A Fourth Division Town

Saturday June 23rd, 2012 – Detroit City FC 1, Cleveland 1

Arsenal had Highbury and big stars and huge crowds and the whole weight of history on their back; Cambridge had a tiny, ramshackle little ground, the Abbey Stadium, less than four thousand watching at most games, and no history at all – they had only been in the Football League for six years…

What I enjoyed most of all, however, was the way the players revealed themselves, their characters and their flaws, almost immediately. The modern First Division player is for the most part an anonymous young man: he and his colleagues have interchangeable physiques, similar skills, similar pace, similar temperaments. Life in the Fourth Division was different. Cambridge had fat players and thin players, young players and old players, fast players and slow players, players who were on their way out and players who were on their way up…

It was impossible not to feel a warm, protective fondness for them.

-Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Whenever local mass media put out stories on Detroit City FC, they inevitably give the team the “minor league” or “semi-pro” label. Though technically correct – the NPSL is a minor American soccer league and most of its players are unpaid – I think these labels give the wrong impression to the casual reader/viewer. When I hear “minor-league,” I think of AA and AAA baseball teams and wacky promotions: Nobody Night, Office Space Night, etc.

Players on a minor league baseball team treat it as a stepping stone; most if not all of them are striving to make it to the show. To be fair, I’m sure most of the college players on DCFC have their sights set on eventually making it to higher levels, but there are also those who speak of being a member of the team as their greatest athletic accomplishment.* Also, when you hear “minor league,” the term “diehard” doesn’t come to mind – I’m not aware of any supporters’ groups for the Richmond Flying Squirrels or the Albuquerque Isotopes.

I prefer the term “fourth division.” Since it’s generally not used in other American sports and therefore lacks “minor league’s” connotations, we can mold it however we want. Like the NPSL and PDL, England’s fourth division is where young players cut their teeth and try to make a name for themselves, and where older players simply play because they love the game. The difference here is that our lower levels are not just breeding grounds for up-and-coming players, but for teams as well.

* [This is where I was going to link to the NPSL Radio Show where Zeke Harris said this, but I can’t do it because their website is atrocious – Angelfire/Geocities Web 1.0 level – and I can’t find it. Trust me, he said it.]

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When Cleveland came to town for the second time, the inaugural Rust Belt Derby was on the line. A win for City would give them the marvelously ugly-yet-beautiful trophy while a draw or loss would win it for Cleveland.

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Everything went according to plan – a goal from St. Louis midway through the first half, the greater share of possession and chances to City – until about 5 minutes from full-time when Cleveland’s Tommy Schmit pulled his team level. Like any great and humble sportsman would, he then sprinted over to the DCFC supporters’ section and proceeded to taunt and gesture at the crowd, forever cementing his place as a Northern Guard favorite.

In the last minutes, Keith Lough almost won the trophy singlehandedly. He rounded the keeper and sent the ball towards the open net, only to have a defender appear out of nowhere to clear it off the line. Then, after a foul at the edge of the box, he hit an excellent free kick towards the top corner that was kept out only with an equally excellent save.

Seeing the away team celebrating on your home field is obviously disappointing, but looking back on it now, I feel there is an upside. Winning is fun, but the joy you experience in the highest moments is only made possible by the pain that is felt in the lowest ones. Losing can help weed out the bandwagoners and endear your team to you, as long as the losses are hard-fought and not too frequent (see Cubs, Chicago, and Lions, Detroit). Winning the Rust Belt in 2012 would’ve been nice, but losing it at the last moment made winning it this year much more special.

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Detroit may not always be a fourth division town. There are pros to this: bigger crowds, more prestige for the club, more well-known players, bigger prizes to win. And there are cons: less stadium freedom for supporters, higher ticket prices, fewer homegrown players, more corporatization.

For me, the biggest positive of playing in a higher division would be that I would have more games to go to. Then again, the shortness of the NPSL season makes each game feel more important and meaningful (btw, 7 months to go if you’re counting). There’s a quote about life being more of a journey than a destination and even though it’s cheesy, it’s pretty much right. What we have right now is fun, exciting, and only getting bigger. I’m enjoying every minute of it and I hope you are too.

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Personal PSA: Buy a 2013 Detroit City FC Scarf. Why? It’s only $16, I didn’t see enough of them last winter, and I want an excuse to high-five random people on the street.

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