Hamtramck — As practice ended at Keyworth Stadium, Detroit City FC’s Danny Deakin cued up one last free kick outside the penalty area, which he deftly deposited past goalkeeper Fernando Pina into the bottom corner of the net.
“The invisible wall would’ve stopped it,” said Pina, who barely feigned a move to his left to stop the pinpoint delivery.
The mercurial attacking midfielder is all too familiar with obstructions — real or imagined — in his well-traveled career that sees him back in DCFC maroon and gold for a second time.
Deakin, 24, played with Le Rouge in 2016 when he was a member of the University of South Carolina soccer team. His exquisite playmaking skills were abundantly apparent, resulting in him being selected No. 64 overall by Orlando City in Major League Soccer’s 2017 SuperDraft.
Yet the Sheffield, England native finds himself back in the fourth tier of U.S. soccer after failing to latch onto Orlando’s MLS first team, namely due to a rash of “niggly” injuries, followed by the club’s entry in the United Soccer League, Orlando City B, going on hiatus after last season. The team is expected to join USL's new Division III league next year.
“It just flew by and the next thing you find yourself without a club, and it's 'How did this happen?' kind of thing,” said Deakin, who returned to his native England and trained with Sheffield United this winter. “Now I am here.”
This offseason, Deakin reached out to DCFC coach Ben Pirmann, who was more than happy to have the one-time highly touted MLS prospect back.
Deakin's impact on Le Rouge’s midfield has been seismic.
His array of playmaking skills were evident in the club’s preseason home friendly against Chattanooga FC, especially when his well-arced delivery into the box found its way for Brad Centala to nudge in for the opening goal during a 1-1 draw.
His intricate touch and ability to take on defenders was on full display for DCFC’s lone goal in its 4-1 extra-time defeat at FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup. In the play’s build-up, Deakin worked in tandem with Brazilian forward Rafa Mentzingen before forging down the left flank and setting up striker Shawn Lawson in front of goal.
“He can beat guys off the dribble. He can beat guys with passes,” Pirmann said. “He's got great service with the left foot, so he's in positions where we like to play through him and he and (midfielder) Cyrus (Saydee) do really well in midfield connecting the dots and getting higher players involved.”
Deakin has come back matured with an air of professionalism about him, DCFC's coach said. The attacking midfielder is also showing leadership on the field.
Those qualities are perhaps why Deakin was able to cope with the latest roadblock of having his MLS career stalled.
Then again, he dealt with the professional game’s harsh realities at 18 when he was cut loose as an academy player with his beloved Sheffield United. He’d been with the academy for seven years, which included a FA Youth Cup final appearance against Manchester United in 2011.
“I was with Sheffield United for like seven or eight years, you always grow up thinking I'm going to be a professional footballer, that's kind of crushing at 18 to be told, 'Oh and yeah we don't want you anymore,'” he said. “That was definitely a lot more heartbreaking than the Orlando stuff.”
After being released by Sheffield United, Deakin played with non-league sides Matlock Town and Belper Town but was disenchanted with the game and thought about quitting altogether.
A friend in the U.S., Oliver Gage, who now works as head of performance analysis with MLS Houston Dynamo, put him in touch with the coach at Mercyhurst College. Deakin played a season with the Division II school in Erie, Pa., before transferring to South Carolina where he was All-Conference USA first team for two seasons.
His play and love for the game were rejuvenated in the collegiate ranks. The pro version, this time America's soccer, brought him back to reality.
"Like I was saying to someone the other day, in college everyone is brothers and everyone gets along well whereas in professional soccer everyone is competing for meals on the table," Deakin said. "You are competing against guys for a living. So it's not as nicey-nicey and you've got to be more ruthless.
"And that's what it is: The professional game is more ruthless. If you're not performing, they'll cut you."
Unlike some of those mercenaries, though, Deakin's got a backup plan.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology at South Carolina. He’ll either attend law school or pursue a master’s in business administration, he said.
Meanwhile, the end game is simply to play and see where his sublime talents take him.
A return to Sheffield at the end of July, perhaps to pursue a spot with a non-league conference team in the fifth tier of the English game.
“He's a good player. He'll land on his feet. I have no doubt about that,” Pirmann said. “He's also a smart kid. He's getting job offers, coaching. He's got career ahead of him.
"He's trying to figure out, does he keep pushing it at a high level or what's the next step?”
Deakin is glad to be back to be playing 90 minutes in front of 7,000 fans.
"I liked it the last time I was here," he said. "For this level, you're not going to get fan bases like this. They treat you well. They house you. They give you grocery cards and stuff like that. I knew I was going to have a good time if I came here and, yeah, I didn't really look at anywhere else in the NPSL.
“It's good to come out and get meaningful minutes. This might not be the best level of soccer, but at least it's still meaningful competition."