Friday, June 10th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 2 Grand Rapids FC 5
Sunday, June 12th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 2 Lansing United 2
The events of this past weekend marked the close of the initial carefree, happy-go-lucky period of Detroit City FC’s existence. It officially ended at about the time Grand Rapids hit City on the break and slotted home goal number five, capping the worst performance in club history. That the honeymoon lasted over four years is an accomplishment in and of itself, but good times alone cannot sustain DCFC if it wishes to compete at a professional level in the near future, much less with a potential MLS intruder.
In past seasons, short strings of losses and/or lackluster performances were always quickly snuffed out by renewed resilience, often immediately. The early hiccups of 2016, however (the 2-0 lead surrendered at Michigan Stars and the 2 second half goals given up to last-place Dayton), turned out to be symptoms of a more serious affliction.
City’s defense this season, to be blunt, has been atrocious, and I don’t think that’s too harsh a term. The numbers don’t lie:
Most goals allowed in the conference, more than double the number given up by each of the top three teams in the current table.
I make it a point to never call out individual players for poor performances since they are all amateurs and many of them have careers and families that take precedence over DCFC. That won’t change here because the thing is, I can’t point to any individual(s) as the main culprit in City’s defensive failings. When focused on, nobody stands out as particularly bad; I think the problem is team defending as a whole. Most of the goals allowed this season have come off of set pieces and simple crosses. The problem’s gotten so bad that every time an opposing player sends a ball into our box, I expect it to result in a goal, or at least a quality scoring opportunity (and I doubt that I’m alone).
In my opinion, what’s most exacerbated the struggles has been the constant shuffling and mixing of lineups, particularly the back line. In City’s best season to date – 2013 – the starting defense hardly ever changed.
Those four played together game-in, game-out, with minimal rotation, even on two-match weekends. Essentially, I don’t think the current lineup has been consistent enough to allow for enough building of chemistry and cohesion. In the early part of the season, with so many matches crammed together, heavy rotation was understandable, but now it’s cause for concern. On paper this is the most talented team Ben Pirmann has ever put together, but aside from the two U.S. Open Cup matches, they’ve looked disjointed and incomplete.
The situation hasn’t been helped by the revolving door at goalkeeper. While Cody Lang was likely the best option available on Friday in Grand Rapids, the decision to start him mere hours after his cross-country flight from Seattle to Detroit was unfair to him. Worse yet, with the way the team played in front of him, it probably wouldn’t have mattered who started in goal.
Tactical quibbling aside, better results are essential, not just for City’s playoff chances, but for the club’s continued growth. The hardcore supporters will never leave, but it gets harder and harder to attract new fans with a mediocre on-field product.
The last couple years have seen a shift in fan mentality. Expectations have slowly crept upward and dissatisfaction at poor results has become more prevalent. These aren’t necessarily bad things – they show that the club is making the transition from cute, fun novelty to a legitimate mainstream sports team where wins and losses supersede all else. One can argue over the desirability of such a shift, but as a product of growth it remains.
Whether deserved or not, Detroit City has earned a reputation as an underachiever:
2012: Loss at home to Erie in final regular season match that would’ve clinched first place in the division; 1st round playoff loss to Cleveland.
2013: Loss at home to Erie in Great Lakes Playoff final
2014: Draw at Lansing in final regular season match which prevented City from making the playoffs
2015: Loss to Erie in final regular season home match, ruining City’s chance of hosting the playoffs; 1st round playoff loss to Cleveland
The frustration of this past weekend wasn’t due to the bombing from GRFC or the two surrendered leads to Lansing; it was the expression of angst that’s been building up for years – the result of unfulfilled potential and a string of what-ifs. Supporters’ naïve optimism has given way to a pessimism more familiar to a fan of Detroit’s four other major sports teams.
The positive is that the ink is not yet dry on the story of the 2016 season. Zooming out to get a wider view, fully half of the regular season still remains, and the playoff picture is far from decided. The next two weekends give City ample opportunity to get back on track – one game per weekend, both at home, both against very beatable opponents (Kalamazoo this Sunday, Dayton on the 25th).
Wins in those matches would set up a pivotal Fourth of July weekend with matchups against the top two current teams in the conference – Grand Rapids (home) and Ann Arbor (away). A hot second half and a deep playoff run would singlehandedly change the narrative built by any recent misfortunes.
Given what’s been shown so far, none of these things can be considered foregone conclusions, but all are doable. To drag out an old but apropos cliché, every crisis also presents an opportunity, and City’s current situation is no different. One age has ended, another can now begin.