As I’m writing this, it’s the dead of winter and we’re right in the middle of the epoch-long NPSL offseason. In other words, it’s a perfect time to step back and look at the big picture – where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
Two years ago, Detroit City FC was just a name and a crest, still months away from filling its roster and sending those players out on the field. The owners were optimistic enough to hope for an initial crowd of around 500 with numbers hopefully improving with each following game.
Fast forwarding to today, it’s evident that DCFC has been a greater success than anyone could have predicted back in January of 2012. The team has not only been competitive, but has quickly established itself as one of the elite sides in the NPSL, finishing a close 2nd in its division in 2012 and running away with 1st place in 2013 before being upset in the playoffs. Game attendance, including friendlies, has never dipped below the 1000 mark and has swelled to the point that selling out the ~3000 seat Cass Tech H.S. Stadium this season is a very real possibility. On top of that is the passionate, organic support that has drawn considerable attention to the club and has become well-known to many who follow soccer in America.
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Because of this success, more than a few people (supporters as well as outside observers) have raised the possibility of the club moving up to one of US Soccer’s professional divisions – USL PRO, NASL, or MLS. DCFC’s owners have repeatedly stated that the club is essentially a break-even enterprise and that they would not be able to finance a professional side, but let’s just pretend that money is not an issue and speculate for a bit.
Despite the best efforts of a number of local groups, it seems doubtful that Detroit will be getting an MLS franchise in the current round of expansion. There is an unrequited love between the MLS-to-Detroit backers and commissioner Don Garber, who to my knowledge has never spoken of Detroit as a serious expansion contender and appears to be looking mainly to Southern markets to award teams #22, 23, and 24. Disregarding all other factors (ownership and financing, stadium, entry fee), the opportunity for DCFC or another Detroit team to join MLS will probably not arise until the next round of expansion, if there is one (2020’s ?).
NASL (2nd Division):
For those hoping to see DCFC play at the professional level at some point in the near future, NASL may be the most realistic option. The league is expanding from 8 to 10 teams this year, adding an additional 3 in 2015, and looking for more.
Former commissioner David Downs (emphasis mine):
In general with expansion, we hope to have 18 to 20 teams by 2018. We’re looking to push farther out west and maybe a couple of cities in the Midwest. There are a number of top-25 markets in the United States that aren’t represented by a professional soccer team.
We believe it’s an obvious marriage to join the N.A.S.L., especially as the price is going up and the number of opportunities getting more and more limited to joining M.L.S. Not every market can afford to support a team at the level of economics of M.L.S. which at the moment is higher than ours.
The current commissioner, Bill Peterson, echoed those statements:
We look at a vision for 2018 with 18-20 teams by then, we see a mix of being in some of the larger metropolitan markets, maybe four to six out of 18 teams, and the rest of the league being in places like Carolina, Indianapolis, or wherever [Ed: mid-level markets]. It’s going to be a mix.
On the downside, joining the NASL would require DCFC to, among other things, secure much larger sources of funding than it currently enjoys, revamp its roster with paid professionals, and find/build a larger stadium with a regulation-sized field. None of these tasks are impossible, but each one is a potential roadblock.
USL PRO (3rd Division):
Due to the murky rules and regulations of lower-division American soccer, I haven’t been able to verify this, but the general consensus of the Detroit area soccer Twitterati is that Michigan Bucks owner Dan Duggan has exclusive rights to put a USL PRO franchise in Southeastern Michigan if he ever chooses to do so. This would exclude DCFC from playing in this division unless Mr. Duggan somehow became the owner of the club through an incredibly bizarre and unfortunate series of events. If this is false, then the same issues with jumping to the NASL would apply here as well. In addition to those, City would run the risk of becoming an MLS farm team thanks to the recently implemented partnership between the two leagues.
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For the time being, the NPSL will remain Detroit City’s home. For all of its drawbacks – different playoff formats across divisions, some clubs paying players while others do not, a “Throw it Against the Wall and See If it Sticks” expansion policy – the league provides excellent opportunities for 2000 players and helps spread the game to under-served areas of the country.
I’ve made my position clear: I’ve found my club and I’ll follow it wherever it goes, whether it remains in the NPSL forever or climbs the ladder up to a professional division. Whatever happens, my foremost concern is that we maintain the enjoyment and sense of belonging we currently experience on gamedays. I’d gladly take a season of 8 home games with a raucous atmosphere over one with 20 or 30 where standing and smokebombs are prohibited.
As the reputation and fanbase of DCFC continues to grow, it may eventually attract larger sponsors and investment. At that point, the most important issue will become the balancing of necessary business (marketing, prices, salaries, etc.) with what made the club a success in the first place: the name/crest/colors, the play on the field, the stadium atmosphere, and the feeling of community.