Detroit City FC is going pro, whether American soccer wants it or not 

click to enlarge Detroit City Football Club playing at Keyworth Stadium.

Dion Degennaro

Detroit City Football Club playing at Keyworth Stadium.

On most summer evenings, the 1994 World Cup soccer field on Detroit's Belle Isle glows with golden hour sunlight. The sun drops from the sky just between the glass greenhouses of the Whitcomb gardens and the now-derelict administrative complex. A gravel track surrounds the field, separating it from the adjacent baseball field. Supporters have to battle to be heard above the seagulls' squawks. Southeast of the field flies an American flag, just beneath which flies another that commands, "Service Above Self."

The field floods easily due to poor drainage, which didn't bode well for the neighborhood teams of Corktown and Hubbard Farms on June 14, 2010, a showering Monday. It was week three of the Detroit City Futbol League's existence, and it already surpassed founder Sean Mann's expectations. More than 300 players joined, forming 11 teams. Rather than form among friends, teams formed along neighborhood boundaries, turning strangers into neighbors.

This was a time when the reputation of Detroit, and the city's neighborhoods in particular, had been dragged through the dirt of national media. Forbes deemed Detroit the most dangerous city in the country, and CNN placed it with the top 10 most dangerous cities in the world. The New York Times put it bluntly: "Detroit, a City of Tears."

A recent import to the city, Mann was one of many hopeful minds that sought to disrupt the narrative consuming Detroit. He believed a neighborhood soccer league could help invigorate Detroit's neighborhoods, giving residents a team to support and bringing pride to their community. He also sought a way to meet neighbors that, as he puts it, "didn't involve boarding up houses or neighborhood cleanups."

On that dreary June Monday in 2010, Detroit narrowly dodged the rain, so Mann suited up in his Hubbard Farms uniform, a purple T-shirt that displayed a blue fist clenching the Ambassador Bridge, which separates Hubbard Farms from the evening's opponent, Corktown. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, and afterward, attendees and players made their way to PJ's Lager House in Corktown for postgame drinks.

It was a typical match day experience in the DCFL, but in hindsight, the evening was a key moment on the path toward professional soccer in Detroit. That night on the field, between the Corktown and Hubbard Farms teams, were the five Detroiters — Mann, Alex Wright, Todd Kropp, David Dwaihy, and Ben Steffan — who would go on to found Detroit City FC in 2012.

So began a hopeful experiment in community and soccer. From humble origins playing on Cass Tech's football field and fielding a team of unpaid college players, DCFC is now at a critical juncture in its development. After moving to the rehabbed Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck in 2016, now boasting an average fan attendance near 6,000, and with a new head coach stolen away from the L.A. Galaxy, DCFC wants to go professional. The club wants to pay its players, play matches across the country, and, most importantly, they want a longer season.

However, the world of professional American soccer is notoriously closed off, requiring billionaire owners and costly soccer-specific stadiums. To circumvent the established system, DCFC and 10 compatriots from the amateur National Premier Soccer League are forming their own professional league — a grassroots, independent alternative to the corporate, profit-driven American footballing mainstream.

At the much-anticipated announcement of the new league, National Premier Soccer League Chairman Joe Barone emphasized "community-based" and "authentic" clubs. Among the 11 founding members are local American soccer titans like Chattanooga FC, which recently "went public" in a sense when they opened investment to fans, making thousands of supporters part owners. From New York to Miami and San Diego, the league boasts a delightfully entertaining cast of footballing miscreants and outcasts across the country. Detroit City FC is right at home with this ragtag legion of homegrown, grassroots soccer disruptors.

"We started kicking around — you know, what if we brought a team to Detroit, and what if that team was done in a way that represented this moment?" Mann reflects on DCFC's origins.

"There was optimism during a time of significant, wider pessimism and uncertainty," he says. "It was an entrepreneurial moment where people and friends were supporting each other. Enthusiasm for what could be in Detroit — that was that moment. It's still an ongoing moment."

We meet Mann inside the DCFC clubhouse, a second-floor bar and restaurant in the club's Fieldhouse, an indoor training ground and something of a DCFC-branded community recreation center. From the clubhouse, patrons can watch the action on either of the two turf fields below. Outside, the historic Elmwood Park cemetery and the pothole-riddled thoroughfare of the neighborhood flank the Clubhouse, which five years ago sat vacant and decaying. DCFC purchased the former indoor ice rink, quickly financed a renovation, nabbed a liquor license, and flipped it into a de facto HQ for the club.

"This has been a killer project. We personally did the demo work and a lot of the painting," Mann says, adding that his dad built the table we're sitting at by hand. "It's all been sweat equity to this day."

Behind Mann are three framed portraits, two of popular players and one of Friendly the Bear, DCFC's mascot ever since a fan found a polar bear costume in a dumpster before a match. Seven trophies from local and regional competitions rest above the bar. Over the east field, a fan-made quilt proudly announces, "CITY ABOVE ALL."

The fieldhouse is the physical embodiment of a legacy of community investment and DCFC's commitment to Detroit. On April 26, four DCFC players stopped by career day at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, a K-12 Detroit Public School. DCFC supporters have founded fundraising organizations like Hooligans for Heroes and Pride Raiser, which collect money and funnel it toward organizations that support veterans and at-risk LGBTQ youth, respectively. The club partners with the Police Athletic League to provide low-to-no-cost professional, year-round training to Detroit youth. When DCFC outgrew Cass Tech's stadium, rather than seek funding for a new stadium, they crowd- funded to rehabilitate historic Keyworth Stadium, which remains under the ownership of Hamtramck Public Schools, leased every season to DCFC at a bargain.

The club's motto underscores their commitment to Detroit: "Passion for our city. Passion for the game." It's this commitment to community and authenticity that allows DCFC to deliver a unique sporting experience for fans, Mann says, especially when viewed alongside their natural nemesis: Major League Soccer.

"We called it Detroit City because there was talk of a Detroit MLS team playing 40 miles from the city," Mann says. "We've always been somewhat in response to the thought of MLS in Detroit."

The MLS has tried for years to land a franchise in Detroit, the largest media market in the country without an MLS team. As the MLS has sought aggressive expansion the past few years, local billionaires and NBA team owners Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Tom Gores, who owns the Detroit Pistons, have expressed interest in leading the MLS Detroit expansion. Eventually Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford got involved as talks emerged that the team would share Ford Field in the Lions' offseason.

As MLS negotiations continued largely behind closed doors, DCFC continued to dominate lower-tier, semi-professional soccer, and expand their fanbase locally and nationally. All this MLS interest, perhaps predictably, pisses off DCFC supporters who feel that MLS wants to benefit from the work done by the DCFC community to build a soccer culture in Detroit from the ground up.

"Those hoping to usurp DCFC with a plastic, passionless, MLS club will take nothing from this fight but the bitter taste of our resistance," wrote DCFC fans in a mocking open letter from 2017, the peak of MLS bid.

At the core of DCFC's conflict with MLS are competing visions for American soccer. Whereas the MLS, as a league, retains ownership of all teams, bringing on would-be owners as regional investors who run their local franchise, DCFC supporters cringe at the thought of calling their team a "franchise." DCFC is a club through and through.

Few understand MLS standoff with DCFC like Dr. Stefan Szymanski, a bespectacled expert in sports management and economics. He has authored and co-authored close to a dozen books on topics ranging from fan culture to the economics of soccer. Hailing from London, he now teaches Sport Management at the University of Michigan. He's not exactly impartial, though.

"Detroit City FC is my team and I've never really supported a soccer team in my life," Szymanski says, explaining that the violent hooliganism of English soccer kept him from actively supporting his hometown club in London. "What the [DCFC] owners are trying to do, in building a community club that brings people together, is a fantastic model that has a lot of potential in the United States and is, in my view, a good contrast to the more corporate and disneyfied model of soccer MLS is pushing."

DCFC and the MLS can be viewed as representative of two classically American categories of product, Szymanski says. Where MLS is corporate and profit-driven, DCFC is locally invested and culturally unique. He compares the duality to that of beer: Just as MLS has standardized soccer across the country to cut costs and boost profit, companies like Budweiser have done the same for beer. Simultaneously, micro and craft breweries have battled to carve out their niches in higher quality, locally produced beer. Similarly, DCFC is fighting to establish itself as something of the craft brew IPA to American soccer's Miller Lite.

"Our whole economic and social fabric is sometimes a tension between cost versus variety," Szymanski says. "In some things like soccer, coffee, and beer, I'm actually prepared to pay a bit more if I get something that is personalized, individualized — that I can identify with on a personal basis."

Corporate versus community. That's a tension Detroit knows all too well. In typical economist fashion, Szymanski says the market will decide which model of soccer is preferred in Detroit — or perhaps there's room for both. As DCFC heads into its new league, though, Szymanski admires the ethos they've cultivated.

"It's this backs against the wall, we'll do it ourselves, we're not fancy — we are a lunch pail team," he says. "It's basic hardworking, no frills, get the job done, tough competitors."

Perhaps that underdog spirit resonated with residents of the industrial city, plagued by national coverage. Fans quickly responded to the birth of DCFC, organizing into a European-style supporters group called the Northern Guard Supporters, becoming the envy of much larger teams across the country.

"[2012] was the pinnacle of just negative bullshit about the city," NGS head of communications Dion Degennaro says. "The mentality of people [was to] support the positive things and showcase the good versus the bad. At the time, everyone who was living in the city was trying to figure out a way they could do something good for the city."

Infused with their own history, myths, and legends, NGS members are fiercely protective of the culture they and the club have built. Their website can be found at noonelikes.us and their chants at matches are often comically confrontational for what is essentially a family affair. They unapologetically challenge opposing fans and sometimes travel long distances to follow the team across the country. NGS members like their soccer, for sure, but they love to misbehave. The organization has become one of DCFC's unique traits that may appear peculiar to an outsider, but distinguishes the club from others in the country.

"Supporter culture really wasn't in the limelight the way it is now," Degennaro says of the beginnings. "It was kind of pioneering the way that banter happens in the United States."

Degennaro wasn't a part of NGS when it was founded. He says he was intimidated by the cutthroat chants, which have toned down a bit in recent years, and NGS' signature smoke bombs. Upon closer inspection, however, one sees the tweed hats and NPR pins, realizing that much of the match day act is a performance, all in good fun.

Degennaro joined NGS in 2013, the club's second season, and it slowly consumed more of his life. He met his current girlfriend through NGS and their first date was an impromptu trip to Minnesota for a DCFC away game in 2015. Now, when he's not running his pest-killing business, he helps think up new NGS chants, checking the smoke bomb supply, and hand-stitching flags.

He's seen NGS and the club evolve over the years, crafting its character. Today, smoke bombs and cussing aside, NGS is perhaps best known for their unapologetically progressive politics. They typically fly LGBTQ flags at matches, emphasize inclusivity across identities in the DCFC community, and decry far-rightists in soccer on Twitter. What started as an NGS initiative, Let's Make Roots is a pay-it-forward program that distributes extra tickets to Hamtramck residents, many younger fans from the city's immigrant communities, for free. Signs in the clubhouse ban acts of racism and in 2014, DCFC sported uniforms in support of LGBTQ inclusion in a regulation match.

"Soccer is inherently political," Degennaro says. "That's just part of the culture. I don't think it was necessarily from the get-go, like, this is gonna be inclusive, we're gonna support LGBTQ charities and this is the day we're gonna have rainbow shit everywhere and this is gonna be the gayest supporter section in the country. That was not the way it was set out to be."

But that's how it evolved and NGS is running with it. A clubhouse filled with laughing and drinking NGS members is a welcoming environment, though it's tough not to notice the overwhelmingly white fan base in a city that's majority Black.

"There is a distrust of race," Degennaro says. "There's always suburbanites calling themselves Detroiters and Detroiters being resentful of suburbanites saying they're from Detroit. It's just something that we're constantly aware of and something we're constantly trying to address and trying to be more inclusive."

Despite DCFC's Detroit pride and investment in the communities throughout Detroit, NGS' roots are primarily suburban. The name, Northern Guard Supporters, is a reference to the founders' hometown of Pontiac, about 30 miles north of Detroit. NGS is split roughly down the middle between suburban and urban residents, Degennaro says, though that doesn't take into account how many who live in the city may have recently moved into one of the heavily invested neighborhoods from a suburb. Broadening their fanbase may be key to ensuring a sustainable future for the still-maturing DCFC, and Degennaro wants everyone to know they're welcome in the DCFC community as long as they support the club and the city.

"Why should you support DCFC instead of the MLS?" Degennaro asks. "Do you care about authenticity? Do you care about community involvement? Do you care about giving back instead of taking from?"

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