Motor City FC mixes elite talent with blue-collar ethos during championship run

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Motor City FC defender Malia Berkely controls the ball against the Detroit Sun  during the Milk Cup Final on Tuesday.

The sign of a winning team is not always the victories they gleefully count off with their fingers but the one or two missteps they look back in anger when they stub their toe.

For Motor City FC, which barreled through the Women’s Premier Soccer League Ohio Valley Conference by going 9-0-1 while outscoring opponents 50-3, it was a 1-1 draw against the Columbus Eagles FC June 16 that still rankles. By the player reaction afterward at Otterbein University, coach Aaron Byrd knew he had a championship-caliber team.

“I remember last year when we would lose or tie I'd walk into the locker room and some of the girls were laughing and some of the girls just you can tell it was no sweat off their back,” Byrd said. “When I walked into the locker room after the Columbus game, you could see the look on these girls faces that they were irritated, that they were unhappy with the result and they were irritated that they did not get the win.

“That was their turning point. They were, ‘We have to go. We have something special here.’”

Motor City FC proceeded to reel off six straight wins, which included a 13-0 thumping of the Ann Arbor Lumberjills in its next game.

As a result, Motor City FC is playing Utah Royals FC Reserves Friday in the WPSL national semifinals in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The winner advances to Sunday’s championship game in the 119-team circuit, which is in the second tier of the U.S. women’s game below the professional National Women’s Soccer League.

Motor City FC defender/midfielder Michaela “Mouse” Kovacs moves the ball.

Motor City FC members represent Big Ten, ACC and SEC schools, including a strong Florida State contingent that includes United States U20 representative midfielder Jaelin Howell, Chinese U18 player Jujie Zhao, Venezuelan forward Deyna Castellanos and defender Malia Berkely.

In Motor City FC’s comprehensive 7-0 victory over the Detroit Sun in the Milk Cup on Tuesday, Zhao had a hat trick while Berkely blasted a long-range missile for a goal that Germany great Franz Beckenbauer would have gladly put his signature on.

“I like being in the back,” said Berkely, who is from the Cincinnati area. “I can see the whole field in front of me.”

The team also boasts some of the state’s top elite players.

Forward Alexa Spaanstra from Brighton scored twice in Motor City FC’s 4-2 extra-time win over Chicago Red Stars Reserves on Sunday in the WPSL East Division championship at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac. She also had a pair of goals and an assist in the team’s 6-0 win over Torch FC in the East Division semifinals July 13.

The Virginia sophomore, who also has represented the U.S. at the U20 level, was a third team All-ACC selection after finishing with nine goals and six assists as a freshman.

Michelle Cooper of Clarkston has played for the U.S. at the U16 and U18 levels. Cooper, a Michigan Hawks product, has five goals and an assist in 11 appearances for Motor City FC this season.

Goalkeeper Bethany Kopel of Novi, who plays at Indiana, has conceded only four goals in 12 league matches and registered eight shutouts.  

Motor City FC midfielder Civana Kuhlmann gets past a Detroit Sun defender during the Milk Cup final on Tuesday night.

Byrd, who runs Next Level Training based out of Novi and Sterling Heights, has always been able to land top-level talent. This year, though, he decided to mix in more blue-collar players.

“So we've got some players who just flat out work, win balls, provide a lot of energy and understand their role,” he said. “And then we have the high-level players that have bought into the system. They're willing to work. They're extremely humble. They play for each other and not themselves and it's just been a totally different.”

Defender/midfielder Michaela “Mouse” Kovacs has the pulse of the team, if not the WPSL. The Hudsonville, Michigan, native previously played for United Women’s Soccer Grand Rapids FC, which won a national title in 2017.

The two women’s circuits have some minor differences in terms of structure, said Kovacs, who’s entering a redshirt senior season at Michigan State. She chose to play for Motor City FC due to a summer job at United Shore mortgage.

With Motor City FC, though, everyone is on the same page.

“I think we do a good job as a team learning and knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses and then using that as a whole and planning for it,” Kovacs said.

Twitter: @larryo1961

2019 WPSL Championship Weekend

Where: Neal Patterson Stadium, Stillwater, Okla.

►Seattle Sounders (9-1) vs. Pensacola FC (10-0), 7 p.m. Friday

► Utah Royals FC Reserves (11-1) vs. Motor City FC (9-0-1), 9 p.m. Friday

Final: 1 p.m. Sunday