The Middle Way

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Friday, June 2nd, 2017 – Detroit City FC 3 Grand Rapids FC 1
Sunday, June 4th, 2017 – FC Indiana 1 Detroit City FC 3

Photo by Dion Degennaro

Just two weeks ago, Detroit City was reeling after a humbling 2-0 loss to Ann Arbor. The 0-2-1 (W-D-L) start obviously wasn’t fun, but what made it even worse was that the performances simply felt like a continuation of last season’s lackluster play – one disappointing season bleeding over into another. While there appeared to be plenty of talent on the roster, it took until this past weekend for it to finally start shining through. There’s been noticeable improvement in several areas, but what’s stood out most is the revamped midfield. Three players in particular have caught my eye, all of whom have just recently made their debuts.

Tyrone Mondi

Degennaro

In this year’s season preview I wrote the following about Mondi:

He’s kind of like like a mystery box – inside it could turn out to be a cool remote-controlled helicopter, or he could be just a jar of Play-Doh. If he’s closer to the former, it could help elevate City’s attack from good/very good to outstanding.

Early returns point toward helicopter – an attack helicopter with twin .50-cals and laser-guided rockets. Aside from his deceptive speed and skill on the ball, what’s most impressive is how in sync with his teammates he looks after after such a short time. He recorded an assist in each of his first two starts this weekend and combined well with Cyrus Saydee and Spencer Glass in the final third to consistently create chances. In spite of his newness to the team and the number of other quality players at the winger position he looks to have carved out a starting role for himself. He should remain there as City moves into the middle part of league play.

Louis Dargent

Photo by Robert Sherman

When Louis Dargent was added to the roster just before the season, I incorrectly assumed he’d be a depth player – someone to fill in as needed and see time as a defensive specialist due to his height and heading ability. I was clearly wrong in this regard* and I’m perfectly happy to admit it.

He’s turned out to be a revelation at center midfield. In addition to his aforementioned aerial ability, he’s surprisingly technical and good with the ball at his feet for someone his size (6’4”). Not only is he defensively sound and good at winning the ball, he’s shown that he’s also an asset going forward:

Like Mondi, Dargent has cemented his place as a key player and automatic starter. I don’t know what the story is with Coastal Carolina, but in supplying City with both Dargent and Kervin Kenton, it’s proven itself as a gold mine for under-the-radar talent.

*In my defense there’s next to nothing about him on the Internet, other than his college bio and a Top Drawer Soccer page.

Aaron Franco

Sherman

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a City player become a team leader in such a short time as Aaron Franco. Case in point, when Dave Edwardson was subbed out on Sunday against Indiana, it was none other than Franco who received the captain’s armband. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who was playing in just his second league match with the club and third overall.

He may not stand out as much as the playmaker Mondi or the towering redhead Dargent, but what Franco does is just as important to the team’s success. By sitting in the spot between the centerbacks and the rest of the midfield, he’s able to gather the ball and distribute it forward, greatly aiding City’s ability to play out of the back. It was subtle but noticeable that the team was less reliant on long balls this weekend, and a lot of that had to do with his style of play.

Oh, and by the way, Cyrus Saydee, Bakie Goodman, Jeff Adkins, and Dave Edwardson (among others) are still here too. This has the makings of the best midfield in club history, and whatever success City experiences this summer will be due in no small way to this group.

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The Game Above All

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Saturday, May 27th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 1 Glentoran FC 0

Photo by Dion Degennaro

First, a confession. When the friendly with Glentoran was accounced this past winter, it felt a little underwhelming to me. Part of it was I didn’t think anything could top last year’s epic meeting with FC United of Manchester, but it was also because I’d been holding out hope for a bigger, sexier name – possibly a German club such as Union Berlin or maybe even St. Pauli.

As I learned more about Glentoran and the club’s ties to Detroit, though, my stance softened and my interest level grew. Listening to some of the traveling supporters on Saturday, what stood out were the parallels between their city and ours. Both large industrial centers, Belfast specialized in shipbuilding at the same time Detroit was cranking out automobiles. And just a couple years after the ’67 riots here (which occurred a matter of weeks after the conclusion of Glentoran’s first summer as the Detroit Cougars), Belfast began its own period of violence and upheaval.

When a Glentoran supporter explained his club’s motto to me, I thought it epitomized the spirit of the occasion. le jeu avant tou is French for “the game above all,” and Saturday’s match was the embodiment of that sentiment. From the play on the field to the beautiful post-match exchanges between all the players and supporters, this was a true friendly in every sense of the word.

In the setting of Keyworth Stadium, the return of two of the original players from the Cougars and the glorious tribute jerseys made this a celebration of the game in our city and its links to the past. If it’s true that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, then there must be a corollary: Those who remember their history have the privilege of reliving the best of it.

BIR Bullets

(1) Tyler Moorman made his first appearance of the season at forward and looked pleasingly-dangerous. Friendly caveats apply, but he made some good attacking runs, drew the penalty (Side Note: When was the last time we converted one of these? Josh Rogers?), and stuck with the play to score the late-match winner.

He deserves to see plenty of playing time starting this weekend.

(2) Reinforcements. Also seeing their first real action of the season were Omar Sinclair, Aaron Franco, Tyrone Mondi, and Mauricio Castorino (late sub at Ann Arbor). All four had solid performances highlighted by one or two moments of excellence. Despite reported injuries to Zach Schewee and Troy Watson, there are still plenty of quality options at every position. Time to figure out the right combinations is running short, though. This weekend – home against Grand Rapids on Friday, away to Indiana on Sunday – is pivotal.

(3) The announced attendance of 5067 was an absolute joke. I know it’s extremely difficult or next to impossible to get a precise count on the number of people, but with the west stand nearly full and a newly-renovated part of the supporter section now open, the real attendance was probably somewhere between 6000 and 6500. There were one or two similarly head-scratching numbers last year, and this one has gotten me to wondering if it’s even worth doing my annual attendance analysis at the end of the season. If I do I might add in my own estimates for the matches where the number seems particularly off.

Mental Warfare

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Photo by Michael Kitchen

Sunday, May 21st, 2017 – AFC Ann Arbor 2 Detroit City FC 0

Photo by Michael Kitchen

A lot of my recent reading has centered around the subject of mindset. The basic theory is that your thoughts and attitudes shape your actions and that making small changes to the way you think can have a tangible impact on the outcomes in your life. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz and posits the view that each person at all times has the ability to control of his or her own attitude, regardless of external influences. He observed that, in general, those who attempted to maintain at least a tiny shred of a positive outlook had a higher survival rate than those who gave into nihilism and despair.

It goes without saying that the horrors of a death camp are in an entirely different universe than the week-to-week challenges of a sports team, but the same principles uncovered by Frankl in that waking nightmare can be applied by any person in any difficult situation, no matter how trivial.

Two weeks into this season we’ve already pored over dozens of possible changes to City’s lineup and tactics in an attempt to get some grasp of what’s going wrong and how the team can get back on track. Last week I talked about the need for each individual player to become more part of a cohesive unit, but something else struck me when I watched Sunday’s match play out as so many have in recent memory: the divergent mindsets between City and its opponents.

DCFC’s reputation as a big lower-division club was built over the years as it stacked up wins at Cass Tech and its outsized support turned the place into a cauldron that caused visiting players to visibly lose their composure. Consequently, every single opposing team now comes to the match with their very best in the hopes of knocking City from its perch. This is why their players celebrate goals exclusively in front of the Northern Guard rather than their own fans. That giant-killing mentality seems to fuel each and every one of them.

It’s not a controversial statement, however, to say that City hasn’t played like giants of late, at least not since the Open Cup run of a year ago. On paper the talent is there, but something is just off. They look tight, afraid of making mistakes. Dealing with adversity has been a problem too. In each match this season they’ve come out and looked like the better team for the first 30-50 minutes, but when the other team makes adjustments and a couple things go against them they seem to get a little lost. This in turn noticeably affects their playing style as short passes are eschewed in favor of long balls, challenges become more reckless, and on the whole things just look generally panicked and hurried.

If I’m right and the team mindset isn’t where it should be, it’s up to the coaching staff and the leaders amongst the players to reframe things. If I can offer one suggestion it would be to co-opt the strategy from the teams they’ve struggled with: view yourself as the underdog going up against the big bad bullies that need to be knocked down a peg.

Practically speaking, do the things that frustrate you when they’re done to you: get in the way of crosses and shots, work hard in the midfield to win the ball and make smart passes to keep it away from the other team once you get it, make runs at the back line, pressure the defenders and keeper when they have the ball.

The mental aspect of the game is often discussed, but I think it’s more important than most people realize. We’ve all heard the stories of visiting teams standing in the tunnel at Cass, already shaken by the atmosphere. They’d lost before even setting foot on the field because their heads weren’t in the right place.

Mastering one’s state of mind is just as challenging as any on-field feat, and can have just as significant of an impact on the outcome.

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BIR Film Study: 2017 Week 1

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With actual video of most matches now available, thanks to DCFC and Nick Miko, I’m going to try something I’ve wanted to do for a while – pick a few key moments from the previous weekend’s match(es) and offer my humble opinion on what worked or what needs to be fixed. Note: I’m not a coach or professional analyst, so if your takes differ from mine I’d love to hear them and possibly learn something new.

This week I’ve decided to focus on City’s defensive breakdowns and what can be done to address them. Videos 1 and 2 by DCFC; video 3 by Nick Miko.

(1) Milwaukee Goal #1

What Happened: Jeff Adkins is beaten on the dribble and a low cross is sent in, which finds its way through to an unmarked Milwaukee player just outside the six-yard box. His attempt goes wide but City’s defenders are caught ball-watching and the goal is scored by another unmarked player at the back post.

How to Fix It: Adkins getting beat and allowing the cross in is the first thing that went wrong, but he’s not a defender and those things will happen throughout the course of the match. What’s more of a problem is the ball making it past all the near post defenders and finding its way to Milwaukee’s #9 who happens to be completely unmarked. If anyone has a body on him that ball likely never makes its way to the back post. The third and final breakdown came when all of City’s players stood around and watched the ball pop out the back side:

Credit to Milwaukee’s attackers for making great runs and finding the open space, but City must mark better. Even just being a little bit closer to the open attackers and getting in their way probably would’ve done the job.

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