Rouge rising: Detroit City FC sets standard for FC Buffalo

As I watched Detroit City FC crumble at home under the counter-attacking onslaught of the Erie Admirals in last year’s NPSL Midwest Region Great Lakes Conference semifinal, explaining the shocking demise of the NPSL’s No. 1 ranked team wasn’t easy.

Was it the age of Detroit’s veteran leaders, Kevin Taylor and Knox Cameron, that wore Le Rouge down in the blistering heat? You could certainly point to squandered first-half chances. Perhaps it was the absence of attacking fullback Zeke Harris? Maybe I’m overlooking DCFC’s uncharacteristic individual breakdowns defensively. Or was it simply that Erie peaked at the right time, claiming the “Team of Destiny” label?

While the unanticipated loss was certainly sour for DCFC coach Ben Pirmann, City — FC Buffalo’s short-lived foe on Sunday, as the match was postponed due to lightning after 23 scoreless minutes — had become the dream model for the NPSL: a dominant-yet-classy club with a fan base approaching 2,000, fierce (and often profane) supporters groups and as progressive of a home-game experience as you could imagine for a club that doesn’t pay its players.

External signs hinting at a pro club in DCFC’s future were evident at the onset of last season: the constant banging of drums and intimidating chants, the smoke bombs that sent plumes over the field (lending dramatic images like Kelly Haapala’s in the header), the near-tangible intensity and belief transferred from fanatical fans to players, who time and time again credited the Cass Tech faithful with propelling Le Rouge to victory.

Except, in this instance, it wasn’t just generic post-game interview blubber — you actually believed it.

Less obvious, though, were the smaller tactics of an organization that formulated a complicated plan and executed it.

All players who attended tryouts received a season ticket — regardless if they made the club or not. The personnel cut-down didn’t alienate players; it actually fueled the participation of the squad’s peers.

The food-truck alley, the professionally-crafted post-game highlight videos and interviews, and, ironically, the egregiously cramped quarters of the high school stadium, all played a role in creating a culture, something much bigger than 11 players wearing the rouge kit.

Remember there were 2013 conference foes that showed up to games without a printed roster and randomly assigned numbers, befuddling spectators and exposing the gap between Le Rouge and everyone else.

As the 2013 dream regular season progressed — only Le Rouge’s second in the NPSL — the line between DCFC player and supported blurred slightly: as long as you wore the crest and lived out the moniker “City ‘Til I Die,” you were part of the quest.

The author of Boys in Rouge, a tremendous DCFC blog, can more eloquently explain this part-sport, part-cultural movement — one that’s already saturated the Pacific Northwest:

“…my foremost concern is that we maintain the enjoyment and sense of belonging we currently experience on gamedays. I’d gladly take a season of 8 home games with a raucous atmosphere over one with 20 or 30 where standing and smokebombs are prohibited.”

The fusion of club preparation and supporter devotion demands a bigger stage and, coincidentally, a window of opportunity has opened for Detroit City FC to potentially vault to a higher league.

Judging from the news and results spreading out of the Motor City, the club has witnessed another surge of progress in 2014. Home attendance has exceeded 3,000 in each of DCFC’s last two matches, with a ridiculous 3,234 supporters coming out for Le Rouge’s 2-2 draw against Erie on Friday.

Know how teams have a tendency to embellish attendance numbers? Friday’s figure was actually under-reported, I was told by Detroit City FC co-owner Alex Wright and first-year general manager Donovan Powell. For the first time, fans are starting to be turned away at the door because of capacity issues.

Where do those record-high NPSL numbers fall in relation to larger leagues?

Brendan Doherty, the author of the Doherty Soccer blog, passed along the average 2013 attendance averages for the NASL, U.S. Soccer’s second tier. Even given Detroit’s present space limitations — I have no clue how over 3,000 bodies have been sardined into Cass Tech — these attendance figures are already in the low end of the NASL averages, dwarfing the average USL Pro mark (~2,600).

Fully aware that I’m a few hundred miles away from the unfolding situation, obstacles stand in front of Detroit City FC’s ownership laying claim to a professional club, even with expansion opportunities in multiple leagues.

Dan Duggan, owner of the perennially successful Michigan Bucks (a Professional Development League team), has already taken a few steps toward ensuring that it’s his team that represents Michigan professional soccer. The frightening part for Le Rouge is this: Duggan is the younger brother of the Detroit mayor.

The problem is that the Bucks — a proud 20-year club who knocked the MLS’ Chicago Fire out of the U.S. Open Cup in 2012 — have the pedigree but not the support. Judging from Kenn.com’s numbers, the Pontiac-based Michigan club draws fewer than 700 fans per match at Ultimate Soccer Arenas, a glamorous soccer-specific indoor facility in Pontiac, a suburb north of Detroit.

Speaking with Powell, DCFC’s first full-time employee (not to be confused with the Olympic sprinter), Le Rouge isn’t concerned by the Bucks’ actions or any other attempt to rush professional soccer to Motown.

Echoing the sense of community and engagement between players, fans and the organization, Powell believes he has urban Detroit on his club’s side, and while he mentioned hopes of DCFC joining an expanded North American Soccer League at some point, he’s ecstatic with the progress that City has made in the NPSL — both before his arrival and since his February 2014 introduction.

When you think about it, Powell and the quintet of Detroit owners could be on to something — even if that something isn’t Major League Soccer by 2018. The DCFC product hasn’t been diluted by increasing ticket prices or off-the-field distractions, and Cass Tech High School has become an intimidating venue in which to play.

Although it would be a pity for DCFC to out-grow the oddly charming confines of their current HS stadium — even if the grass pitch is truthfully rugged and often beat up — maybe a soccer-only stadium is the club’s next step, one closer to becoming a fully professional outfit.

You’d hate to see rash moves, uncharacteristic of the club’s two-plus year history, dull City’s soccer momentum.

Anyhow, I doubt the club’s future weighs too much on Detroit City on a game-by-game basis; after all, Le Rouge has found tougher sledding this year in the reorganized NPSL, drawing Erie and Indiana and needing a stoppage-time goal to beat Cincinnati.

No, DCFC still hasn’t lost a regular season game in two years, but each result hints toward increasing parity in the NPSL Midwest.

The rescheduled July match vs. Detroit City FC comes at a crucial juncture for the Blitzers: the home clash is on a Wednesday sandwiched between two other home games, July 6 against Fort Pitt and July 13 against Michigan.

Your guess is as good as mine in judging how the World Cup — which will be in its final rounds in the first weeks of July — will impact local soccer attendance. A bit more soccer buzz would swarm around the city, like when the U.S. women made their World Cup run in 2012, is plausible, but U.S.’ Group of Death foes could squash any energy rather quickly.

Despite competing evenly and creating the better of the scoring chances through 23 minutes against City on Sunday, at 1W-2L-1T, FCB is struggling, conceding goals at agonizing moments and squandering early-season points there for the taking. Despite playing three fewer games, the Wolves currently sit eight points behind AFC Cleveland.

Considering the NPSL’s new playoff structure, the Blitzers must win their division in order to qualify for the four-team Great Lakes playoffs. The fourth seed is the non-division-winner with the most points per match out of the region’s three conferences (early results point toward that team coming from Great Lakes West).

Ten regular-season games remain for the Blitzers, six against division opponents. If there’s reason to panic, it’s due to an underachieving roster that’s laden with talent — maybe the most in the club’s five-year history — not the juncture of the season.

The club’s culture needs attention, too. The Situation Room has not lost a beat, but if Buffalo sets its goals high, the supporters group pales in comparison to Detroit’s. The move away from All-High Stadium to Demske was not in the organization’s plans, and the club is trying to do its best with a mediocre setting — a key reason why attendance has decreased so far from last year to this one.

In theory, attracting sports fans seems easy enough. Give them what they want: a team that both wins and entertains (0), cheap admission (1), trendy food options (0.5), barrels of beer (-1), a suitable soccer environment (0), merch you’d be proud to wear (0.5) and a little media coverage (0).

Oh, those numbers in parentheses are FC Buffalo’s rating between -1 and 1? Those are my personal grades — maybe yours are different. For me, though, a (+1.0 out of 7.0) aggregate isn’t something to be satisfied with.

I’m not writing this to trample on FC Buffalo’s past achievements (Bedlington, NPSL Playoffs) and future prospects — the city doesn’t have the long-standing minor league soccer history of Detroit, so it can be argued that the two are apples and oranges.

Plus, from a grander perspective, it’s a minor miracle that Buffalo — this old-school hockey and football-first city with still largely isolated pockets of culture — has a stable amateur soccer team, considering its severe financial limitations.

More steps need to be taken, and we know what they are: a carefully-designed venue, a schedule that doesn’t conflict with the city’s only men’s soccer league, permission to sell beer and a club that consistently wins.

If FC Buffalo ownership had the means to fund a soccer-only stadium, however modest, they would have done so by year five. The onus is on a pool of investors to step in and propel FC Buffalo from its current stagnancy — an stirring underdog story that’s maybe reached its limit, if you will — into a mainstream force that becomes the premier alternative to the Bills and Sabres.

If nothing changes on the pitch — and disappointing, uninspired results become the norm — public interest will inevitably wane. Look what happened to Rochester’s once-flourishing soccer scene. Windows of opportunity do not last forever, but Detroit City FCs aren’t built in a day.

For now, Buffalo soccer fans can sit back and marvel at what Detroit has achieved despite a tough economy and the presence of the Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers and Lions. One more short anecdote.

Detroit’s star striker Zach Myers, forced out of the lineup against Erie on Friday due to injury, tweeted that he’d be front-and-center in the Northern Guard supporters section, not stewing on the pine. That’s just one small sign of soccer’s euphoric transcendence in Detroit. Will it ever happen in Buffalo?

Note: The makeup match is tentatively scheduled for July 9, pending league approval. Stay tuned to the teams’ Twitter accounts — @FCBuffalo and @DetroitCityFC — for any further news.

3 Comments

  1. Doc Howard

    Dear Sir,

    I appreciate your coverage of the NPSL. However, when it comes to Detroit’s rise in the league, they are a distant second to a city one fourth it’s size. Chattanooga FC, in Chattanooga, TN, is the model from which DCFC was forged. Food trucks? Supporter group? Classy, professional organization? Check, check, and check. Oh, and those attendance numbers? CFC owns the single game NPSL record (+5,000), and single match involving an NPSL team (+6,000). A crowd of under 2,500 is disappointing. Sure they play in a 22,000 seat facility, but did I mention that Chattanooga is one fourth the size of Detroit? Two weeks ago CFC outdrew Chivas USA! That’s right, an MLS team! So, while bragging on a city that has a pro team in each of the four major sports, and a population of nearly 800,000 people, remember that those big city boys are being outdone by a city with no professional teams, and a population of 177,000. Did I mention that’s one fourth Detroit’s size?

  2. Josh M.

    Doc, I think you bring up some great points about FC Chattanooga and what they have accomplished. One thing that I believe adds to the remarkable success of FC Detroit is that they are in a city that where they are dwarfed by 4 professional sports franchises, two Division 1 soccer programs, another minor league soccer franchise (the Bucks) and yet they still can garner this sort of support. And as the author stated, if they were playing in a larger venue may have brought in more in attendance as they have had to announce the last few games as sold out.

  3. Tom

    If you look at the numbers DCFC is tracking similarly in growth rate to how Chattanooga did. Chattanooga FC was established in 2009 had attendance growth that is similar to DCFC. What makes DCFC more impressive is that rate of growth in a major sports market town.

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  1. By Anticlimax | Boys In Rouge June 9, 2014 at 1:09 PM