By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 5, 2019) US Soccer Players - Detroit City Football Club is the platonic ideal of a grassroots soccer team, at least when it comes to American soccer. Launched by five friends in 2012, the club garnered a surprising response from the soccer community in Detroit. That was despite being amateur and playing a short summer schedule. They parlayed that response into a place as the darling of lower division soccer.
A passionate fan base that put on a show of their own at Keyworth Stadium in the Hamtramck area of Detroit. The club refurbished the high school football stadium with a crowdfunding campaign. This draws a lot of attention to DCFC. You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of the team’s Northern Guard supporters group setting off smoke bombs and waving massive flags on one side of Keyworth. The club regularly draws 6,000 fans and seven years after its launch the team can point to a unique culture.
Following seven seasons in the National Premier Soccer League, Detroit City hit up against the limits of short-season amateur soccer in the United States. The club could have stayed where it was, content to be the biggest fish in a very small pond. Instead, in partnership with nine other NPSL teams and a startup club in Oakland, DCFC decided to forge its own path through the difficult American soccer wilderness.
That was necessary because there was no obvious place for Detroit City to go. Turning professional was the next obvious step, but going pro meant contending with US Soccer’s professional league standards. Those standards govern the sanctioning requirements for teams and leagues at the first, second, and third division level.
Even at the lower level of the professional tiers, clubs must have a principal owner with a seven-figure net worth. For a club like Detroit City, owned by a collection of average individuals, that presented a choice. Sell a controlling interest in the club they built to someone who might not follow their vision and remain true to the culture of DCFC, or create an alternative that didn’t require going through US Soccer’s approval process.
Before 2020’s inaugural NPSL Pro season, Detroit City will play in the Founder’s Cup, a tournament among the teams moving to the professional ranks next year. The greater number of games will bring in more revenue, which the club will in turn use to pay for players and coaches as a professional outfit.
DCFC is an example of the ingenuity American soccer often lacks, particularly below the top division. MLS teams have big budgets and aim for a big impact. A club like Detroit City has to be more creative to both attract fans and the ride a wave of support to the next level. Word-of-mouth was enough to get Detroit City this far, combined with fan-friendly atmosphere and the community nature of the club.
NPSL Pro makes sense as a step forward that won’t force Detroit City to become something else entirely. No big money ownership demanding sweeping changes or pushing the on-field product away from the fans. No pressure to keep up with other clubs. No stadium swap to justify investment or because Keyworth doesn’t mean one of US Soccer’s stadium standards.
Detroit City owner Sean Mann says the club will pay a “living wage” to its players. For now, the target is $20,000 per player for the season, with the club also providing housing and food. That number is far from the massive salaries paid at the top end of the sport or even the moderate wages paid to reserve players in MLS. It does line up with Major League Soccer’s minimum annual salary from as recently as a decade ago. While not large, it means more players can chase the dream of playing pro.
Detroit will no doubt attract talented players, mostly young, looking to play in front of rowdy crowds for a club that has a proven track record of taking care of its own. DCFC will chase the Founder’s Cup trophy this year and aim for the first NPSL Pro title next season, but the quality of the team on the field is secondary to the foundations laid and the structures now going up on top of them.
If Detroit City is going to survive its leap and move into the next phase with the same momentum it created in the amateur ranks, maintaining the culture of the club is much more important than winning. DCFC thrives on a counterculture vibe that flows from the fans but is dependent on the club itself.
Mann has spoken of a desire to make the club sustainable, so all of the costs associated with going professional must be offset by a corresponding rise in revenue. To that end, Detroit City has raised ticket prices and is installing semi-permanent “suites” in converted shipping containers at Keyworth Stadium. Those changes are still relatively unobtrusive. DCFC’s tickets remain an excellent value. There’s no reason to think much else will change for the club or its fans. The team also opened up a secondary business called The Fieldhouse, which hosts indoor soccer leagues and includes a restaurant and two bars.
The rub for Detroit City and the foundational fact about all American soccer clubs is that success is just as dependent on the league a club plays in as it is on the actions of the club itself. Detroit City proved it could draw big crowds and coalesce a soccer community around a team playing amateur soccer, but it can’t make the appropriate step into lower level professional soccer without a group of clubs to play against.
NPSL Pro’s founding group includes just two other teams that reported averaging more than 1,000 fans a game in 2018. Of those, only Chattanooga FC drew over 2,000. CFC ran a fan ownership offering in the offseason and will face competition in the market from newly launched USL League One club Chattanooga Red Wolves. Chattanooga FC appears stable, but there is nevertheless a complication for the club thought to be most comparable to Detroit City in strength.
The New York Cosmos entry has the financial clout to make it work under owner Rocco Commisso. Miami FC looks to be in a similar situation with Riccardo Silva in charge.
Still, there have to be doubts about the league because the base assumption is that every American soccer league will struggle at some point. Detroit City’s success is commendable. There is real hope that the club can be an example for cities around the country. American soccer doesn’t make it easy for any club to grow slowly. It makes it nearly impossible to run a club at a profit.
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- MLS contenders already looking for turnarounds in 2019
- Sporting KC's youth movement
- The end of the extended MLS preseason
- MLS games, Toronto's revival, and San Jose's problems
Logo courtesy of Detroit City FC