Niyo: Clubs make their pitch for pro soccer in Detroit
Detroit — It has reached a fever pitch now, both the desire and the demand for more. The years-long push to bring professional soccer back to Detroit is at a tipping point.
"And it's not a matter of if," says Dan Duggan, CEO and chairman of the Michigan Bucks, one of the most successful amateur teams in the country.
But when? And who?
That's what makes Wednesday night's U.S Open Cup opener so intriguing, kicking off what promises to be another rollicking season of soccer in southeast Michigan, with the Detroit City Football Club — one of the hottest properties in the game — taking on the Bucks for the first time tonight at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac.
Two sides, two visions, two competing ownership groups. And though each side has the same goal — tapping into a city's economic rebirth and soccer's booming popularity to produce Detroit's first pro team in more than a generation — this one might go to a shootout, with only one winner.
Duggan, brother of Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, has been touting his plans for a pro soccer team here for nearly two decades, ever since he founded the Mid-Michigan Bucks in Saginaw in 1995. But he says the pieces finally are falling into place, with plans to build a 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in the city gaining traction — the Midtown area is one possibility — and the financial backing supposedly ready and waiting.
At the same time, a handful of young professionals already have built a brand downtown the last few years, with their Detroit City FC team and its legion of rowdy fans. And having outgrown their current home at Cass Tech, Detroit City's owners are busy plotting their next step, lining up investors for a move to the pros that could include a renovation of Hamtramck's historic Keyworth Stadium.
Yet as they prepare for their first competitive clash in this 102nd Open Cup — the longest-running soccer competition in the country — and all the pushing and shoving that'll entail on the field of play, all this talk of promotion and expansion begs a larger question off it: Is there room for both ideas here?
"I think that would be the dumbest thing either one of us, or both of us collectively, could do to each other," Duggan said. "I mean, if you want to see professional soccer die a quick death in Detroit, go ahead and go from zero pro teams in the last 20 years to two pro teams. That would just be suicide. I don't think that's in the plans."
Maybe not, but for the moment, it is, if we're to believe the pitch coming from either side.
Plans in hand
Duggan has made no secret about his intentions over the years, from the initial contract he signed with the United Soccer League (USL) for a Premier Development League team in the mid-1990s, through his campaign to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Detroit, to the on-again, off-again stadium project downtown.
But after another in a series of false starts last year, he insists he's "optimistic" he can meet a Sept. 1 deadline to submit a final plan for a USL pro team that could begin play in 2016. That'd require a land deal in the next few months, though, in order to break ground on Duggan's proposed soccer complex that'll also house a youth training academy.
Duggan says he hopes to announce an ownership group in the next 30-45 days, as any move to the pro ranks — the USL and North American Soccer League (NASL) represent second-tier divisions, a notch below MLS — requires a deep-pocketed investor. The U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport's governing body, requires a "principal owner" with a net worth of at least $20 million and a minimum 35 percent stake in the team.
"I'm not a politician, and I'm certainly not the politician in my family," said Duggan, who intends to keep the Bucks in the PDL — they've won the title twice (2006 and 2014) — while creating a new pro team. "And dealing with the bureaucracy … it's just one thing I never expected after another. I thought this was going to be a whole lot easier than it was.
"We're getting close, but we're not there yet. And once the land happens, everything else is gonna happen pretty quick. We've got front offices lined up, we've got professional coaches lined up, we've got international partners lined up. We're just not going to go play in a high school football stadium someplace. It has to be the cathedral, if you will, for soccer in Detroit."
Grass roots effort
Whether he will or he won't, the DCFC crew downtown sounds increasingly ready to storm the gates, though they've taken a decidedly different approach.
An idea that sprouted among a group of friends in a neighborhood rec league — all of them in their 30s — has grown exponentially since "Le Rouge" made its debut at Cass Tech in 2012. Plans that were initially hatched over beers now include an "official craft beer" from Motor City Brewing Works, one of several sponsors — Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers and Henry Ford Health System among them — that've helped the team's annual operating budget more than double each year. (Crain's Detroit Business pegged the 2015 figure at more than $400,000.)
And with the team's savvy marketing efforts matched by success on the field — a division title in 2013, and just five losses in three years — the attendance has gone through the roof. Bolstered by rabid supporters groups — led by the Northern Guard — Detroit City averaged nearly 2,900 fans per game last season. (Stadium capacity is about 3,100.) This winter, they had to cap season-ticket sales at 1,600 — triple the average attendance for a Bucks game — and they're expecting a virtual season-long sellout.
"The reality is we've kind of reached the limits of what Division 4 soccer offers," said Sean Mann, 34, a local government lobbyist who has spearheaded the Detroit City ownership from the start. "And five scrappy guys in Detroit starting a team, we've also kind of taken it as far as we can on our own."
So that's why they're talking to potential partners, and to the Hamtramck School District, which owns Keyworth. It'll cost about $3 million to renovate the stadium, according to an engineering study commissioned by the club. And while they haven't ruled out building their own stadium, the Hamtramck site seems like a fit, both for its back story — the first Works Progress Administration project completed in Detroit back in the mid-1930s — and its game-day atmosphere.
"There's no other venue in America that is more right for a European soccer experience than Keyworth," said Mann, who did his postgraduate work in England and just returned from a monthlong European business trip.
Whatever they do, and wherever they go, Detroit City's owners are adamant they won't sacrifice their diehard supporters, or their identity. As co-owner Alex Wright put it, "We won't be selling our soul."
A community-based approach that draws more from the game's European roots than the typical American model is one reason Detroit City is targeting the NASL for its next step. The structure of the NASL — with a bigger budget (about $3 million annually) but more player control for owners — is appealing, as is the expanded split-season schedule. Another reason, though, is that Duggan currently owns the USL territorial rights.
"It is an interesting situation," said Mann, who admits 2017 might be a more feasible target for Detroit City going pro than next spring. "The reason we started this team was we kind of got tired of waiting around for someone to create a team. So I think we're cognizant of what's around us. But at the same time, we're not going to let the announcements or proposals of others dictate how we're going to approach what we think is the best way to grow soccer in Detroit."
Duggan and Detroit City owners have had "limited conversations" in the past, but none recently. And none planned at the moment, though they'll all be under the same roof tonight.
"I've reached out to them and said, 'Hey, guys, at some point we need to sit down and talk about this and put our notes together and our heads together,' " said Duggan, who calls Detroit City's marketing "absolutely brilliant" and won't dismiss the possibility of a collaborative effort.
"I don't have to own," he added. "If I'm not the person that's in charge of it, that's OK with me, too. But I'm still going to follow through with this dream to get that soccer stadium and that complex built downtown."
Detroit City owners aren't ruling anything out, either. ("We're always open to proposals," Mann said.) But for now, they're moving forward with their own plans.
And planning on bringing the noise tonight at the Bucks' venue, where they'll be the underdog — the Bucks have twice knocked off MLS teams in the USOC — even if they don't sound like it.
"We respect the heck out of what they've accomplished," Wright said. "The more we do this, the more impressed we are with how hard it is to continue winning over and over. But we also think that it's time for us to play each other.
"Obviously the game on the field is going to be an important part of it. But there's a lot more to it than that. To represent the game, and the future of the game — I don't know if that's all at stake here. But I think a lot of people are gonna leave with an impression."
And where they all go from there is anybody's guess.
U.S. Open Cup
Detroit City FC vs. Michigan Bucks
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Ultimate Soccer Arenas, Pontiac
Tickets: $15 general admission (5 and under free)
Details: buckssoccer.com or Ultimate Soccer
The top of the American soccer pyramid, with professional leagues sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation and amateur leagues regulated by the U.S. Amateur Soccer Association:
Division 1 (pro): Major League Soccer (MLS), 20 teams
Division 2 (pro): North American Soccer League (NASL), 11 teams
Division 3 (pro): United Soccer League (USL), 24 teams
Division 4 (amateur): USL Premier Development League (PDL), 71 teams; National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), 78
Local teams: Michigan Bucks (PDL), Detroit City FC (NPSL), Lansing United (NPSL), Michigan Stars (NPSL)