DCFC faces travel-savvy Dakota side in playoff tilt

Larry O'Connor, The Detroit News

They left at 6 a.m. EDT Friday from Fargo, N.D. The itinerary had them arriving in the Detroit area around 9 or 10 p.m.

Despite the lengthy pavement ahead and the 15-hour or so journey, Dakota Fusion FC members were intent on enjoying the journey if not the destination.

Fifth-seed Dakota (9-5) faces fourth-seed Detroit City FC (9-2-3) Saturday in the National Premier Soccer League Midwest League playoffs at Keyworth Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

"We're looking forward to it," Dakota Fusion FC coach Jim Robbins said by phone. "If we could've drawn anybody, this is the match we would've drawn.

"These guys need to experience this kind of stuff."

The Fusion, like the name implies, is an amalgamation of players from different cultures and backgrounds. The team's roster includes Iraqis, Serbians, West Africans and Eastern Europeans.

The Fargo-Moorhead area has seen a surge in refugee resettlement as North Dakota ranks second only to Nebraska in the number of displaced persons taken in last year, according to U.S. Census statistics.

Their soccer backgrounds vary from playing on club teams in their native countries to taking part in mere pick-up games. Only a handful have what some would call a structured soccer upbringing — experience on the youth, high school and college level.

Forward Jade Johnson, a West Fargo, N.D., native, is one those players. The 6-foot-2 goal poacher was named NPSL player of the week after notching a hat trick in the Fusion's 5-3 victory over the Minnesota TwinStars July 15.

Johnson, 24, who was twice NAIA All-American at the University of Jamestown, has 17 goals this season.

"He's a handful," Robbins said.

Rather than one player, the Fusion's story has been the solidarity teammates have found despite their disparate backgrounds. Those bonds have been forged on team road trips.

Fusion owner Sajid Ghauri, a Pakistani native, bought the club a 35-seat passenger bus this season. The vehicle is equipped with a restroom, video screens and storage areas.

The cabin has become a sounding board for shared experiences.

"Some of these trips are interesting because some of the stories that these guys tell about where they are from and where they grew up and where they came from in Africa and in Serbia and in Iraq," Robbins said.

"We laughed yesterday because these guys speak five or six different languages on this team. Some of the conversations on the bus, you don't understand half of them that's going on. They could be making fun of me and I wouldn't even know it. That's just the way it is. They laugh and have a good time."

Robbins is aware of Keyworth's reputation as being a cauldron for visiting teams, though. He thinks his players will handle the heat.

"I think there are some guys who have never played in that environment and they are going to feel it, they are going to sense that, 'Wow, there is a lot of people here and they are rooting for the other team and they may not necessarily want us to do well,'” Robbins said. "I'm sure a couple of guys will feel that effect. I'm sure enough of the guys are professional enough that they'll just go about their business and play the game."

Detroit City FC could maintain home-field advantage through the next round of the playoffs, too.

DCFC has submitted a bid to host the NPSL Midwest semifinal and finals, co-owner Alex Wright said. No. 1 seed AFC Ann Arbor and No. 2 seed Duluth earned first-round byes.

No. 3 Erie plays No. 6 Dayton in the other first-round playoff match at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Ann Arbor will play the lowest remaining seed after Saturday's first-round matches and Duluth the second-lowest remaining seed in the semifinals July 28. The regional final is July 29.

"There is no guarantee we'll get the bid, but we look very good as a candidate because of what we can offer," Wright said.

Detroit City FC vs. Dakota Fusion FC

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m Saturday, Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck

Tickets: $10 general admission, available at: detcity.com/tickets