Detroit still on Major League Soccer’s radar

Al Willman
The Detroit News
Dan Gilbert has unveiled a plan that will transform the stalled Wayne County jail project at Gratiot near Interstate 375 into a Major League Soccer facility.

Representatives of Detroit’s combined ownership group of Pistons owner Tom Gores and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert told the media two weeks ago that they expected good news regarding their bid for a Major League Soccer franchise.

This week, representatives of the MLS said there is an announcement coming soon, but it won’t be this week.

MLS commissioner Don Garber, ahead of this weekend’s championship match in Toronto between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, will bring up the league’s effort to expand by four teams, to 28, on Friday in a news conference.

“He’s not announcing any expansion teams on Friday, and he’s not announcing the process and timeline, but he’s certainly going to discuss it,” MLS director of communications Dan Courtemache said.

He said when the league’s Board of Governors meets next Thursday with the league’s expansion committee, the next round of additions will be on the agenda.

“It is possible that we will have an announcement on the 15th regarding the process and timeline for the next round of expansions,” Courtemache said. “We don’t have an update on Detroit today, nor do we have an update on the 10 or 11 other markets that are interested in MLS expansion.”

Another topic for discussion is the entry fee for the four new franchises, which could be as high as $200 million, double what it had been for the most recent expansion franchises.

Right now there are 22 clubs, with the inclusion of teams in Atlanta and Minnesota, which start play next season.

A second team in Los Angeles is set to begin play in 2018, along with a franchise owned in part by former soccer star David Beckham in Miami.

That would bring the number to 24.

However, the club in Miami is having difficulty securing funding for a stadium, which has delayed efforts there.

In addition to Detroit, there are efforts already underway in Austin, Cincinnati, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis and San Antonio.

On Tuesday, Raleigh and Tampa/St. Petersburg joined the fray, making 10 bids for the next four spots.

“We are aware of the fact that from a geographic standpoint, there is a benefit to having more teams in the Midwest,” Courtemache said, seemingly indicating positives to adding franchises in Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

As far as Detroit itself, Courtemache said the work by Gilbert, Gores and Arn Tellem, who has been the point-person for the ownership group, has stood out.

“We were clearly impressed with the vision of Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores to bring Major League Soccer to Detroit when we visited earlier this year,” Courtemache said.

Courtemache deferred to comments made in April by Garber regarding the pros and cons of Detroit’s bid for a franchise.

“Our view of Detroit remains the same,” Courtemache explained. “We were very impressed with the market when we visited. We’ve had discussions with Arn Tellem, and Dan Gilbert’s executive staff since our visit.

“We know they’re working on a stadium plan and we look forward to more details as they develop.”

MLS, meet DCFC

Soccer is certainly no stranger to Metro Detroit.

Detroit City FC, in the National Professional Soccer League — which has restructured its conferences in order to have a significant presence in the Midwest — has experienced attendance growth in the last three seasons.

DCFC, which averaged 5,208 fans this season — up from 3,528 in 2015 and 2,857 in 2014 — along with AFC Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids FC, Lansing United, Kalamazoo FC, Michigan Stars FC, FC Indiana and the Milwaukee Torrent, will be in the NPSL’s Midwest region, the league announced Thursday morning.

The MLS, Courtemache said, is a strong proponent of the lower leagues, like the NPSL.

“I can tell you that we’re firm believers that having vibrant professional soccer in the lower divisions is extremely important to promoting the game in the United States and Canada," he said. "The focus is on development of future MLS players.”

Courtemache said there are several cities that have both MLS clubs and lower-tier teams.

“We have multiple markets where they have an MLS club and a USL club and PDL clubs and NPSL clubs and it’s part of the soccer ecosystem in this country, which is part of building a soccer nation," he said. "We’ve been working on this for more than 20 years, as have many people involved in the lower divisions. It’s tremendous to see how popular some of these clubs are.

“We’ve certainly witnessed the tremendous success of Detroit City FC … that’s an important part of growing the sport in our country. As the plans evolve with the local ownership group there, I’m sure they’ll continue their discussions with the owners of those various teams as they have already done.”

On social media, however, all one must do is look in the direction of the Northern Guard — DCFC’s hyper-loyal supporter group — for a taste of what some NPSL fans in Detroit have to say about an MLS club entering its backyard.

Much of it isn’t suitable for print, but there’s certainly a lot to say.

“You see with the folks who are really passionate and dismissive of Major League Soccer, if anything, it’s because they care about their club,” DCFC co-owner Sean Mann said. “There’s a loyalty, there’s an identity and they’ve been building something from scratch. They don’t want to see that ruined. It’s more about their loyalty to this club, I think, than what MLS does or doesn’t do.

“We have a very passionate group of supporters. We have a tremendous atmosphere at our game days. I think, as long as we keep those things going, we’ll do alright.”

As for Mann and DCFC, there have been discussions with Gilbert, Gores and Tellem — albeit of a very basic nature.

“We’ve had talks with them, and we’ll continue to work with them,” Mann said. “There’s a lot of things to play out. We’ll see where those take us.”

Al Willman is a freelance writer.