Visitors play up soccer’s Detroit potential

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Members of the Tigers ground crew prepare the pitching mound for Wednesday’s soccer match at Comerica Park.

Ypsilanti — Detroit can be a soccer city, and would be able to support a team and flourish.

But for it to be fully successful, it must build the sport at its core — with the youth.

That’s the opinion of AS Roma head coach Eusebio Di Francesco, who met with reporters Tuesday in a press conference promoting Wednesday’s match at Comerica Park between AS Roma and Paris Saint-Germain.

“For me, the secret for a city or a country to be successful for futball (soccer) is start from the bottom and grow toward the top,” said Di Francesco through an intrepreter. “So start with the schools and the universities. That’s the best way to create the sport, a soccer culture, and to pass on the passion.”

Led by pairing of Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, the two are leading a bid to acquire an expansion franchise for Detroit in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Gilbert and Gores want to build an approximately 25,000 seat stadium with mixed-use development in time for the 2020 season on the unfinished Wayne County jail site on Gratiot Avenue and I-375.

The MLS is expected to award two expansion teams this year — and another two in the future.

The Detroit market has shown huge interest in minor league soccer, with Detroit City FC, a semi-pro team based in Hamtramck — and formerly playing at Detroit Cass Tech — in particular enjoying a rabid following.

Maxime Gonalons, an AS Roma midfielder, feels soccer in the United States has to do whatever American football has done to make itself so popular.

“In some ways you have to duplicate the conditions that made American football successful,” said Gonalons, through an intrepreter, noting the facilities for Michigan football, which AS Roma toured earlier in the week. “The facilities (in Ann Arbor) are impressive. It was a very interesting visit.

“We’re talking about about two different sports, but somehow duplicate the conditions for the sports.”

Most estimates are predicting a crowd of over 30,000 for Wednesday’s match, part of the International Champions Cup, an 8-team round-robin exhibition season tournament.

The games are taking place in 11 U.S. stadiums from July 19-30.

This is Di Francesco’s first visit to Detroit, who is eager to see downtown and understands what the city’s renown.

“What I know about Detroit is that for years it was the capital in the U.S. for the auto industry, for cars,” Di Francesco said. “It’s coming back to the old splendor and I’m pleased about it.

“I would like to visit downtown. It’s been a pleasure to visit.

“I’m not sure we have a strong fan base here in Detroit. It’s a pleasure to be here and it’s our duty to export our brand in the USA and in Detroit, and certainly hope the fans will come to the stadium and enjoy the game.”

For many players on both teams, this will be the first time they’ve played in a baseball stadium.

Gonalons said “it will be something new for me,” playing within the confines of a baseball stadium, but doesn’t expect it to be much different than anywhere else.

“Our (focus) is to play together and focused to try and play our game,” Gonalons said. “The pitch is the same, the measures (distances) to be the same.

“We are here to give a good account of ourselves and Roma. We want to prove our worth and give a good account on the pitch and try to play our best. These are important friendly games.”