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MLS wants a Detroit expansion team, but Detroit City FC fans want them to get lost

MLS came calling and sparked a heated debate between a homegrown soccer mob and big money investors over who owns Detroit soccer.

Raucous Northern guard faithful cheering on their Detroit City FC.
The raucous Northern guard faithful cheering on their Detroit City FC.
Dion Degennaro

On a muggy, overcast day in May, Drew Gentry, otherwise known as Sergeant Scary, climbed on top of a Honda CRV in a parking lot, both hands clad in skeleton gloves, clutching a black megaphone that he didn’t really need.

“Today is an acknowledgment of what the people can do, today is a celebration of what the people can do,” he yelled with the megaphone firmly at his side. “Today I’m calling it ‘The Derby of the People.’”

The crowd of more than 300 — a mix of residents from Metro Detroit and visitors from Manchester, England — erupted into deafening cheers, but they were soon cut short by Gentry.

“Now enough of this hugs and kisses shit, let’s go kick some ass!”

It was almost 7:30 p.m. in Hamtramck — a tiny suburb literally surrounded by Detroit that made headlines last year for electing the first majority-Muslim city council — and the half mile march to the match had begun. Hundreds descended down a steep hill, unfazed by an unrelenting thunderstorm, and marched through a Yemeni-American neighborhood with drums, bells, horns, helmets and skull masks, chanting “Deeeeee-troit” until they reached the doors of Keyworth Stadium. The 80-year-old arena was now their newly minted home turf in one of country’s most diverse cities, where more than 30 languages can be heard on any given day.

Young girls in hijabs cheered them on from the balconies of tightly packed houses, clapping and joining in their chants as red and yellow smoke billowed in the air. Teenage boys stopped playing soccer and sat on their porches to watch the marchers pile into the stadium, before being gifted tickets to get in themselves. Behind the stadium, a freight train rolled by gritty, abandoned industrial warehouses less than a mile away from the General Motors plant where the classic Cadillac Eldorado came off the assembly lines.

The Northern Guard, supporters of Detroit City Football Club, now stood among flags and t-shirts that read “soccer hipsters from hell,” and “le rouge,” the team’s nickname— a nod to Detroit’s French roots. As a small drum corps played on, capos (or leaders) perched themselves on the fence, took off their shirts and led the crowd in a series of songs. Homemade signs reading “FCK MLS” and “Built not Bought” were draped across metal railings around the pitch, declaring loyalty for a club over a league. These once abandoned concrete stands hadn’t felt this kind of raw energy in decades.

For the next 90 minutes, the Northern Guard were wholly in their element, now having carved out a space of their own. The homecoming was taking place in the same area where the Dodge Brothers founded their factory in 1910, setting in motion a more than 100 year legacy of immigration to this enclave that has yet to stop.

Polish, Bosnian and Ukrainians came first, and in more recent years, thriving Arab and Bangladeshi communities have emerged, fueling the economic and social makeup of Hamtramck. Along with traditions now reflected in shops, street names and festivals, these immigrants have brought with them the love of soccer — an integral cultural element found from Eastern Europe to across the Middle East that is now taking root in Southeast Michigan.

This alliance has worked in DCFC’s favor, and it’s only set to further cultivate what the team and its supporters have come to embody: a soccer movement that is also intrinsically tied to something bigger than just sport: building community.

Northern Guard marching through the streets.
Northern Guard marching through the streets.
Dion Degennaro

DCFC’s presence has already brought a new kind of energy to an area that, like much of Detroit, has struggled economically for years. This is especially true for the neighborhood that surrounds Keyworth. Hussain Mahjed, who lives right by the stadium, says security has improved and a dangerous speeding problem with young drivers has been curbed because of their presence.

Majhed recently stood on his porch with his children as the Northern Guard made their way down his street for a match, a sea of rouge and gold smoke preceding their march past his house.

Like many others, he’s even found free tickets to the game in his mailbox.

“From what I’m seeing, they’re doing good for the community,” Majhed says. “It’s brightened up the neighborhood.”

His neighbor credits the team with helping put Hamtramck on the map — people now have a reason to come here, spend money to prop up local business and explore an area that has become a microcosm of a changing America.

On the opposite side of the field that day, supporters of F.C. United of Manchester had traveled thousands of miles overseas to support their team, outnumbering the attendance rates of many of DCFC’s local rivals. They were there to ruin the corporate culture of professional soccer together, and they really didn’t care.

* * *

This aptly named “derby of the people,” was a historic meeting between two teams and their supporters who have poured their passions out on the field in a rejection of corporate sports culture, choosing to embrace their club over a league and accumulate community instead of cash.

They were now linked not just by their regions’ industrial pasts and music culture that influenced the world, but their mutual embrace of a grassroots philosophy that has been absent in the modern evolution of the sport.

F.C. United, a semi-professional team born out of frustration with the commercialization of English football is owned and run by its 5,381 members. The team opened their own home stadium last year, built through a variety of grants and support from the local council.

About 3,000 miles away, in the blue-collar, disenfranchised American heartland, DCFC has become the unlikely new face of soccer in the Midwest. It has drawn the kind of rabid support and success that is unheard of for a fourth tier amateur soccer team representing an American city most known for its decay. In the face of those challenges, DCFC has grown steadily since its founding in 2012. In its second year, the team finished the regular season undefeated, becoming Great Lakes Conference Champions. In 2014, the Seattle Sounders FC signed former DCFC midfielder Fabio Pereira.

This year, in addition to 15,000 people live streaming the event, more than 7,000 attended their opening match — a figure that some teams in higher leagues like the United Soccer League and the North American Soccer League fail to draw.

The Detroit City FC crowd at the season opener at Keyworth stadium.
The Detroit City FC crowd at the season opener at Keyworth stadium.
Dion Degennaro

The fan support helped the club to raise $725,000 this year to renovate Keyworth, saving it from a fate of so many other abandoned or decaying buildings across this city. The stadium opened in 1936 and was visited by JFK and FDR, who called it “one of the things that will last for many years and contribute toward the enjoyment and recreation, not only of us older people but of the younger generation as well.”

The funds were raised through, the state’s first homegrown equity crowdfunding platform, which utilizes the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption Act. Under this law, Michigan residents give small loans up to $10,000 to Michigan businesses. The Keyworth project became one of the largest community investment projects in U.S. sports history, and unlike stadiums funded by tax dollars, residents will get returns on their investments, with interest . The first pay out in August distributed over $100,000 in revenue sharing checks.

“We are an amateur minor league,” says DCFC co-owner Alex Wright. “It’s the sort of thing in our country that shouldn’t be successful.”

Fluorescent smoke bombs from DCFC’s Northern Guard contingent is a hallmark of the games.
Fluorescent smoke bombs from DCFC’s Northern Guard contingent is a hallmark of the games.
Dion Degennaro

Just as DCFC was reaching unprecedented heights with its grassroots organizing, MLS came calling on Detroit and sparked a heated debate between the homegrown soccer mob and big money investors over who owns the heart of Detroit soccer.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores announced in April that they were joining forces before the 2016 DCFC season began to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit, the largest media market without a professional soccer team.

Gilbert stood at the podium in front of a black banner with the name of his marketing effort, “Opportunity Detroit” splashed across it. With MLS Commissioner Don Garber present, Gilbert announced a $1 billion investment at an unfinished jail site in downtown Detroit for a 25,000-seat MLS stadium. The proposal also included other developments like restaurants, a hotel and offices.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Gilbert said. ”Right now, what we're trying to do is paint the vision for everybody that absolutely can be done.”

This wasn’t the first declaration of its kind in this city. Many have announced pro intentions before, but with the weight of two experienced billionaires behind the effort, this was the most serious proposal Detroit had seen.

It was also the first time potential owners had stepped up to the cameras with more than just projections about Detroit’s appetite for soccer. DCFC’s existence now gave Gilbert and Gores proof that a rabid soccer fanbase could indeed be cultivated.

Noticeably absent from the proposal were the rabid soccer community itself.

“We weren’t invited or aware of the press conference, so the details of it took us by surprise,” said DCFC co-owner Alex Wright.

But for this team and its passionate supporters, being included would have also presented another conundrum: DCFC’s identity is homegrown and supporters say it would disintegrate under MLS’ sanitized fan control policies.

For them, the only way to keep growing soccer in Detroit, the only way they saw the sport as having a real future here, was to keep it community and supporter-focused. The Detroit sports landscape, Wright said, was too treacherous for any team to turn their back on that model.

To perhaps figure out exactly what the hard work of fostering that soccer culture and building a team from the ground up entailed, it requires going back to the special 20-year-old patch of grass that began the Motor City soccer revolution in the first place.

* * *

Sean Mann grew up watching Champions League matches on satellite TV, but it wasn’t until he moved to England to get to his masters at Bristol University that he took a passionate interest in the game. When he moved back to Detroit, he decided to import soccer to the area around him, seeing it as a useful tool for a community organizing project. Mann, who works as a lobbyist, created the Detroit City Futbol League in 2010, a co-ed recreational league made up of teams that represented different neighborhoods in a Detroit that were going through a revival, but remained socially segregated.

Games were held on Detroit’s Belle Isle, played on the very same grass that was developed as a practice field for the 1994 World Cup at the Pontiac Silverdome. At the request of the Detroit World Cup Bid Committee, turfgrass scientists at Michigan State University began two years of research and installed a new, natural field at the Silverdome. The sod was grown in California during the winter of 1992 and 1993, and shipped to Michigan in refrigerated trucks. It saw play from Germany against England, as well as the Russian and Brazilian national teams. Soon after, the turf was cut from the field of the Silverdome and shipped to Belle Isle Park, where a soccer field was constructed and eventually used by the Futbol League.

The league has become a civic success story, attracting hundreds of Detroiters to participate. What started with 11 neighborhood teams now encompasses 32.

Detroit City FC in the backdrop of a cloud of smoke.
Detroit City FC in the backdrop of a cloud of smoke.
Dion Degennaro

It was in this circle that Mann met David Dwaihy, Todd Kropp, Ben Steffans and Wright, and, in the absence of any local MLS presence, decided that it was time to go pro. They joined the NPSL, assembled a team, secured the field at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School as their home turf and thought that if a few hundred people came, they’d break even. They each put around $2,000 in and attempted to recruit the people who had joined the recreational league to come to the games, trying to sustain their hobby while working full-time jobs.

That was before they found about the Northern Guard.

As kids, brothers Gene and Ken Butcher used to huddle around the TV at the house of one of their father’s friends, watching European football games via an old satellite dish, just like Mann had. They grew up in Pontiac, just 30 miles north of Detroit, with the Silverdome so close to their house, the World Cup felt like it was taking place in their backyard.

Having a pro soccer team in Detroit meant that, as adults, the Butchers could get behind a team that was a drive instead of a plane ride away, one whose growth they could witness firsthand instead of watching at odd hours at their local bar.

“I don’t really think you can support a team from afar,” says Gene. “I think you can be a fan of a team, but I don’t think you can be an actual supporter, because a supporter goes to games and doesn’t miss them.”

The Butchers gathered friends, fans, smoke bombs and flares and attended DCFC’s first NPSL game at Cass Tech, amassing more than 1,000 people with them. Gene hid the smoke bombs in a bag, with a plan to light them as soon as DCFC scored. The first goal came early in the game, and the flares and smoke immediately followed. At first confusion hit the crowd, but then people ran to the NGS section rather than away from it.

By the end of the night, the stands were full on their side.

Since then, the NGS has grown into a motley crew of characters. For four months out of the year, everyone from 10-year-old kids to circuit court judges, homemakers, immigrants and millennials don rouge and gold, showing their team the kind of devotion that extends beyond homemade memorabilia and scarves. Supporters make it a point to visit and shop at businesses that have backed DCFC. They spend much of their free time and money making merchandise that they sell not for profit, but just to break even. DCFC players climb into the stands to celebrate with them after games. During the offseason, the NGS organize social outings and events to keep spirits up during the lull. A few years ago, two supporters were even married at halftime during a game against Buffalo.

* * *

The atmosphere is raw and unpredictable, aided by an intimate terrace culture where personal space is substituted for linking arms with neighbors. It stands in contrast from the often controlled environment one is prone to find at all-seater MLS stadiums.

For newcomers encountering NGS for the first time, verdicts range anywhere from enthralling to overwhelming to crass. Matches start with supporters turning their backs and putting their middle fingers up at the opposing team. Many of their profanity-laced chants are raunchy (“If I had the wings of a sparrow, if I had the ass of a crow, I’d fly over [the opponent’s town] tomorrow, and shit on the bastards below,”) and downright confrontational (“Fuck ‘em all. Fuck ‘em all. Fuck Gilbert, Gores and Garber.”)

Their fiercely defensive social media banter has also earned them disdain from both opponents and Metro Detroiters who yearn for an MLS team of their own. When the MLS announcement was made, Opportunity Detroit began using the hashtag #MLSxDetroit to promote the proposal. But the Northern Guard got a hold of it and used it to market their team instead. They also bought the domains and, redirecting it to the DCFC site instead.

Despite its often loud, boisterous and tough exterior, supporters are also focused on growing community while supporting the team. NGS defies the association of club supporters with a brand of hooliganism made famous in many of the stadiums of Europe. During games, a large, red “Refugees Welcome” sign is prominently draped between stands. Two weeks after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, NGS unleashed a coordinated rainbow smoke bomb in support of the LGBT community. During the offseason, they raise money through their charity, Hooligans for Heroes, for wounded U.S veterans.

Northern Guard is inclusive
Northern Guard is inclusive
Dion Degennaro

Their inclusivity is one way they hope eventually contributes to bridging a still wide gap between a socially and racially divided Detroit.

“Everyone is welcome to come here,” Gene says. “Soccer is the world’s sport, so it doesn’t matter what race, nationality or religious affiliation you are, you should be able to come and enjoy the game without being harassed.”

Last year, George Chomakov, a DCFC midfielder who also coaches the soccer team at Hamtramck High School reached out to NGS. He wanted to see if a few people might be able to attend a soccer game at the high school as a way to motivate some of his students, who come from Bosnia, Iraq and Yemen, among other places. He thought a few dozen might show up. On the day of the game, a couple hundred supporters came with smoke bombs and flares in tow.

* * *

Americans are watching and supporting soccer at an exponential rate. People here aren’t necessarily being introduced to the sport on the streets, so much as they are in the stands -- and that’s especially true for many DCFC fans. This year, MLS opened its season with 20 teams, with plans to expand to 28. As a result, this expansion has created supporter groups across the country that have been going strong for some time, all claiming an authentic brand of fandom, from Portland to Seattle and Kansas.

DCFC’s success has managed to stand out in a city dominated by professional sports.

“It’s a major sports town, the teams have been here for generations,” says Mann. “We are competing for credibility, attention and respect. We’ve created something unique that does stand out, that’s why people keep coming -- it’s not because we have a million dollar ad campaign.”

This unique atmosphere is what many DCFC supporters fear will disappear with the presence of MLS. While many other supporter groups in the U.S. welcome, or actively campaign for MLS to come to their cities, many NGS members are against a franchise they say is focused solely on profits. They worry it would ruin the supporter culture if DCFC is included in their plans, with an MLS culture stripping the team of its identity, casting a suffocating major league shadow. DCFC’s owners have had conversations with the MLS group and say they will continue to discuss possibilities, but with potential expansion plans years away, and land usage issues at the crux of the debate, the likelihood of either outcome is hard to tell right now.

“It’s supposed to be about the community, it’s not supposed to be about a couple millionaires having a toy,” says Michael Kitchen, a criminal defense lawyer who is part of NGS.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wants to bring MLS to Detroit. Here he is introducing Chrysler Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne before announcing that Chrysler’s office opening in downtown Detroit.
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wants to bring MLS to Detroit. Here he is introducing Chrysler Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne before announcing that Chrysler’s office opening in downtown Detroit.
photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Beyond the threat to homegrown soccer culture, there’s also a more local problem: the actual stadium itself. Gilbert, who has been playing monopoly with Detroit property since 2010, now owns more than 12 million square feet of commercial real estate. For years, he has wanted to buy a stalled, partially built yet centrally located jail. This is the same location included in Gilbert and Gores’ announcement that a $1 billion investment in Wayne County would include a 25,000-seat MLS stadium.

Even with MLS expansion fees now topping $100 million, bringing professional soccer to Detroit is worth it to some residents who think that a fourth tier amateur team whose players hold down regular jobs and don’t get paid isn’t exactly prime viewing. This comes as interest in soccer continues to grow rapidly in the state. Two years ago, more than 100,000 fans set the record for the highest attended soccer game in the country when they took in a Real Madrid vs. Manchester United match at Michigan Stadium.

No one knows this better than Roger Faulkner, who is somewhat of a soccer mogul in Detroit. Originally from England, he was a former partner of the Detroit Express, which played in the North American Soccer League from 1978 to 1980. A member of the Detroit World Cup host committee, he was instrumental in getting the event to come to Motown.

“I think you want to have the highest level of competition, you want your city to be playing at the highest level of competition and that clearly is MLS,” Faulkner says. “We are perfectly capable of supporting a MLS team.”

The Gores/Gilbert team agree. Through a spokesperson, Arn Tellem, who is vice chairman of the Gores-owned Palace Sports & Entertainment said that they embrace the ethos of the burgeoning Michigan soccer landscape and “have a collective vision that Detroit’s MLS team will be a community asset and worthy representative of the global game.”

* * *

As Detroit held onto its final days of good weather, DCFC held onto their last game of the year — a friendly between Mundo Latino with players of DCFC’s past on the team. Just four days prior, NGS head Gene Butcher had suffered a heart attack at home. As he was recovering, several supporters took turns dropping off meals, mowing the lawn and contributing to house cleaning. They draped the stands with messages of support before the game. “Get Fucking Well Soon, Gene,” one read. Another featured a skull with the words “The Guardfather” written above it.

It was a cold day but Gentry, in his signature skeleton gloves and a skull hoodie, climbed on top of a car once again before the march to the match. He spoke about the current divisive atmosphere of the country, and that, despite what he was seeing online, those divisions weren’t anywhere to be found amongst DCFC supporters, that they didn’t care who someone worshipped, voted for or how much money one made.

“I’m thankful that I have you guys,” he said. “We’re fucking family.” He turned his attention to the game. “Let’s go make some memories that are going to last the winter, hell yeah?”

“Hell yeah!” the crowd yelled back. “Fuck yeah!”

DCFC defeated Mundo Latino, 4-3. When former captain Josh Rogers scored a goal, he immediately ran up to the delirious crowd who embraced him. One offered a burrito. He took a bite before heading back to the game. A month later, an engraved plaque went up at Keyworth, honoring the rededication of the stadium in May. Among a list of donors, the plaque read: “A special thanks to The Northern Guard Supporters, and all the supporters who stand behind Detroit City F.C.”

It was a permanent reminder, etched in gold, that if MLS ever comes to America’s comeback city, supporter-built soccer was already firmly here.