Vive Le Rouge

Field notes from a minor league soccer revolution in Detroit.
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In downtown Detroit, there are horns blaring, drums pounding, people yelling and singing; smoke rises into the sky. It's not what you think. The people creating this ruckus are the supporters of Detroit City Football Club, the Motor City’s new and wildly popular minor league soccer team. The fans fill the grandstand at Cass Technical High School's football field, which is narrow for ideal soccer standards but comes complete with dazzling views of the city’s skyline, and Detroit landmarks—General Motors’ Headquarters, the Book Tower, the Penobscot Building—watch over the field like additional spectators.

That blend of soccer and city is exactly what the team’s founders wanted. The motto of the team—which began its first season in the National Premier Soccer League in May—is “Passion for our city. Passion for the game.” The supporters—usually more than 1,500 strong at each game, most of them clad in the team's maroon and gold colors—certainly deliver on the passion part. The people in this group are young professionals and middle-aged folks, white and African-American, Hispanic and Arab-American. They are a group as diverse as the population of the city itself.

“You have fans chanting every second of every game,” said Knox Cameron, a midfielder on the team and former member of Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew. “I haven’t experienced that in a long time, where fans can really carry you and boost your energy to take an extra run.”

Cameron's teammate Tom Oatley, a native of nearby Ann Arbor and a professional indoor player in Milwaukee, confirmed that assessment. “Other places and stadiums we go to are nothing like this. This is more like a pro environment.”

All this happy noise and fervor didn't come out of nowhere, though. The Detroit City Football Club is actually the outgrowth—the result, really—of the Detroit City Futbol League, an adult recreational soccer league which Sean Mann, a local community organizer, formed in 2010 to unite the city’s diverse neighborhoods around the sport.

In that league’s inaugural season, there were eleven teams, each featuring players from diverse backgrounds; they were Hispanic, Middle Eastern, white and African-American, young professionals and manual laborers. In 2011, its second season, the league doubled in size, to twenty-two teams, and jubilant crowds began turning out for games.

Amongst those twenty-two teams, five young men—four of them residents of Detroit, the fifth of a nearby suburb—formed a unique bond. When two thousand fans showed up for the 2011 league championship on Belle Isle, a small island in the Detroit River that’s one of the city's most beloved parks, those five young men saw an opportunity. Not so much to make money—minor league sports isn't a great place for that—but to give the fans barbecuing and celebrating the sport and the city, the two-thousand fans who had turned out for a rec league game, something that was otherwise impossible to find in Detroit.

“We thought we had tapped into a market that wasn’t being served,” said Alex Wright, now the team’s Director of Communications. They thought they could “create a soccer club that played in a downtown venue.” So late last fall, the five founders—Mann, Wright, David Dwaihy, Todd Kropp, and Ben Steffans—got together the money they needed to pay the NPSL to register the team, and the Detroit City Football Club was born.

***

The owners were never particularly worried about finding talented players for the team. Southeastern Michigan has a tradition of developing quality soccer players. One of the country’s top youth clubs, Vardar, is located in the area. Nearby universities such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Oakland University offered a crop of talented players eager to play in a competitive environment over the summer.

But Detroit City FC didn’t want to just field a team. As Wright said, their “main goals were to promote the game and promote the city. We are all Detroit residents. [We] work in the city.”

When more than 200 guys showed up for the tryouts, Wright said, “we started to get the idea that we were really onto something.” That large number gave the club an immediate opportunity to build a fan base as they worked on building a team. In exchange for paying the tryout fee, each hopeful got a team T-shirt and a season ticket. “So immediately after those tryouts,” Wright said, “we had 200, 250 season ticket holders.”

At the time of the tryouts, David Dwaihy, the team’s Director of Soccer Operations, said, “We want this to be a team that represents the city. We hope we get a collection of players who…show up early and run clinics and stay after the game to sign autographs. Guys who want to be more than just the entertainment on the field.”

The team, coached by Michigan State assistant coach Kyle Stannard, took shape as a mix of current and former college players, all of them Michigan natives or current residents; some spend their college seasons as rivals at Michigan and Michigan State. Then there are older players, like Cameron and Dwaihy, a Kalamazoo College graduate in his early thirties who is still fit and skilled enough to play with guys ten years his junior.

The team’s commitment to the city extends from its players to its sponsors and even to the club’s logo, which pays homage to The Spirit of Detroit, the prominent city monument of a man seated cross-legged and holding in one hand the sun, in the other a family. Their colors—and the team’s nickname—“Le Rouge” are a tribute to the city’s French heritage. Ninety percent of the club’s sponsors are local, and they now have more than twenty-five—so many that each company sponsors an individual player.

Even after the owners’ planning—the work they did to communicate the team’s message and form a team—they were still surprised by one unexpected element that’s lead to the team’s success. “The attention we’ve gotten from supporter groups,” Wright said “That was the wild card that’s taken the whole team to the next level.”

Three formal groups support the team. The Northern Guard Supporters and Motor City Supporters are formal soccer supporter groups in the Detroit area. The third, Le Rouge Supporters, was formed by friends of the team’s founders.

Before each game, the supporters march—often from Harry’s, a nearby bar—to Cass Tech stadium, all sporting some of Detroit City’s signature swag: replica jerseys, warm-up jackets, scarves, T-shirts that say “City ‘Til I Die.” Some wave huge homemade flags, others bang drums with the team’s logo emblazoned on the drumhead. All of them sing.

The owners saw how important—and unique—those fans were during the very first home game, against Cleveland. Detroit City scored first, and as Wright said, “Every single one of the players on the field, as soon as we scored, just turned around and sprinted to the supporters section. It was this incredible moment where everyone could see that everyone who was there got what was going on.”

Ever since that first game, Wright said they’ve seen a steady increase in attendance of about 10% at each game. The owners also coordinate a bar night after every game, always at a different location, to bring the supporters and the team together to celebrate—if not a win, then at least the experience. The bar nights ensure that all game days end in revelry, but they also help the establishment hosting the event.

“When we say we’re about the community, it’s not just a tagline,” Wright said. “We live in an area where one great bar night a month can mean the difference between a profit and a loss.”

***

Knox Cameron, a former youth national team player and University of Michigan star, described himself as “pretty much over soccer” by the time his MLS career ended in 2006. But his experience with Detroit City FC has rekindled his old feelings for the game. The “big thing,” he said, “is it’s really united the residents. To know that the sport that you love is making an impact…that is really, really gratifying.”

He said that his experience playing with Detroit City FC has been one of the greatest of his career. “This would be right there, just below playing in an Under-20 World Cup or a Major League Soccer game. Just because of what the ownership is trying to accomplish. To be able to bring this level of joy and camaraderie to the citizens of Detroit, that ranks up there.”

While the fans have made even these most minor of minor league games feel important, Cameron and Oatley credit the owners for running a seamlessly professional organization—which is no small thing in a league in which the uncompensated players are not, technically, professionals. “From the practice gear we wear—everyone’s in the same kits,” Cameron said. “Emails are sent out, detailing everything—what our travel plans are going to look like, what our meals are going to be.” Those small things have added up to a successful inaugural season—Le Rouge finished the season at 5-5-2, second in their division and good for a berth in the NPSL playoffs.

But while the wins are great, Detroit City FC is after larger and longer-lasting victories. If the evident bond between the team and the supporters is any indication, Le Rouge are winning in the way that matters most, both for the future of the team and its fans.

The team’s third home game, against Erie, started in a downpour. As usual, the two teams took the field for player introductions and the national anthem. “In a normal event, the crowd would take cover,” Wright remembered “When the players came out for the anthem, the supporters stayed there and did this chant. All through the player introductions and the national anthem. This was what their support looked like. A bunch of people getting soaked at a football field in downtown Detroit.”


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