Storytelling 101

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017 – Detroit City FC FC 2 FC Indiana 0
Friday, June 29th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 3 Michigan Stars 1

Photo by Dion Degennaro

The most compelling stories are those in which the characters grow and develop, ending up as different people than when you first encountered them. In years past, Detroit City’s play was fairly constant from the beginning of the season to the end. For example, in 2013 they started off hot and stayed that way until an abrupt playoff exit, and in 2016 they were never really able to shake off a sluggish start, finishing with a 1-1-2 record in the month of July.

That 2016 season began with six matches over the course of twelve days, two of them 120 minute + penalty affairs in the U.S. Open Cup. By winning just one of their four league matches in that stretch, City wound up in a hole from which they were unable to dig themselves out.

Fast-forwarding to the present, four matches in eight days is a similarly brutal gauntlet, no matter who the competition is. In anaylzing this part of the schedule at the beginning of the season, 8 or 9 points seemed like a good outcome, but taking all 12 is a fantastic result. Ben Pirmann’s roster management and rotation was flawless, especially taking into account the injuries and departures of key players such as Louis Dargent, Aaron Franco, and Spencer Glass.

2017 has been a tumultuous season, but clearly one of improvement. Early on City looked confused and unsure of themselves and at the end of May they were looking up at nearly everyone:

Beginning with the Glentoran friendly, though, the team seemed to come together and good things started happening. They now look hungry, determined, and unflappable. Goals conceded are no longer confidence-shattering disasters but opportunities to re-focus and respond with renewed intensity. The emergence of the lethal Lawson/Rice/Mondi/Saydee attack may get the most attention, but it’s the scrappy ball-winning in midfield and the dogged defense that have really turned the season around. By fighting and clawing their way to an undefeated June, City has pulled itself from 13 points back from 1st place to just 2.

Dynamic characters can be memorable, but they don’t become truly legendary in a vacuum; they must first overcome an antagonist. And who better to play that role than the only club to have beaten City this year, AFC Ann Arbor? Friday will be the biggest league match since Lansing came to Cass in 2015, hopefully with a similar result. Fittingly, a home-and-home with United looms to complete the arc.

We often criticize the NPSL schedule makers for weird start times or cramming too many fixtures into too small a window (Exhibit A: This past week), but here they’ve done a great job. Wittingly or not, the final two weeks will be laden with drama. A thrilling season now reaches its climax.

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Dumb, Stupid, Awesome Fun

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Photo by Michael Kitchen

Friday, June 23rd, 2017 – Detroit City FC FC 2 Kalamazoo FC 1
Sunday, June 25rd, 2017 – Milwaukee Torrent 1 Detroit City FC 2

Photo by Michael Kitchen

As I write this I’m still recovering from Sunday-Monday’s 21 hour round-trip to Milwaukee. Being awake for one full day doesn’t just happen naturally – it’s something you have to make a conscious effort to do. And then, trying to explain it to someone who’s not in-the-know can be almost just as draining. I’ve written this post as a handy reference that I, or anyone else, can use the next time such an explanation is required.

Let’s start off with the basic question one would ask: Why would you spend an entire day (or more) and travel hundreds of miles to watch an amateur soccer team?

Reason #1: Chasing Moments

I’ve talked about this in some past posts, but the Cliffs Notes* version is that we go because we crave seeing moments of greatness live and in person. It’s one thing to watch it happen on a stream or as a video highlight, but seeing the buildup, payoff, and aftermath with your own eyes is far superior.

Reason #2: The Overall Experience

Aside from the actual soccer, the experience of traveling to new places while making friends and memories along the way is a reward in and of itself. I can’t help but shake my head when I see people who refuse to give DCFC a chance because it’s “beneath them” and who will only be satisfied by an MLS club. They’re sitting around waiting for something that may never even happen and missing out on potential lifelong relationships and memories in the process. For me personally, one of the worst feelings is that life is passing me by and I’m stuck on the proverbial hamster wheel. This happens more often than I’d like, but I know a sure way to get out of the rut is to break up the usual routine with a road trip. A little sleep deprivation is a small price to pay. It also means a great deal to the ones actualy playing on the field:

Reason #3: Sheer Ridiculousness and Laughable Absurdity

Home matches and in-state road trips have their share of weird, crazy moments, but nothing compares to what happens when state lines are crossed. From DCFC owners tossing beers over the fence to supporters at Cleveland (2012), to the high school-aged official/firetrucks/angry mom (Minn. Utd./Cincinnati/Fort Pitt – 2015), to being threatened with arrest by a toothless man – Indiana, three weeks ago, hilarity is somehow amplified outside of Michigan. It’s these little dashes of spice that add to already memorable trips and make them go down into legend.

The bus ride to and from Milwaukee was its own continuous stream of nonsensical amusement, but if I had to pick one out from the match itself it would have to be this guy:

He just showed up to do his weekly sprint workout and had no idea what was going on at the stadium that day, or even that a soccer team played in his town.

Bigger leagues may be more prestigious, they may have world-class players, and their games may be on TV, but I don’t care. I’ll take 13 hours on a bus, 3 points, and confused workout dudes.

Photo by Michael Kitchen

*I always thought it was “Cliff Notes”, not “Cliffs Notes.” Mandela Effect?

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The Anatomy of a Turnaround

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Photo by Dion Degennaro
Photo by Dion Degennaro

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how an improved midfield was helping correct the course of Detroit City’s season after a disappointing start. Since then the other position groups have shown similar growth and City has now gone an entire month without losing or drawing a match. This is a much different team than the one that was handled by Ann Arbor on May 21st, and what began as a couple of promising results has developed into a definite trend. A playoff berth now looks like a very real possibility and in my mind there are three clear reasons why.

Defensive Cohesion The biggest problem with last year’s team (and the current one up until late May) was the shaky defense. During the current 4-match league winning streak, City has allowed just 2 goals. The main cause of this lockdown has to be the emergence of an undisputed first-choice back four: Spencer Glass – Zach Bock – Stephen Carroll – Omar Sinclair. In dramatically slashing the number of goals allowed and consistently limiting the opposition to around two or three quality chances per match, this group is reminiscent of the 2013 lineup of Zach Schewee – Josh Rogers – Nick Lewin – Zeke Harris that helped bring the club its greatest playoff success.

Not to be lost in the shuffle, having a #1, every-match-starter at goalkeeper in Colin Miller has also had a massive positive effect on the team’s defensive play. His communication and command of his area are underrated aspects of his game and have undoubtedly helped the defenders in front of him. Having a quality backup hasn’t hurt, either.

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To Live Forever

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Sunday, June 11th, 2017 – Kalamazoo FC 0 Detroit City FC 1

Photo by Dion Degennaro

On Sunday afternoon I played a rec-league soccer game in surface-of-Venus-esque heat. It went very poorly, both for me individually and my team collectively. After the final whistle, coated in a wonderful mixture of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt, I immediately hopped in my car and drove to Kalamazoo, making it there just prior to kickoff.

I don’t tell you this to show off my purity and virtue as a supporter (okay, maybe just a teeny bit), but to paint a picture of my peculiar mental state. I’m slightly obsessed with soccer, and though I wish I could say it’s a completely healthy obsession, the fact that I risked potential dehydration, heat illness, and wicked sunburn says otherwise.

So why did I do it? Why do any of us go to such lengths for this club? Is it because soccer fans are freakin’ nuts? Partially. Is it because City supporters have become sort of an extended family centered around something that gives us pride in our community? That’s a big reason, but I think there’s another – something more fundamental that we’re not fully aware of until we stop to consider it.

In a piece earlier this year, Sean Spence wrote the following, a message from supporters to players:

All we ask is everything you’ve got… All we offer is adulation and a certain kind of immortality.

At a base, subconscious level, I believe we follow City home and away to bear witness to the moments that result in immortalization – the things we talk about years after the fact, those little details that become pieces of lore. We’re junkies for the extraordinary and the absurd.

While the win over Kalamazoo didn’t produce a Firetruck or Lansing-breaking moment, it provided further evidence of a team that is coming together and looking ever more dangerous. Scoring a highlight-reel goal or faking out a local municipal service are both legitimate ways to be remembered, but so is working your tail off for the full match in rec-player-wilting conditions – the proverbial 90’ in 90°.

String a few more of those together and your name just may go down in history.

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NISA: Initial Thoughts

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For those who haven’t heard, there’s a new pro league on the block. The National Independent Soccer Association – NISA – will begin play in the spring of 2018 with an initial number of 8-10 teams. Although it’s not yet confirmed, there’s the very strong possibility that Detroit City will be one of them. We won’t know for sure until after this season, but operating under the assumption that City will be making the jump, here are my first takes:

(1) I think choosing the NISA over USL or NASL is the best-case-scenario for the club. The fee to join will be much lower and, as a charter member, they’ll have a hand in shaping the league from the ground-up, rather than having to navigate the established rules and regulations of the second division leagues.

(2) Since the goal is for the NISA to be fully compliant with USSF’s D-3 standards, the requirement for D-3 clubs to have an owner with a net worth of at least $10 million who controls at least 35% of the club must be considered. While City ownership is undoubtedly working on this (and may have it sorted out behind the scenes for all we know), it’s just one more thing to think about.

(3) One thing I haven’t seen much about is how the current players and coaches will be affected. Obviously, those with college eligibility remaining would not be on the roster next season unless they left school early. As for the post-college and soon-to-be post-college players, the rest of this season could take on another level of significance as a sort of extended tryout for next year. The same can also be said for any of the coaching staff who have aspirations beyond college soccer. In any case, a high amount of turnover is likely this fall and winter as tough decisions will be made all around.

(4) No details on a salary cap or player movement rules yet, but I’ll be watching very closely for any news. From what I’ve read, I’m hopeful the structure will be similar to NASL – no cap, players owned by the clubs rather than the league (as in MLS), true free agency, etc. It will also be interesting to see if the NPSL side will be maintained as a de facto reserve/youth team.