Fourth-tier Detroit City FC keeps building despite uncertainty posed by MLS expansion
HAMTRAMCK, Mich. (AP) — Immediately after the opening kickoff, colorful smoke was already floating through the air and fans were in full voice, singing and chanting in a display reminiscent of matches in Europe and South America.
This wasn't Milan or Liverpool, though, or even Portland or Seattle. This was a fourth-tier soccer match at a renovated old stadium in Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit.
The team is called Detroit City FC. It competes in the National Premier Soccer League and its players aren't paid, but this season the club drew about 5,000 fans a game at its new home field, turning a night at Keyworth Stadium into one of the area's most unique sports experiences. DCFC's growth is a testament to soccer's grassroots appeal in the United States, and it comes as a group led by NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores is trying to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Detroit.
The question now is: What will happen to DCFC if MLS shows up? And would an MLS team be able to capitalize on the soccer culture that's already here?
The answer may not be that simple.
"It's a tightrope," said Alex Wright, one of DCFC's five owners. "It's going to take some time and some conversation."
There are over 80 teams in the NPSL, representing big cities like Chicago and Boston as well as places like Fredricksburg, Virginia, and Binghamton, New York. DCFC was founded in 2012, and the ownership group felt there was enough soccer interest in the Detroit area for the project to succeed. The barriers to entry weren't exactly high. Wright says each co-owner had to kick in $2,500 for the buy-in and a chance to own a team and build it from the ground up.
"It was something we as founders who had day jobs could do on nights and weekends, but it also allowed us the flexibility and the freedom and opportunity to kind of like, really have some fun with what kind of team we wanted to be," Wright said.
DCFC outgrew its home field and now plays at Keyworth. There's an independent supporters group—Northern Guard Supporters—and fans march to matches together from a nearby bar.
Near the entrance to the supporters' section at the stadium, there's a banner laying out some ground rules for the uninitiated. Fans who venture into that area along one of the sidelines can expect to stand the whole game, hear plenty of foul language and have smoke bombs set off around them.
"As long as you can stand the smoke and stand the swearing—and just stand for 90 minutes—you fit right in," said 35-year-old Drew Gentry, a Northern Guard co-founder.
Gentry became interested in soccer after stumbling upon a Champions League match on TV and being amazed by the fan atmosphere.
"I'm like, 'What do these people have? This is soccer, it's not supposed to be interesting. Why do these people love this sport so much?'" he said.
Gentry wanted a local version of what he'd seen, a team he and his community could throw support behind. His is just one story of how an American under 40 came to love a sport that struggled for so long to gain a foothold in this country. Now fans are gravitating toward soccer for any number of reasons—and the group putting together Detroit's MLS bid knows it.
"There's a group of people that grew up with soccer now. They're not necessarily people that grew up with the NFL or something else," said Matt Cullen, a principal of Gilbert-chaired Rock Ventures. "It is almost like a little bit of a counterculture kind of thing, and people enjoy it in a different way. I think it's the experience as much as the game at times."
That's certainly true at DCFC games. The players aren't exactly household names. Fans go because of the atmosphere and the excitement of being part of something that they're all helping build.
"In a more professional, traditional American setting, I think the mentality is you have to be something for everyone," Wright said. "I think what soccer is proving is that while that is true—that is one way to do it—that's not the only way to do it. To be something real for some people, is also another way to go, because we're not trying to fill a 65,000-seat stadium and we don't have 162 games a year."
MLS teams don't have to draw 65,000 fans a game either. If there is a new team in Detroit, it would be in good shape if it can enjoy the type of loyalty DCFC receives from its fans. There is precedent for that kind of smooth transition. The Portland Timbers were a successful minor league team before being elevated to the MLS level in 2011.
There's some skepticism among the DCFC die-hards. The Northern Guard website includes a list of lyrics to various fan chants, and one of them aims its profanity-laced hostilities directly at Gilbert, Gores and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
"It's really important that everyone understand how much time and effort the supporters put into what they do," Wright said. "If you don't understand that, it's really hard to understand where they're coming from when you read what they write online or on social media. It's not vitriol if you've been spending so much of your time building something up and you're worried that it's going to be forgotten."
The MLS group has been quick to praise DCFC. Arn Tellem, who works with Gores as an executive at Palace Sports and Entertainment, said he's met with the DCFC hierarchy, and he raves about the experience at the team's games. He said DCFC and the Michigan Bucks—a Pontiac-based team that won the championship of the Premier Development League this month—have shown that there is great interest in soccer in the Detroit area. But it's not yet clear how, specifically, the MLS group and DCFC might work together.
Elevating DCFC to MLS status would be one way to try to preserve the club's charm and grassroots appeal. That's a model MLS has followed elsewhere, but Gilbert and Gores would likely have some work to do to win over the trust of some of the local fans.
An MLS team could also try to coexist with DCFC in the hope that each can in its own way help soccer grow in Detroit. There are examples of minor league teams playing in MLS cities, although those teams don't necessarily draw many fans. Portland Timbers 2—a team in the United Soccer League—drew about 2,500 at a game Sunday, a figure that would represent a step back for a team like DCFC.
Wright says DCFC looks forward to further conversations with the MLS group about their visions for the future. As for Gentry, he said recently that nobody from the MLS bid had reached out to his supporters' group.
"I will believe an MLS team is in Detroit when they kick off their first match," he said. "Until then, it's not something that I'm going to lose sleep over, only because I've got stuff to do to grow my team—the team that's already here."
The proposed MLS expansion team could start playing in Detroit by 2020, but that still leaves DCFC plenty of time to build an even greater following. Right now, the big priority for the MLS bid is securing a new stadium for a Detroit team to play in. The group is pushing for a site in downtown Detroit, but there are potential roadblocks.
If the stadium issue is resolved and Detroit is indeed granted a team, talks between the MLS group and DCFC figure to take on much more significance.
"I think we want to be inclusive with DCFC and the Bucks and work with them, and we can learn a lot from them. I think the groups that are running these organizations are really smart and civic minded," Tellem said. "They have done an incredible job, and I think we can learn a lot from them and we will. Every time I'm with them, I leave feeling more positive that we have to do this together. We can't do this without them."