I’ve Been Published!

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As you may (or may not) be aware, I recently wrote a piece for STAND, a UK fanzine, and it’s just been published. Print copies are available HERE and digital copies are available HERE. A slightly “Britishized” version has been posted at The Set Pieces, and the full original text follows below.

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Summer In Detroit

By Andrew Goode

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

May 28th, 2016 marked the occurrence of one of the most significant matches in modern football history. I’m not speaking of the Champions League final. Indeed, now that the celebrations of Real Madrid’s 11th European Cup win have died down, their newest trophy will surely fade into the background with all the rest of them, just one more coin in their Scrooge McDuckian vault.

For those of us with an interest in grassroots, supporter-based football, the true match of the day took place thousands of miles from Milan, across the Atlantic in Hamtramck, Michigan. On a sweltering day in the small enclave located within the City of Detroit, FC United of Manchester made their first ever trip to the United States to meet Detroit City FC.

Dubbed “The Derby of the People” by prominent DCFC supporter Drew Gentry, the match was a showcase of two clubs built on the principles of community engagement, financial sustainability, and putting fans before profits. The 6245 people in attendance, including around 100 FCUM supporters who made the trip from England, Germany, and elsewhere, were treated to an back-and-forth, entertaining afternoon in which the home side equalized in second-half stoppage time to earn a 3-3 draw.

Do-It-Yourself FC

While the story of FC United is well-known to many who follow football – formed in protest to the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United and the subsequent runaway corporatization of the club, including exorbitant ticket pricing – Detroit City FC is a relative newcomer to the scene, and its location in a country perceived as a footballing backwater has only served to further obscure its rise.

DCFC has its origins in the Detroit City Futbol League, a co-ed recreational league in which each team is made up of players representing their particular neighborhood of residence in Detroit. The DCFL was founded by Sean Mann, and, after witnessing its rapid growth in participation and popularity, he and four other men who had become acquainted through the league decided to form a club to tap into the fervor.

Not only did they succeed, but that fervor grew and mutated into something wholly unanticipated, embodied by the club’s primary supporter group, the Northern Guard.

Degennaro
Degennaro

Competing in the de facto 4th tier of U.S. Soccer on a shoestring budget – Mann himself cut the grass before the club’s inaugural match using a beat-up riding mower purchased on Craigslist – average attendance at DCFC matches increased from around 1300 in 2012 (the club’s first season), to over 3500 in 2015. While the success answered most of the questions about the club’s sustainability, it created a new problem: consistent sellouts meant potential customers were being turned away at the gate. City had outgrown its cradle, Cass Tech High School Stadium, affectionately known as, “Estadio Casstecha,” and a new home would have to be found.

Concrete Diamond

After years of persistent rumors, Detroit City’s ownership decided to move the club to Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck for the 2016 season. A Depression-era stadium built as a WPA project, it opened in 1936 with a campaign speech from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later served as the site for a similar appearance by John F. Kennedy.

Given its age and the poor economic conditions that have plagued Detroit and many neighboring municipalities for decades, Keyworth had fallen into disrepair. The wooden benches were warped and broken, concrete was crumbling in many sections, and the field turf was long past its expiration date.

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Rather than lobby the local government for taxpayer money to fund the renovation project, DCFC’s owners launched a community investment campaign in October 2015, the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. They based it on newly-passed legislation that allowed individuals to make small-scale investments in local businesses and start-ups. Much different than simply donating money, investors would earn back their initial contribution plus interest over the course of several years; i.e. if someone invested $1000 they could expect a return of about $1300 when all was said and done.

In their New York Times bestselling Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the Nick Hornby model of fandom, in which a person falls in love with one club and supports it for their entire life, is largely a “fantasy.” While bandwagoners may be more common, I see the success of the Keyworth investment campaign as a counterpoint to this view. In just 3 ½ months, over $740,000 was raised to restore Keyworth to its former glory. An additional note of interest: Szymanski, a professor at the University of Michigan, was among the more than 500 individuals who made investments.

Double Down

This spring, with the necessary funds in hand and stadium renovations well under way, all focus should’ve been on the upcoming season, set to begin in early May with a first-round U.S. Open Cup match. Instead, Detroit City and its backers were blindsided on April 26th with the news that billionaire NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores were teaming up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit within the next 4-6 years.

While the announcement was welcomed by some, the vast majority of DCFC supporters were far more skeptical. The Northern Guard’s response (excerpt below) elucidated the major points of contention.

What we are completely against is getting pro soccer in Detroit at the expense of everything we’ve worked hard on creating over these last 4-5 years. Right now our team has been focusing on the Keyworth project and growing the interest in soccer across the state of Michigan, any plan involving a pro soccer team in Detroit, currently, does not include our beloved DCFC. Why bring in something new when we already have something amazing happening and growing here?

We do not want an outside ownership group coming in looking only to profit off of the supporters and who don’t give a damn about the community. We don’t want a taxpayer funded stadium in the heart of downtown that is going to require the destruction of historic buildings to complete. Right now the current Red Wings arena being built costs $627 MILLION and taxpayers are on the hook for $450 MILLION of it. We don’t see how large projects like this are good for the fans, the community, or the city. And we believe that kind of money is best spent elsewhere in the city.

We aren’t interested in joining a league that will use our image in multimillion dollar marketing campaigns but on the other side of it, ban our supporters for doing the very things they market. MLS has a history of being not supporter friendly, banning fans for up to a year for simply lighting a smoke bomb or throwing streamers.

To their credit, City supporters used the suddenly-bright media spotlight to raise awareness of their own club, which resulted in a noticeable increase in coverage of DCFC by local TV, newspapers, and radio. Thanks in part to the extra exposure, the home opener at Keyworth Stadium on May 20th was a standing-room only sellout, and the crowd of 7410 set a new U.S. record for attendance at a 4th tier league match.

Degennaro
Degennaro

Collision Course

With at least 4 years until a hypothetical MLS team begins play, Detroit City FC has a decent-sized window of opportunity to capture as many hearts and minds as possible. If its current growth trends continue and the Gilbert-Gores plan comes to fruition, a situation unique in the history of American football would arise. In no other instance has MLS attempted to plant a franchise in a city with a club as fervently-supported as DCFC. If they insist on doing so, the year 2020 may mark the next big showdown between American corporate and supporter-built football.

In the immediate future, though, the Northern Guard and fellow supporters will continue doing what they do best: creating a match atmosphere in which their Boys in Rouge thrive and opponents wilt. The battle against those who would stomp on their club in the name of business interests will continue, but for now there are more important things to do.

It’s another hot, humid summer in Detroit, and City season is here.

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Life After Death

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Photo by Jon DeBoer

Friday, July 1st, 2016 – Detroit City FC 0 Grand Rapids FC 0
Sunday, July 3rd, 2016 – Detroit City FC 3 AFC Ann Arbor 1

Photo by Jon DeBoer
Photo by Jon DeBoer

After Evan Louro’s heroics and Brett Nason’s successful penalty kick gave Detroit City its most significant victory in club history, the sky seemed the limit for 2016. Little by little, though, frustrating draws and humbling losses started piling up, dragging that initial elation all the way back down to earth, and giving even the most positive supporters a sinking feeling that chances for a playoff appearance had probably slipped away.

This season’s been, for lack of a better term, a slog. Every draw, except perhaps the home opener against Ann Arbor, has felt like a loss. City’s been bleeding points away while trying to keep pace with first and second-year upstarts shooting past them up the table.

One of the most frustrating things has been that while positive results have been difficult to come by, City’s played some of its best, most attractive soccer ever. The teams that played at Cass were mostly generic 4-4-2 long ball-launching outfits, necessitated by the narrow field and greatly aided by a string of strikers (Knox Cameron, Zach Myers, Will Mellors-Blair) who were adept at finishing their chances.

This year’s edition has evolved past that, featuring much more quick, short passing and a greater emphasis on maintaining possession. More specifically, much of the interchanging and combination play between Jeff Adkins, Danny Deakin, Cyrus Saydee, and Tommy Catalano has been beautiful to watch. And despite not having a true go-to striker, City has scored the most goals in its conference by a healthy margin.

In Friday’s rematch with Grand Rapids, they played with passion and resolve – the second half was arguably their best 45 minutes of the year – and it was baffling as to how they didn’t score a goal. The match was City’s 2016 in microcosm: high hopes, missed opportunities, unfulfilled promise.

After that result, weeks and weeks of “must-wins” gave way to a real, actual “MUST-WIN!!!”

Sunday is going to be mission impossible, half these guys are injured and dead; and now Ann Arbor is sitting with their feet up tonight, having a cocktail. Ben Pirmann, speaking to FTLOF after the draw with GRFC

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A little more than midway through the match at Ann Arbor, Detroit City’s 2016 season died. The time of death was 56 minutes and the cause was Willie Bayemi, his goal the result of heavy pressure and a misplay from Seb Harris deep in his own end.

It felt just like all the others. Like the Stars’ equalizer, like Ann Arbor’s PK at the home opener, like Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids and Lansing all over again. Blow after blow after blow, and this one had done us in for good. To top it off, right in front of the family and friends of the deceased, someone came to dance around the body while it was still warm.

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As the minutes ticked away and the gravity of the situation began to set in, the smallest man on the field picked up the defibrillator paddles and zapped life back into his club:

Like many of his teammates, Cyrus Saydee’s had a bit of an up-and-down season. He looked a little rusty at the beginning of the year, has elevated his play recently, but experienced a low point when his penalty kick against Grand Rapids was saved. To his credit, though, he fought through that setback and turned in a masterful performance on Sunday. His second goal, one of the more bizarre ones I’ve ever seen…

…sent the away support into absolute hysterics. The outburst of emotion wasn’t just the result of that particular set of events, but a release of all the frustration and angst that had slowly built up since City blew a 2-0 halftime lead at Michigan Stars on the opening night of the regular season.

A year ago, after the road win in Cincinnati, I wrote this:

One of the main reasons we watch sports is that, unless your team is utter trash, they can provide us with those precious moments of spontaneous joy. That’s why we subject ourselves to, for instance, driving through hours of highway construction and absurdly low speed limits with barely a sight to see. We know that at the end of the journey there’s a chance, however small, that we might see something special and feel THAT feeling once again.

So far this year, those moments of ecstasy have been few and far between, but Sunday gave us a hint that there still may be more to come.

Photo by Jon DeBoer
Photo by Jon DeBoer

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Quick Notes

(1) Saydee was the man of the match, but Cody Lang made at least two or three incredibly difficult saves to keep City in the game. Tyler Moorman started at right back and went head-to-head with Ann Arbor’s top player – Dario Suarez – and held him mostly in check. After a substitution, Moorman then moved up to striker and scored the winning goal off of a corner:

(2) With Danny Deakin headed back to South Carolina, Spiro Pliakos will play a major role down the stretch. He came on for an injured Jeff Adkins at Ann Arbor and filled in well. If Adkins isn’t healthy by Sunday, he should get the start.

(3) Speaking of Sunday, injuries and departures are beginning to take their toll on the roster. Along with Deakin and Adkins, Dave Edwardson will miss the Lansing match due to yellow card accumulation. Center midfield has become a thin spot, so it will be interesting to see who starts next to Troy Watson. If George Chomakov is able to go, he’s the logical choice.

(4) Playoff Scenarios: get a detailed breakdown HERE. The short version: win out, root for Grand Rapids to beat Ann Arbor.

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Iron Horse

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Photo by Michael Kitchen

Sunday, June 19th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 1 Kalamazoo FC 0

Photo by Michael Kitchen
Photo by Michael Kitchen

This past Saturday, roughly 24 hours before Detroit City was set to take on Kalamazoo in a must-win match, there was a short-lived but intense outcry from City supporters regarding the lineup of PLA side FC Carpathia.

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Just a day before the most crucial match of the season, City’s captain Dave Edwardson was starting for a lesser club in 90-plus degree weather. This led to many cocked eyebrows and even a few questioning his (and other players who play for clubs on the side) commitment to DCFC. This was obviously a bit of an overreaction*, born out of the frustration of a heretofore disappointing season, but even so, the timing of Edwardson’s side foray seemed a bit odd.

It turned out to be a non-issue partly because the man is a machine, probably distantly related to a locomotive, if not by blood then at least through marriage. The other part was that City played its most complete match of the season against Kalamazoo, dominating possession and putting forth a stifling defensive performance that was sorely needed.

While they only came away with the one goal, the sequence that led to it demonstrated the type of influence Dave Edwardson has on the team. After going hard into the sponsor boards by the supporter section, resulting in this nasty bruise…

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…he raised the game’s intensity and lit a fire under his team by putting in one of the crunchier tackles of the season.

With the combination of his injury, yellow card, and the very real possibility of a second yellow in the immediate future, he was subbed off in the 60th minute. The tone had been set, though, and City went ahead just two minutes later. They then finished out the day by allowing Kalamazoo next to nothing in the way of quality chances.

Following Josh Rogers’ retirement at the end of 2015, Edwardson seemed the likely choice to succeed him as captain, despite his admittedly less vocal personality. Through the ups and downs of 2016, he’s grown into his new role, and Sunday may have been his breakthrough moment. What the team showed in their win was a reflection of his attitude and intensity. There’s still much work to be done for them to even put themselves in contention for a playoff spot, but if they approach their remaining matches with the same urgency and resolve, nothing is out of their reach.

*Ben Pirmann further put the issue to bed with his post-match comments on Sunday.

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Quick Notes:

(1) Troy Watson started and was a major factor in tightening up the defense through midfield. As long as he’s healthy and has the energy, he should be starting every remaining match.

(2) Alex Isaevski was just cleared by doctors to resume play with no restrictions. Hopefully he can put in a few minutes against Dayton with an eye toward starting in the near future. His return offsets the loss of Billy Stevens, who returned home after completing his spring classes at UM. Once Isaevski gets back up to speed, the prospect of him combining down the left side with Jeff Adkins and Danny Deakin should give City supporters tingles.

(3) Speaking of the back line, it really looks like Seb Harris-Omar Sinclair is the best centerback pairing. Roll with ‘em from here on out.

(4) The search for a true go-to striker continues, with a possible surprise contender:

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I have no idea how likely this is, if at all, but if it came to fruition it would be very fun to see.

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The Age of Innocence

Friday, June 10th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 2 Grand Rapids FC 5
Sunday, June 12th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 2 Lansing United 2

Photo by Konrad Maziarz
Photo by Konrad Maziarz

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:

Taken from AFCAA because the NPSL hasn't updated the standings on its website. Par for the course.
Taken from AFCAA because the NPSL hasn’t updated the standings on its website. Par for the course.

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.

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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.

Maziarz
Maziarz

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CityBits ’16: Buffalo and Beyond

Friday, June 3rd, 2016 – Detroit City FC 2 FC Buffalo 1
Sunday, June 5th, 2016 – Detroit City FC 0 FC Buffalo 0

Photo by Dion Degennaro
Photo by Dion Degennaro

Rust Belt Derby is Detroit’s for the fourth consecutive year. If Cleveland’s childish owners continue to keep the RBD from returning to its original format by refusing to schedule friendlies against City, I move that their 2012 nameplate be removed from the trophy and cast into any random sewer grate. I await their response…

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…or maybe not.

On a different note, I’m particularly upset that Friday night’s game wasn’t streamed since it included the Goal of the Year so far: Tommy Catalano’s volley off of a cross from Cyrus Saydee. Speaking of goals:

Extremely Brief Midseason Review

Attack It hasn’t been terrible (7 goals in 4 league matches), but no striker has emerged as a go-to guy to this point. Javi Bautista may be the best bet moving forward; he had an excellent performance against FCUM, scoring a goal, and looks to finally be healthy after a few weeks on the bench. Also, Jordan Kalk made his first appearance of the season on Sunday at Buffalo. He gives the team another speedy, dangerous option up top.

The most consistent attacking threats have been Jeff Adkins and Alec Lasinski, who’s following Troy Watson’s 2015 path of “come out of nowhere, play a lot, and look good doing it.”

Defense Solid in the run of play, shaky on set pieces. Seb Harris has been having his best season with City, Omar Sinclair has quietly become a rock solid centerback, and Matt Nance has returned from injury to bolster the fullback depth. The biggest problems have come on corners and crosses, which will need to be ironed out if the team is to make the playoffs, much less make a deep run.

A good amount of responsibility for these plays falls on the goalkeepers. Nate Steinwascher is the clear-cut #1 until Cody Lang shows up, and maybe even afterwards. Joe Smith and Robbie Beckwell have gotten ample playing time in the recent friendlies, and it’s evident that neither are quite ready to step into the starting role for City this early in their careers.

The Road Ahead Tricky but navigable. The table currently looks like this:

Source: FTLOF
Source: FTLOF

This weekend is the most important two-game set of the season. It includes the longest remaining road trip on a day and time which could seriously affect player availability (Grand Rapids, 7:45 pm, Friday) and a home match against Lansing, always a difficult opponent.

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From there, the next two weekends look much easier – home against Kalamazoo on the 19th and home again on the 25th to face Dayton. Anything less than six points here would be a big disappointment.

City might not have to run the table to finish in the top 2, but they’ve given themselves plenty of work to do over the next month and change. With the Open Cup and Keyworth’s re-opening behind them, there are no reasons for their total focus to be anywhere but the Great Lakes West. Unless something wild happens, I don’t see the conference being decided until the very last weekend of the season. Every team besides Dayton looks to have at least a reasonable shot at making the playoffs, and with their depth of talent, I still fully expect City to be one of them.

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