Danger is brewing for one of US soccer’s grassroots communities.
In all the hubbub of Don Garber announcing the possibility of a new franchise in Detroit, the MLS commissioner failed to acknowledge the club that the city formed themselves.
In case you didn’t know either, Detroit City FC, a club that his plied their trade in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) since 2012, is a grassroots soccer club attempting to grow soccer in Detroit and throughout Michigan while building a community through our favorite game.
Detroit City FC is one of the shining examples of community-established soccer in America.
The club, which was formed by five passionate soccer fans from Detroit, launched a community investment program last year that let Michigan residents invest in renovating the club’s home field, Keyworth Stadium. The club felt that they could reach out to the community to undertake a $750,000 renovation after support grew so large last year that the club was turning away fans due to seating restraints. The community met the $400,000 threshold which let them begin construction earlier this year.
Having to turn people away marks extreme growth. After only having 150 people at their first match, Detroit City was selling out matches with 4k people in attendance four years later. That’s impressive.
More importantly, the successful renovation plans show something deeper about American soccer communities: Commitment. The love and passion for the game are evident from coast to coast, but as the debate between the powerful D1 league and lower division clubs rages, individual community’s commitment to development falls into question. So let’s let Detroit City serve as an example.
Can a passionate community form a team out of nothing ? Check.
Will interest in a newly formed club hold, and even grow, instead of faltering? Check.
Could that community find a way to meet financial investments needed to maintain competition without jeopardizing their identity? Double check.
Whether it’s through the club or their largest supporter group, the Northern Guard, the level of passion and unbridled support for Le Rouge (that’s one of their sick nicknames) is breathtaking. They are commendable as a truly grassroots American club. And for that, they should be rewarded.
After four years of hard work to create and maintain their club, Major League Soccer came calling.
Instead of a reward, however, the fans that helped form Detroit’s professional soccer team were awarded the MLS announcement that the league hopes to create a D1 franchise that plays in downtown Motor City, with Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons, as its largest investors. Even though the club had played in Detroit for years, there was no communication with Detroit City about this plan before the announcement.
But, it’s true, MLS didn’t have to approach DCFC about their plans before their announcement, and there’s no reason why the league would or should have to try and wrestle the club away from the fan-ownership to push their franchise. Actually, it’s probably better that they don’t try to for both parties’ sakes.
It does, however, highlight a glaring problem in the MLS approach to expanding the league.
What MLS is attempting to do in Detroit as well as other soccer hubs in America (looking at you St. Louis, Chattanooga, Minnesota, etc.) is to hijack the popularity of an established soccer community for their own gain.
An MLS team in Detroit could help the city (although asking citizens to front a new stadium’s bill through taxes may be counterproductive) and it could help soccer as a whole in America, but the fact is that we don’t know if that’s what would happen.
What we do know is that Detroit already has one of the most genuine grassroots soccer communities in America.
And to grow the game– to genuinely grow the game, not a league– MLS, US Soccer’s first division, needs to be focused on fostering interest within these communities, not to dominate them. MLS is taking a place where years of hard work have formed a consistent and healthy club and pushing their version of what a soccer club should look like on the town.
I’m not saying an MLS team in Detroit would spell death for Detroit City; the fans are much too impassioned for that and the club has turned into a healthy and stable organization.
In fact, I don’t think anyone is making the claim that MLS is technically wrong for wanting to capitalize on soccer’s proven popularity in Detroit, but rather, that there is a better way for MLS to reap Detroit soccer benefits without stepping on the people of Detroit’s toes.
Ultimately, what these fans are against is not MLS, but the idea of a Detroit franchise. The soccer fans of Detroit have built a club, and now they’re faced with being overshadowed by an MLS-operated franchise.
Each MLS club still operates as its own business, but instead of securing their own identity and brand (and the ownership of those), they are part of a top-down, single-entity structure. This model, one that is demonstrated perfectly by the NFL, isn’t appealing to Detroit City’s hardcore fans.
And that, reasonably, can raise some questions. Yeah, you built the team, but why wouldn’t you jump at the chance of an MLS team in Detroit? Don’t you want to be D1? How can you complain about the money and the huge investors it’s already attracting?
D1 is nice, and MLS is great, but there’s something more to being a fan– a true fan– than glory, and that is being showcased in Detroit.
It’s not about trophies. It’s not about notoriety. It’s not about money.
It’s about the love of the team. It’s about being part of a community that is bigger than yourself that you have identified with. It’s about something inexplicable.
As soccer legend Denis Bergkamp perfectly stated, “When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.”
And while it’s true that there is nothing technically wrong with the MLS hoping to establish a Detroit franchise, this situation positions MLS against what Bergkamp is talking about.
People may eventually find themselves within a Detroit MLS franchise, but people have already overwhelmingly found themselves within Detroit City FC. And for their supporters that have helped build the club and spread the magic of soccer, this is what makes the announcement a slap in the face.
How can a group of passionate soccer fans that made a professional club with their bare hands be expected to jump behind multi-million dollar investors and latch on to an identity they did not create and have not supported the last four years?
Because when you boil this issue down it is about the American soccer identity. To truly grow the game local communities must become invested in their clubs, but they need a soccer structure that rewards that.
So MLS and US Soccer, let’s change for the better. Let’s foster communities as they sprout. Let’s reward communities as they grow. Let’s realize that franchises disenfranchise fans from an organization.
And most importantly, let’s grow American soccer for all Americans. Especially those that are taking the onus upon themselves to create American soccer greatness.