Note: I wrote this piece to be published on another site, but that fell through. Since it covers basically everything I intended to include in my annual State of the Club, I’m posting it here now.
The first five years of Detroit City FC’s existence were defined by rapid growth, not only in the club’s popularity, but in match attendance and revenue as well. The greater City’s reputation has become, the more speculation has arisen over its potential jump to a professional league. With the struggles of the NASL and the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision concerning Division II league sanctioning, that speculation has only intensified.
Up until the league’s recent brush with death, I’d preferred the NASL as Detroit City’s destination if and when the time came for the club to move up to the pro level. There was a lot to like about the league, namely its hands-off approach to its member clubs, which stands in stark contrast to the tightly-controlled single-entity model of MLS. In my view a jump to the NASL represented a happy medium in that City would be able to compete at a higher tier and raise its profile, and at the same time maintain the culture and identity that made the club special in the first place.
In light of the events of the past two months, though, I’ve changed my position. NASL’s instability, demonstrated primarily by the near collapse of its flagship franchise, the New York Cosmos, as well as the exodus or uncertain future of several other clubs, makes it clear to me that the league should no longer be seriously considered in Detroit City’s future plans. Despite rumors coming out of the NASL meetings in December that Detroit was in advanced talks to join the league beginning in 2018, DCFC co-owner Sean Mann denied any involvement other than some general discussions. Thanks to the USSF’s January 7th decision not to revoke NASL’s Division II sanctioning, the league may be able to stabilize and recover, but in the short-term it appears to be too risky an option for an up-and-coming club to join.
The other result of that January 7th meeting was the conferring of Division II status on USL, allowing it to move up from its de facto Division III position to become essentially equal to NASL. While USL’s reputation has grown in recent years thanks to the great success of clubs such as Sacramento and Cincinnati, the major sticking point for me and many other Detroit City supporters is that the inclusion of MLS reserve sides and affiliates in the league gives it a distinct “minor league”/“little brother of MLS” type of feel. Were a true MLS reserve league to form and allow the independent USL clubs to split into a separate division, that would make it a much more attractive option for City, but until then it’s difficult to see supporters showing much interest in USL as currently constituted.
For all the talk of the pros and cons of one league versus another and rumors of negotiations and back-room dealing, the bottom line is that, as of this moment, Detroit City does not have the financial backing to become a fully professional club. This isn’t a NY Cosmos-type situation in which the club is hemorrhaging money – far from it. USSF League Standards dictate that all Division II clubs must have a principal owner (with a controlling interest of at least 35%) with an individual net worth of at least $20 million. As DCFC lacks such an individual, that puts both NASL and USL out of reach at present.
I haven’t even brought up MLS as a possibility because, as most readers of this blog would know, the price tag simply to gain entry to the league is exorbitantly expensive (and likely to become even more so). Furthermore, as you may have heard, many Detroit City supporters don’t exactly have a very favorable view of MLS to begin with.
So what’s next? Where does DCFC go from here? To put it succinctly, there’s still plenty for the club to achieve at its current level, both on and off the field. Last year’s community investment program to restore Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck was a massive success with over $740,000 raised. But for all the renovations and massive improvements made in the 80-year-old ground, there is still plenty of work to be done. Namely, the east stand is still only about half complete, brighter and more powerful lights are needed, and the field is in dire need of replacement.
While the 2016 season began with a thrilling win over the Michigan Bucks, Detroit City’s first ever U.S. Open Cup victory, the league campaign fizzled to a disappointing 4-4-4 record. For all of City’s triumphs, the one thing that’s consistently eluded them is success in the regional playoffs (I’d include national playoffs but the club is yet to make it that far). With failure to qualify for this year’s Open Cup, NPSL Midwest and National titles are the sole pursuits for 2017.
Beyond this year, anything is possible. If City remains true to its commitments to community enrichment, fiscal responsibility, and providing the best matchday experience around, its growth will continue much as it has since the club’s inception in 2012. Such growth may eventually make a pro jump inevitable, maybe even by the end of the decade, but retaining amateur status seems to be the prudent course for now.