Detroit City FC's dream to join a new professional soccer league has fallen apart — for now

click to enlarge Detroit City FC's dream to join a new professional soccer league has fallen apart — for now
Jon DeBoer/DCFC

It was just four months ago, March 8, that Detroit City FC, the Motor City's scrappy grassroots soccer team, hosted nearly 200 of its “City Faithful” fans to inaugurate the Founders Cup.

The tournament was meant to precede the creation of a new league, which would mark DCFC’s exodus from the amateur National Premier Soccer League and allow the team to go pro. That would mean paying players, raising the bar of competition, and elongating the season — bolstering revenue.

On the night of the celebration, more than 50 aspiring players from across the state tried out for the club. Fans rejoiced over Detroit-brewed beers and DCFC-branded whiskey. DCFC raffled off two plane tickets to Miami for the first match on Aug. 10, which went to 31-year-old Mac Swearengen, a fan since 2015.

Then, at last week’s Midwest Regional Championship between DCFC and Cleveland SC in Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium, DCFC co-founder and CEO Sean Mann approached Swearengen.

“Sean Mann found me and mentioned that there were some issues with the two Miami games,” Swearengen recalls, “and they would be ducking out of Founders Cup.”

A chaotic scamper ensued, as most teams in the league jumped ship, leaving just four, including DCFC. Three defectors headed for greener — or at least more stable — pastures in the National Independent Soccer Association, a direct competitor to the Founders Cup, when it launches in September.

“It’s frustrating. It played out toward the end like classic game theory. Like, who’s going to be the first one to bail,” Mann told The Athletic in an extensive interview. “That came down the second or third week in June, which caused kind of a mad scramble. Ultimately, the biggest thing is we committed to our fans that we’re playing games this fall. We’re figuring out one way or another to make that happen.”

Mann told The Athletic that the problem was the league couldn't find an insurance carrier to cover player contracts, as the team's revenue growth is stymied by the National Premier Soccer League's short summer season.

But in classically resourceful DCFC form, as quickly as the Founders Cup fell apart, the club pivoted to a reworked tournament called the “Members Cup.” That means fans like Swearengen will get the beloved match days they were promised, even as the teams have changed.

To fill the schedule for the core four teams that remain — DCFC, Chattanooga FC, New York Cosmos, and Milwaukee Torrent — they enlisted two more contenders, the Michigan Stars and Napa Valley 1839 FC. Rounding out their schedule’s nine remaining home matches, DCFC will play in a number of friendlies with teams like Windsor TFC.

“Our big priority was a longer season, more games for fans. I was able to maneuver the schedule so that we kept all the original home dates and away dates,” Mann told The Athletic. “The faces may be changing but we’re still playing the same games. It still sets us up for momentum for 2020.”

Holding onto those home matches is key for DCFC, as they strive to meet the demand for a longer season. Not to mention that most of their revenue comes from tickets, concessions, and merchandise sold on match days, which regularly draw upwards of 4,000-5,000 spectators.

However, that doesn’t mean DCFC is out of the weeds. Whereas the Founders Cup was meant to be a foundation for something greater in the years to come, the Members Cup will likely be a one-off tournament this year as DCFC looks for other long-term options.

“I would certainly say about Sept. 1 we would be in a position to announce 2020 plans,” Mann told The Athletic.

As for Swearengen, he’s excited to attend the remaining matches.

“I’ve been attending games since Season 3, and every year it feels like the season is over before it even begins,” he says. “So more games is great.”

And his tickets to Miami? He says he’s going to trade them in for tickets to New York to cheer on Le Rouge on Oct. 12 as they take on the New York Cosmos.

Here’s DCFC’s revamped schedule.

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