Fourth Division, USA

Note: I wrote this piece and entered it in the WSC amateur writers’ competition in May. The results are in and… I didn’t win. First place was an article about diving. Yes, really. Guess I’ll try again next year.

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Fourth Division, USA

It’s a cool, damp spring evening in Livonia, Michigan, and the last bit of light has just left the sky. Detroit City FC, making their US Open Cup debut against Chicago’s RWB Adria, have controlled play in the second half, leveling the score at 1-1, and have just won a corner. As it’s taken, the ball sails toward the back post against a backdrop of dark, ominous-looking clouds. It finds the head of City midfielder Kevin Taylor, a 6’5”, dreadlocked beanpole, who heads it back across goal and in. Unbeknownst to Taylor, he has just broken the USOC record for longest period between goals in the competition – his last coming in 2003 as a 20-year-old. In this instant, however, the only thing on his mind is sprinting over to the stand where the City supporters have erupted in celebration. Their numbers (around 750 in total) are much smaller than usual, this being a neutral venue on a Wednesday night, but they have made up for it with their typical incessant noise.

The rest of the game goes Adria’s way – they win on penalties following an equalizer in stoppage-time off of a goalmouth scramble and a roller-coaster extra-time session complete with multiple red cards, blown chances for both sides, and a slew of questionable offside calls. Those who have shown up to support Detroit leave disappointed, but not disheartened. Just two years prior, they didn’t even have a club of their own.

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The origins of Detroit City Football Club are about as humble as it gets – no oil money, TV revenue, or big-name backing went into the venture. Rather, the club was founded by five young professionals – all residents of the city – who each chipped in a few thousand dollars for the initial operating costs and the NPSL expansion fee (in the U.S., the structure goes: MLS > NASL > USL Pro > NPSL).

In a rapidly changing culture in which cheesy nicknames (Kickers, Strikers, etc.) and crests featuring cartoon soccer balls are still far too common, the owners’ next steps were masterful. They first chose a simple name, Detroit City FC, and a nickname – Le Rouge – which paid homage to the city’s French roots. Then, using the official team colors of rouge and gold and incorporating The Spirit of Detroit, an iconic downtown statue, they created arguably one of the best crests in all of American soccer.

DCFC

Finally, for sponsorship, they eschewed the traditional route of seeking the interest of a large corporation, opting instead to have each player sponsored by an independently-run local business – among them a bicycle shop, a tea company, and a recycling service.

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In May of this year, Detroit City opened its third regular season at home (Cass Technical High School, affectionately nicknamed, “Estadio Casstecha”) with a 1-0 win over Cincinnati before a crowd of 2147. This was more than double the attendance of the club’s inaugural game in 2012, and was a testament to its growing popularity in the region. Although Detroit is the largest American city without a professional club, it has long been neglected by MLS. City’s owners sought to fill this vacuum and, though the club operates at the amateur level, the response it has generated has been significant.

The largest and most well-known supporters’ group, the Northern Guard, thrives on Detroit’s gritty, beaten-down image and underdog status. Their official anthem is Dirty Old Town, and the skull and crossbones feature prominently on their flags, shirts, and masks. In an interview with World Football Supporter News[i], co-founder Ken Butcher explained the symbolism:

“We wore face masks that looked like skulls because we kept hearing that the City of Detroit was dead. Well if we are dead, then we were gonna be the walking dead.”

Keeping with the theme is the Guard’s chief capo, an energetic, cleverly-profane, quick-witted man known as Sergeant Scary. From the center of the supporters’ section, he conducts his orchestra in their 90-minute symphonies of smoke, drums, and songs, including the wonderfully-inappropriate Detroit Alouette.

Whereas the ultimate goal of many lower-division supporters in the U.S. is to get their club “promoted” to MLS via large-scale financial investment, the vast majority of the Northern Guard want no part of this. They are fiercely loyal to City and see a potential move up to the top division as a threat to the vibrant small-club culture they’ve helped to create. Speaking to The Detroit News[ii], Sergeant Scary had this to say:

“You have to remain dedicated to the club. You fall in love with the team. You don’t fall in love with the league. I take a bullet for this team. I take a bullet for these people. I text the owner. I text players. You can’t get that with the pros. I feel that soccer people are more passionate because they have a connection with the club. Why would I give that up?”

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The fantastic level of support is what has made Detroit City widely-known to followers of the American game, but it’s the team’s on-field play that has established them as a league power. In 2012, they finished runners-up in the NPSL Midwest Division, and in 2013, they went 11-1-0 before falling in the Divisional Playoffs.

The bulk of the team is made up of current college players with some recent graduates and a few older veterans. Among the standouts are captain Josh Rogers – average-sized but tireless and positionally excellent in central defense, midfielder Cyrus Saydee – just five and a half feet tall, but the most technically proficient on the team, and Zach Myers, a lanky blond striker with a knack for turning up in the right spots to score goals.

Thanks to increased recognition and its successful play, City has become an attractive option for top local talent. In just two-plus years of existence, three of its former players have been drafted into MLS.

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Just prior to the submission of this piece, on a clear and mild night in downtown Detroit, City hosted Lansing United. It was an ugly, scrappy game, won 1-0 on a Rogers penalty, but the noise and spectacle were greater than ever due to the more than 3100 who showed up – the first sell-out in club history.

In the modern age of sterile, over-corporatized sports, in which fans are regularly treated as piggy banks to be smashed, it’s liberating to attend events like this – they’re affordable, exciting, just plain fun.

Detroit City FC’s growing reputation may result in more lucrative sponsorship deals, may attract prospective owners looking to buy out the original five, and may draw the attention of the NASL and/or MLS when they next look to expand. At this moment, though, none of that matters to the people who come to Cass to support their club. What’s important to them is the pure enjoyment they experience at the games, the sense of belonging, and the community they’ve built.

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[i] http://worldfootballsupporternews.co/2014/01/20/northern-guard-supporters-we-wore-face-masks-that-looked-like-skulls-because-we-kept-hearing-that-the-city-of-detroit-was-dead-well-if-we-are-dead-than-we-were-gonna-be-the-walking-dead/

[ii] http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140519/SPORTS07/305190008/0/SPORTS07/Avid-fan-base-embraces-Detroit-City-FC-one-its-own

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