Detroit City Football Club has come a long way in six seasons. It started playing soccer in front of small but enthusiastic crowds at Cass Technical High School in 2012. As word spread, more fans came to see “Le Rouge”. Within five years, the team needed a larger venue. Its owners raised thousands of dollars to renovate Hamtramck’s historic Keyworth Stadium. The club played its first match there in 2016. Its most recent match on Aug. 5, 2017 drew the largest crowd in the team’s history. More than 7,500 people came to see City play Midland-Odessa FC in the National Premier Soccer League‘s semifinals.
“We were turning people away and sold out that afternoon,” says Alex Wright, one of DCFC’s owners.
The capacity crowd watched the two sides play through 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime without scoring a goal. The match would be decided on penalty kicks. The visitors from Texas outscored City 4-2 in the shootout round, advancing to the NPSL’s national championship, and ending Detroit’s season. Wright says 2017 turned out to be City’s most successful season to date, both on the pitch and off.
“The 2017 season was the culmination of the last five or six years of work and effort put in by the ownership — those of us that started this club — but also the folks that have played for it and supported it,” Wright says.
Wright attributes at least part of DCFC’s growth this year to local media coverage, which was hard to come by at first.
“Five years ago, I was begging folks to cover us in any way at all,” Wright says. Now, he cites newspapers articles on how players stay fit. “Secondary interest stories, the kind of things that you haven’t seen in this town talking about soccer maybe ever.”
A typical crowd for a home match at Keyworth is about 5,000. Those who can’t attend can watch the team online. In 2016, Fox Sports Detroit began streaming City matches live on the internet. This season, Wright says the team saw viewership numbers that, if matches were televised, would rival local college sporting events.
“We’re seeing folks from 140 countries this summer tuned in to watch us play soccer,” Wright says.
As DCFC’s fan base grows, so does its hopes for becoming a professional franchise. Another team owner, Todd Kropp, tells Crain’s Detroit Business the team is talking with representatives of two pro leagues, the new National Independent Soccer Association and the North American Soccer League, which was re-established in 2009 (the Detroit Express played in the original NASL from 1978-81). Alex Wright says turning pro would address what he calls “minor league soccer problems” such as the absence of City’s most valuable player in 2017, Tyrone Mondi. The South African midfielder was the team’s leading scorer, with six goals and 10 assists in 13 games. His stoppage-time goal in the NPSL Midwest Regional championship game on July 29 gave Le Rouge a thrilling 3-2 win over its Great Lakes Division rival, AFC Ann Arbor. Mondi was unavailable to play in the national semifinal because he went back to college (Coastal Carolina University) for fall soccer camp.
“As long as we’re at the level we’re at, that’s the reality of what we do,” Wright says. “It’s another reason why we’re so dedicated to taking our team to the pro level, because that’s what our supporters deserve, that’s what our players deserve.”
As DCFC’s ownership team ponders its future, they must also address the elephant in the room — Major League Soccer. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores have designs on bringing an MLS franchise to Detroit someday. Even if they succeed, Wright says he believes City has built a strong enough following to remain viable.
“Detroit City FC has a future regardless of what the soccer landscape in Michigan looks like because of what we’ve shown we can do on the amateur level, because of our focus on our community and our focus on supporter culture,” Wright says.
Click on the audio player to hear the conversation with WDET’s Pat Batcheller.