end it gets a little bit easier because you have supporters on your side, the coaches, but in the beginning when nobody knows really who you are, you’re kind of trying to find yourself as a professional and your team is struggling. It becomes really hard. All I could do was trust in our leaders and our coaches to take us where we wanted to go, and put my head down and come to practice and work as hard as I could every day and learn as much as I can, and toward the end we got to turn it around a little bit.”
That late turnaround included a pivotal moment for the club as it rallied back to take a 3-2 victory against the Charleston Battery. Fink was one of the goal-scorers that night, as his equalizer set the stage for Aaron Horton’s stoppage-time winner and the club’s second home win in the league.
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“It’s an incredible feeling, honestly, and it’s just so telling of the character we had on the team,” Fink said. “You go down two goals early, and you’re struggling on the season, so it would have been easy to give up and to just put our heads down and roll over, but we didn’t, we fought.”
A subsequent victory against King’s Cup rival Louisville City FC in the final game of the regular season bolstered the club’s belief that it had turned a corner, and with 14 players from the 2015 squad set to return for the new season, it certainly seems the St. Louligans should have a lot to look forward to in 2016.
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A lot of that has to do with the club’s leadership, according to Fink. Having been around people like CEO Jim Kavanaugh and Executive Director Patrick Barry as a young player, Fink said having that connection to both the local soccer community and the community as a has allowed the club to build a solid foundation for success.
“It means everything, honestly,” Fink said. “To have owners and management that care about the game, and not only cares about the game but cares about the city and the game growing in the city is special, and I think you can’t find that everywhere else.
“I grew up playing for the guys at the top now, and I can vouch for them that they’re great soccer minds, great people, and are the right people to keep pushing soccer in St. Louis. It’s only up from here with those people in charge.”
Add in the passion shown throughout the club’s inaugural season by the fans, and Fink is eager to get back onto the field for the new season.
“Right now, I’m just looking forward to getting back out there on the field and hearing our fans, mainly the St. Louligans,” Fink said. “They’re incredible, they’re loud, and hearing them cheer for us is something is really special, and that you can’t really explain unless you’re out there. It almost gives you chills. It gives you energy and motivation, and that’s something that I can’t wait to feel again in 2016.”