Niyo: Detroit’s two soccer worlds collide at matches

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit City FC fans set off smoke bombs, a common sight at Keyworth Stadium, after Le Rouge scored for the second time in the first half Tuesday night.

Detroit — This isn’t a referendum. But it is a reflection.

And as the world takes another peek at Detroit’s burgeoning soccer scene this week, they’ll see both the pitch and the promise, highlighted by a pair of international matches on consecutive weeknights.

It began Tuesday night, when a friendly featuring Detroit City FC and Venezia — a rising second-division Italian club — packed the stands at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck. Tonight, it’ll be Comerica Park, where the fifth edition of the International Champions Cup kicks off with a match between European clubs AS Roma and Paris Saint-Germain that’ll be televised live on ESPN2.

Viewed together, “you kind of get a snapshot of soccer in Detroit,” said Sean Mann, the founder and co-owner of Detroit City FC. “But there’s so many other facets to the soccer community here that I think this is just a sliver of it.”

Indeed, there’s no denying the popularity of the game locally. Some 100,000 kids play organized soccer in Michigan, tops in the Midwest, and semi-pro teams now litter the landscape, most prominently a Detroit City club that routinely draws 6,000-plus fans — anchored by a passionate Northern Guard supporters group — and outpaces most second-division U.S. pro teams in attendance. Meanwhile, two previous ICC matches both drew more than 105,000 fans in Ann Arbor, including a U.S.-record crowd of 109,318 in 2014 to watch European powers Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium. Tonight’s soccer debut at Comerica Park doesn’t offer those marquee names, but it still could draw as many as 30,000 fans, officials said.

Yet you could argue that what’s also on display this week are the contrasting visions for the sport’s future in Detroit — one organic, the other manufactured — and the challenge that entails for all involved. And as Detroit prepares to take the game professional in the coming months, with billionaire NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores spearheading the city-backed bid for a Major League Soccer franchise while DCFC ownership plots its own course, it does beg the question for many area soccer fans: Where do we grow from here?

“I think that’s kind of the parable, right?” said Mann, one of a handful of young entrepreneurs who started DCFC six years ago with a used riding mower and a $5,000 league fee and now boast a $1 million operating budget. “Wednesday night, yeah, those players on the field are infinitely better than our players -- no one is going to challenge you there. But what about the whole experience? What’s the atmosphere like? …

“We have a much more authentic Detroit take on that. So I would tell people go Tuesday night, go Wednesday night and decide for themselves what they want soccer in Detroit to look like.”

Big boys are noticing

That’s not to suggest a one-time tour event like tonight’s PSG-Roma match represents the future of the game in southeast Michigan, or even the future success of an MLS venture in Detroit. International friendlies like these have passed through here for decades. (Keyworth Stadium even hosted a match between Germany’s Hertha Berlin and England’s Coventry City in 1968.)

Still, events like these do showcase the sport locally, “and of course the MLS takes notice of the attendance of these games,” said Arn Tellem, the Palace Sports & Entertainment vice chairman serving as Gores’ point man on the MLS bid. The 22-team pro league, founded in 1994, sits atop the U.S. soccer pyramid amid another expansion phase. Los Angeles and Miami are next up, and MLS plans to add two more cities by the end of this year. Another two expansion bids will be awarded in 2018 or ’19.

Sacramento, Cincinnati and Tampa appear to be the frontrunners for the next two franchises, but Detroit, Nashville, San Antonio and Phoenix all are viewed as strong contenders as well. Arguably the biggest hurdle for Detroit’s bid could be cleared soon, too, as the Gilbert-Gores group awaits a decision on a proposed land-swap deal involving the downtown Wayne County jail site that would pave the way for a $1 billion development project featuring a 23,000-seat soccer stadium. And Tellem says he now expects meetings with the MLS expansion committee to take place in September or October.

It’s that financial backing, along with the market size here, that helps push Detroit to the front of the line. But as longtime soccer promoter Roger Faulkner, a big MLS backer, says, “People don’t go to a game to read a balance sheet.” And as AS Roma’s coach, Eusebio Di Francesco, noted Tuesday at a news conference following a training session in Ypsilanti, one must start “from the bottom to make a culture of this sport, to inspire the people of Detroit to football."

That’s part of the reason why Tellem has been quick to praise the efforts of clubs like Detroit City, citing everything from the rowdy match-day atmosphere at Keyworth to its supporter-built footing, including a $750,000 revenue-sharing agreement that helped renovate their historic home, to all their civic-minded charity work. As Tellem put it last fall, “We can’t do this without them.”

Meanwhile, DCFC’s ownership group is navigating its own path to the pro ranks, whether it’s a jump to a second-division association like the North American Soccer League or perhaps the newly-formed third-tier National Independent Soccer Association set to debut next year.

“We certainly feel like we’ve set ourselves up to make that next leap,” Mann said, whose club’s remarkable growth — revenue has jumped 45-50 percent annually — remains stunted by an abbreviated schedule, among other issues. “And it’s in our best interest as an entity to kind of solidify our role as being first to market.”

Follow the money

First, though, they’ll need to secure the financial backing, and those talks have been ongoing for quite some time. A Division II move requires a principal investor worth $20 million to have at least a 35-percent stake in the club. A third-division entry still entails finding an investor with a $10 million net worth.

“Like any small business taking that next step, we’ve had some heartbreak along the way,” Mann said.

“But there’s still enough very positive conversations, interesting conversations,” he adds, that club owners are confident they’ll soon find the right match – one that shares their grassroots vision of a community-based club.

Edin Dzeko scores a goal during AS Roma practice Tuesday at Eastern Michigan University.

The presenting sponsors for Tuesday’s match were Quicken Loans and the Detroit Pistons, which naturally raised eyebrows. But DCFC owners insist it’s not a precursor to some long-term partnership, saying this latest collaboration — Quicken Loans has been a DCFC sponsor since 2013 — grew out of previous conversations they’ve had with Tellem & Co.

“It seemed like an easy, one-off way to work together,” Mann said. “Obviously, we’ll keep an open dialogue going with those guys, but there’s no immediate plans of anything else at the moment. “

Even the best-laid plans can be altered, of course, which is why all this bears watching. A successful Detroit MLS bid might not field a team until 2022, and who knows what Detroit City’s profile --or leverage – would look like at that point?

“We recognize that the soccer landscape is changing,” Mann said. “Regardless of MLS Detroit, whether it happens or not or what the timeline is, we’ve just outgrown where we’re at now. So we feel, frankly, a lot of pressure to keep this growing but also do it in a way that’s sustainable and is true to what we’ve been.”

Of course, as the pressure builds, so does the animosity. That’s nothing new for MLS leadership, which faces backlash almost everywhere it goes.

“But there’s certainly many more fans that want to be part of MLS than those that don’t,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said last summer when the Detroit bid was officially unveiled. “And those that are part of what I would describe as a relatively fringe group are small. But what soccer supporters really want is a great team that’s investing in the sport, that’s developing players, that’s making their team valuable so that they can contribute back to this sport in all the ways that will help our sport overall grow."

Strident supporters

Tell that to Detroit City’s most strident supporters, who weren’t hiding their feelings Tuesday night, some wearing anti-MLS T-shirts in protest to ensure that images of the colorful Keyworth crowds from the Venezia match won’t be used to promote Detroit’s bid.

The Northern Guard also posted an “open letter” on social media, vowing to resist attempts to “usurp DCFC with a plastic, passionless MLS club” while spoofing Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans screed directed at NBA star LeBron James when he bolted Cleveland as a free agent in 2010.

“Look, DCFC has incredibly passionate fans and I get it,” Tellem said. “They’ve supported this team for a long time and, to me, it just shows the passion and the interest in soccer in the Detroit area. So I don’t view it as a negative. I view it as a positive.

“My hope is that they’ll continue to support DCFC, and if the MLS awards us a franchise at some point down the road, I’m hopeful that they’ll also support our team.”

That seems unlikely for some, and last week’s report by Crain’s Detroit that Gores’ team had filed for federal trademark protection for the "Detroit City Soccer Club" only added fuel the fire — and the fears.

“We’re disappointed in ourselves for not reserving that five years ago,” Mann said. “From their perspective, I understand what they’re doing. But I know it didn’t sit well with our fans. So if that’s something they’re concerned about, then that’s something they’ll have to address going forward.”

Truth is, they all might, because with soccer on the verge of something big in Detroit, it’s clear not everyone views the future the same way.

AS Roma vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Kickoff: 8 tonight

Where: Comerica Park


Tickets: Start at $25, available at