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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Lone Wolves

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Photo by Dion Degennaro

Friday, May 12th, 2017 – Detroit City FC 3 Milwaukee Torrent 3
Sunday, May 14th, 2017 – Michigan Stars 2 Detroit City FC 2

Photo by Dion Degennaro

Now this is the Law of the Jungle —
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

In an alternate universe, in a different time and place, starting the season off with two draws would be a mild disappointment and not a major concern. Here and now, though, it feels like a tragedy. As Detroit City has grown in popularity and stature – part of its natural evolution as a sports team – so too have fan expectations. The reason these two draws are so unsatisfying is because those expectations have outpaced recent results to the tune of one win in the last six league matches.

Going back to the beginning of last year, City has struggled with every team they’ve gone up against that has a pulse. Poor defending has become the norm, and 2016’s troubles with set pieces and the counter-attack have devolved into problems with marking, clearances, and a general lack of communication.

Many supporters, myself included, have hypothesized and discussed changes that can be made in tactics, formation, and personnel. While these are all important and can have direct impacts on results, I think City’s issues lie at a more fundamental level.

Right now, they are not a team but a collection of individuals. They hunt alone rather than in a pack, and they defend more reactively than proactively.  This isn’t entirely unexpected since there are so many new players, some of whom have been here less than a week. In the NPSL, though, where matches are almost as scarce as quality referees, everything is on an accelerated timetable. With 1/7th of the season down, fixes and solutions must come soon. The good news is I think the tools are there to do just that.

This past weekend’s opponents – Milwaukee, and Michigan Stars – gave a template of what must be done to earn a playoff spot. While both clubs were probably not as talented as City, they looked hungrier, scrappier, and more willing to fight for each other. That’s not to say that City’s players lack heart or effort, but through their indecisiveness and miscommunications, it’s clear to the outside observer that they aren’t all on the same page.

With Cyrus Saydee playing the best soccer of his life, the attack is in good hands and goal scoring shouldn’t be an issue. Underlining this point, City’s 2.5 goals-per-match currently has them on pace to score 35 this season.

The real work – that on which the season hinges – is building a cohesive defense. Not just a centerback pairing, not just a back four and keeper, but a complete unit in which all eleven players are committed to staying with their man, being fearless in every challenge, and helping their teammates in all aspects of the match, beginning with more vocal communication.

Beyond that, a killer instinct must be developed. Two-goal leads are better than one-goal leads, and three-goal leads are better than two. The scent of blood should be a signal to go for the kill, not to sit back and invite pressure.

The players are there; now’s the time for them to become a team in the true sense of the word. If the season is to be a success – i.e. result in a deep playoff run – a win against Ann Arbor is almost a necessity. AFCAA has jumped out to a 2-0-0 start and another victory on Sunday would set them up to run away with the division, leaving the other seven clubs to scrap for the only other playoff spot. There’s still time for City, but in order for them to turn things around they must heed the law.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

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