Heart and Soul

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Photo by Nick Miko

Saturday, August 5th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 0 Midland-Odessa 0 (4-2 Midland on penalties AET)

Photo by Nick Miko

In the lead-up to this match my nerves were perfectly normal and I felt strangely calm. In my mind the Midwest title that had been won the week before was the #1 goal for the season and capturing it meant the year was an unqualified success. Finally getting over that hump, especially in such dramatic fashion, was so satisfying that anything after the fact would feel like mere icing on the cake.

That’s what I told myself, and I think I believed it for about 15 minutes. Once the match got going and we found ourselves once again in the heat of the moment, though, that whole line of thought melted away. I don’t remember when it happened or what precipitated it – maybe one of Fernando Pina’s incredible saves, maybe one of the referee’s dumbfoundingly puzzling decisions, maybe a chance of our own – but I distinctly remember thinking, “Damn, I really want this.”

Once that feeling bubbled up, it only kept growing. With every close call for either team and every awful call, this felt like life and death by the time the hour mark rolled around. The last 10 minutes plus extra time and the penalty shootout, while enthralling, were also agonizing.

Now, the day after, the mind races with all the what-ifs and what could’ve beens. That’s the way this thing works. One day you decide to check out a match, then, like a heavy-duty narcotic, one hit hooks you forever. Pretty soon you’re waking up in a cold sweat thinking about that one chance that hit the bar or the one that was cleared off the line.

Taking it in from a thousand foot view, these were two very good teams who played dead even and were only separated by the slimmest of margins. That may not soothe the raw, stinging sensation that heartbreaking losses tend to cause, but I feel it’s worthwhile to put things in perspective. One year ago Detroit City finished its season with a 4-4-4 record, missing the playoffs and setting up a long, dark, dreary offseason. Today we’re fresh off of the most successful season in club history, capped by (with all due respect to the Rust Belt Derby) the first piece of silverware.

Perhaps just as important, the early days when we used to worry about DCFC’s year-to-year viability as a club are far in the rearview. Additionally, throughout all the speculation and hand-wringing about the Gilbert-Gores MLS venture, City and its supporters have simply kept grinding on. With each passing year, the club wins more and more hearts, more firmly entrenches itself as a staple of the community, and inspires more dedication and loyalty.

Whether the jump to a professional league happens in time for 2018 or the NPSL purgatory continues, there’s no reason to believe those trends won’t continue.

The roots grow deeper every year.

Photo by Robert Sherman

The Undead

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Photo by Robert Sherman

Saturday, July 29th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 3 AFC Ann Arbor 2
2017 NPSL Midwest Champions

Photo by Robert Sherman

As someone who’s admittedly prone to hyperbole and assigning great significance to seemingly small events, even I couldn’t have foreseen the drama that’s played out over the past three weeks. My last post ended like this…

…the final two weeks will be laden with drama. A thrilling season now reaches its climax.

…but that hardly does it justice. Sort of like calling Beethoven’s 9th “a catchy track.”

In hindsight, though, maybe we should’ve seen something like this coming. There were signs all along the way. The wolfpack motif that’s emerged this season is an apt one – this City team started out as a group of individuals and evolved into a cohesive unit that moves as one and displays that proverbial killer instinct – but the true story of Detroit City 2017 is how they just refused to die.

Like a group of incredibly resilient zombies, they just kept coming… and coming… and coming.

Despite baseball bats to the head…

5/12 vs. Milwaukee – Down 3-2, Max Todd equalized in the 96th minute.
6/2 vs. Grand Rapids – Went down 1-0, came back to win 3-1.
6/4 at FC Indiana – Gave up 1-0 lead, scored twice more to win 3-1.
6/23 vs. Kalamazoo – Gave up 1-0 lead, Elijah Rice scored the winner in the 67th minute.

…and chainsaws hacking at their limbs…

6/25 at Milwaukee – Went down 1-0, equalized, Shawn Lawson scored the winner in the 84th minute.
7/9 at Lansing – Went down 1-0, came back to win 2-1 and clinch a playoff berth.
7/14 vs. Lansing – Went down 3-0, came back to draw 3-3 – Owain Hoskins equalized in the 87th minute.

…and shotgun blasts to the chest…

7/22 vs. Dakota – Went down 1-0, stormed back for a 5-1 rout.
7/28 vs. Duluth – Gave up 1-0 lead and went down 2-1, scored four unanswered to win 5-2.
7/29 vs Ann Arbor – Gave up 2-0 lead, Tyrone Mondi scored the winner in stoppage time.

…they survived them all. And not only have they survived, they’ve seemed to thrive under pressure. It’s as if surrendering leads and falling behind is all part of the plan to lull the opponent into a false sense of security and set up the inevitable comeback.

Perhaps more impressive than any single match this season is the turnaround from 2016. Much more so than individual talent, the biggest difference from last year to now has to be the massive increase in mental toughness and resilience of the team as a whole. For fostering this growth while at the same time integrating so many new players and managing the multitude of injuries and departures, Ben Pirmann and his staff deserve all the credit in the world.

They’ve also built a team that has “that look.” If you’re a fan of any sport you know what I mean. That look a team has when their movements are in synch, passes/plays are crisp and well-executed, adversity is dealt with calmly, and good things just happen for them. It’s the look that champions have.

Storytelling 101

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 2 FC Indiana 0
Friday, June 29th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 3 Michigan Stars 1

Photo by Dion Degennaro

The most compelling stories are those in which the characters grow and develop, ending up as different people than when you first encountered them. In years past, Detroit City’s play was fairly constant from the beginning of the season to the end. For example, in 2013 they started off hot and stayed that way until an abrupt playoff exit, and in 2016 they were never really able to shake off a sluggish start, finishing with a 1-1-2 record in the month of July.

That 2016 season began with six matches over the course of twelve days, two of them 120 minute + penalty affairs in the U.S. Open Cup. By winning just one of their four league matches in that stretch, City wound up in a hole from which they were unable to dig themselves out.

Fast-forwarding to the present, four matches in eight days is a similarly brutal gauntlet, no matter who the competition is. In anaylzing this part of the schedule at the beginning of the season, 8 or 9 points seemed like a good outcome, but taking all 12 is a fantastic result. Ben Pirmann’s roster management and rotation was flawless, especially taking into account the injuries and departures of key players such as Louis Dargent, Aaron Franco, and Spencer Glass.

2017 has been a tumultuous season, but clearly one of improvement. Early on City looked confused and unsure of themselves and at the end of May they were looking up at nearly everyone:

Beginning with the Glentoran friendly, though, the team seemed to come together and good things started happening. They now look hungry, determined, and unflappable. Goals conceded are no longer confidence-shattering disasters but opportunities to re-focus and respond with renewed intensity. The emergence of the lethal Lawson/Rice/Mondi/Saydee attack may get the most attention, but it’s the scrappy ball-winning in midfield and the dogged defense that have really turned the season around. By fighting and clawing their way to an undefeated June, City has pulled itself from 13 points back from 1st place to just 2.

Dynamic characters can be memorable, but they don’t become truly legendary in a vacuum; they must first overcome an antagonist. And who better to play that role than the only club to have beaten City this year, AFC Ann Arbor? Friday will be the biggest league match since Lansing came to Cass in 2015, hopefully with a similar result. Fittingly, a home-and-home with United looms to complete the arc.

We often criticize the NPSL schedule makers for weird start times or cramming too many fixtures into too small a window (Exhibit A: This past week), but here they’ve done a great job. Wittingly or not, the final two weeks will be laden with drama. A thrilling season now reaches its climax.

Continue reading “Storytelling 101”

Dumb, Stupid, Awesome Fun

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Photo by Michael Kitchen

Friday, June 23rd, 2017 – Detroit City FC FC 2 Kalamazoo FC 1
Sunday, June 25rd, 2017 – Milwaukee Torrent 1 Detroit City FC 2

Photo by Michael Kitchen

As I write this I’m still recovering from Sunday-Monday’s 21 hour round-trip to Milwaukee. Being awake for one full day doesn’t just happen naturally – it’s something you have to make a conscious effort to do. And then, trying to explain it to someone who’s not in-the-know can be almost just as draining. I’ve written this post as a handy reference that I, or anyone else, can use the next time such an explanation is required.

Let’s start off with the basic question one would ask: Why would you spend an entire day (or more) and travel hundreds of miles to watch an amateur soccer team?

Reason #1: Chasing Moments

I’ve talked about this in some past posts, but the Cliffs Notes* version is that we go because we crave seeing moments of greatness live and in person. It’s one thing to watch it happen on a stream or as a video highlight, but seeing the buildup, payoff, and aftermath with your own eyes is far superior.

Reason #2: The Overall Experience

Aside from the actual soccer, the experience of traveling to new places while making friends and memories along the way is a reward in and of itself. I can’t help but shake my head when I see people who refuse to give DCFC a chance because it’s “beneath them” and who will only be satisfied by an MLS club. They’re sitting around waiting for something that may never even happen and missing out on potential lifelong relationships and memories in the process. For me personally, one of the worst feelings is that life is passing me by and I’m stuck on the proverbial hamster wheel. This happens more often than I’d like, but I know a sure way to get out of the rut is to break up the usual routine with a road trip. A little sleep deprivation is a small price to pay. It also means a great deal to the ones actualy playing on the field:

Reason #3: Sheer Ridiculousness and Laughable Absurdity

Home matches and in-state road trips have their share of weird, crazy moments, but nothing compares to what happens when state lines are crossed. From DCFC owners tossing beers over the fence to supporters at Cleveland (2012), to the high school-aged official/firetrucks/angry mom (Minn. Utd./Cincinnati/Fort Pitt – 2015), to being threatened with arrest by a toothless man – Indiana, three weeks ago, hilarity is somehow amplified outside of Michigan. It’s these little dashes of spice that add to already memorable trips and make them go down into legend.

The bus ride to and from Milwaukee was its own continuous stream of nonsensical amusement, but if I had to pick one out from the match itself it would have to be this guy:

He just showed up to do his weekly sprint workout and had no idea what was going on at the stadium that day, or even that a soccer team played in his town.

Bigger leagues may be more prestigious, they may have world-class players, and their games may be on TV, but I don’t care. I’ll take 13 hours on a bus, 3 points, and confused workout dudes.

Photo by Michael Kitchen

*I always thought it was “Cliff Notes”, not “Cliffs Notes.” Mandela Effect?

Continue reading “Dumb, Stupid, Awesome Fun”