Hamtramck — Detroit City FC coach Trevor James didn’t survive soccer’s pitfalls and hurdles after 30 years in the game without learning how to roll with it.
When the team’s entry into the inaugural National Premier Soccer League Founders Cup imploded a month before the competition was set to start, the coach and general manager could only watch as his best-laid plans suddenly went through the shredder.
The 11-team pro competition was abruptly scuttled after team defections and insurance issues torpedoed what was intended to be the NPSL’s toe-in-the-water effort at going pro.
NPSL officials scurried to salvage the fall tournament, adding Pontiac-based Michigan Stars and relaunching a six-team round-robin competition called the NPSL Members Cup.
DCFC opens Members Cup play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Chattanooga FC at Keyworth Stadium.
Le Rouge is coming off one of their best NPSL seasons in their eight-year history, going 11-1-5 before falling to Cleveland SC on penalty kicks in the Midwest Region Final. The club finished on a 14-game unbeaten run (9-0-5) while outscoring foes 37-4.
“Obviously, we had a good run in the NPSL season, so it shortened our preparation time in losing players to bringing players in,” said James, who was hired in January after Ben Pirmann stepped down in December after seven years to accept an assistant coach job with Memphis FC 901.
“The confusion with the leagues and teams moving from one league to another didn't help. The confusion whether we can sign professional players or not because of insurance reasons is an issue, because players I had talked to and had penciled in will no longer come in because of that reason. It's made it little a tougher to recruit some of the players of the quality that I thought I was going to be able to bring in.”
Fear not, though. Within a couple of weeks, James had the likes of former Michigan midfield standout and U.S. U20 product Marcello Borges and AFC Ann Arbor stalwart James Vaughan in DCFC’s camp. A few other roster spots are expected to be filled within the next couple of weeks.
James’ jeweler appraiser’s eye for soccer talent helped propel DCFC to a Great Lakes Division crown this season.
The former England national team scout reshaped DCFC’s look by injecting only a handful of new players, namely defenders Jalen Crisler, Moussa Gueye and midfielder Abdoulaye Diop while bringing back familiar faces in midfielders Danny Deakin, Bakie Goodman and forward Max Todd.
James’ best move was tactical. He implemented a 3-5-2 formation, which relied heavily on a midfield living up to its playmaking and defensive responsibilities that when coupled with the stellar Big Ten goalkeeping combo of Hunter Morse (Michigan State) and Owen Finnerty (Michigan) resulted in 11 shutouts.
Meanwhile, Shawn Lawson continued to prosper as the club’s leading goal-getter — registering 18 in all competitions — while fellow forward Todd hammered home 11 in NPSL play.
During the unbridled regular season run, James reined in minutes of long-serving mercurial midfielder Cyrus Saydee whose form dipped last season. The result appears to have produced a reinvigorated performer.
“That is the thing with Cyrus. ... he has to play better because he is a better player,” James said. “But he obviously over the years has been allowed to control his own pace, if you like. He's had to train every day. He's had to be on time. He's had to travel with the team, all things he didn't have to do previously, which somewhat affected the team ... the team morale.
“I realized I better treat you all the same whether you are the best player, the worst player, whether you've been here the longest or you just came here. I'm going to treat you all the same.”
James has learned a few things in his return to full-time coaching. He’s mostly worked in supporting roles in recent years.
In his last gig, the Norwich, England, native served as technical director for USL Championship Indy Eleven, which defeated DCFC 1-0 in a friendly Tuesday at Keyworth.
James assisted the Indianapolis tier-two club when it moved to the USL from the North American Soccer League, which went on hiatus in 2018.
“It was great working with him,” Indy Eleven coach Martin Rennie said. “He is a very professional guy and helped the team a lot. He helped us build the team you saw tonight. He’s a guy with great experience and a very nice person.
“He’s got an eye for talent. He’s been around the game for so long and even the team he’s put together here in the short space of time just shows you how quickly he can find good talent.”
James scouted for FC Barcelona, FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon on the European stage. In the U.S., he worked as director of scouting and assistant technical director for Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire and as assistant head coach for MLS’ Portland Timbers.
James also served as an assistant under three head coaches with the LA Galaxy: Frank Yallop, Ruud Gullit and Bruce Arena.
As a player in England, he was reared during a time when coaches/managers ruled by iron fist and a tea cup smashed against the locker room wall to punctuate their message.
“I've never been like that. I've always had more of a question-and-answer dialogue with players rather than a command,” said James, who cites former England manager Sir Bobby Robson as his biggest influence. “When I coach, I question-and-answer a lot. If they do something, I will ask them if they understand it or ask ‘What would you do if you did this? If this happens, what would you do?’ so they can actually be brought in and learn that way rather than me just saying, 'Don't do that, do this.' ”
James has scouted his coaching brethren enough to know what works with a whistle. Along with the late England manager, he points to Peter Trevivian as having the biggest influence on his career.
Trevivian is a highly regarded academy coach in England but hasn’t seen that success translate to the professional ranks.
“There were things that I learned that if I go from one to the other, which I did eventually through my coaching career — I went from youth to pros — there is a difference and you have to have a different mentality about who you are working with and a different acceptance about what they can and cannot do and what they will and won't do,” said James, who started the LA Galaxy youth academy while with the MLS club. “I did learn from that.”
Since arriving in Detroit, James says he’s gleaned a few things about himself. For one, he’s learned to delegate more.
Javi Bautista, who serves as youth program coordinator, is working as a first-team assistant coach. Bret Mollon is goalkeeping coach, and Moises Orozco is equipment manager.
James’ unilateral approach at first might have indirectly led to the abrupt departure of technical advisor/director Klaas de Boer, who said he was “basically ignored” by the new coach/GM. De Boer helped launch DCFC’s youth program and was instrumental in bringing in Tyrone Mondi, who help lead the team to the 2017 NPSL Finals.
De Boer said he left with a “heavy heart” but wishes DCFC ownership and players nothing but the best, and has moved on. De Boer is involved with the new United Premier Soccer League Tulip City United SC franchise in Holland, Michigan, which is expected to launch in spring 2020.
“He told ownership, but he didn't tell me,” James said about de Boer's departure. “I imagine he wasn't happy with me. Maybe I didn't include him enough. Maybe that's how he saw it. I was probably pretty busy being pulled in a lot of different directions trying to put a team together, but I would apologize if he thought that was the case. I never meant to keep him on the outside or not include him or whatever.
“I wanted him to stay on. … I like him. He's very knowledgeable of the game. He's very knowledgeable of the area. He's a very good asset to have. I wish he was still here.”
One thing that attracted James to DCFC in the first place was the club’s community roots. He’s bought into that by being a contributor, if not an active listener.
When DCFC media director Lindsey Pehrson mentioned Landon Donovan was her favorite player growing up, she soon found an autographed Donovan figurine and a few signed player cards on her desk.
Through his wife Tiffany, whom he met at a Los Angeles soccer store when he was with Galaxy, he learned of a Le Rouge supporter who was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote a personal letter to that person and included a DCFC scarf.
Another DCFC supporter, Jarrett Maki, has come to know James by chatting with him at Keyworth.
The Clinton Township man let it slip during a live stream of a DCFC match in Columbus, Ohio, that he was a Tottenham supporter. At the following home match, he was greeted by the affable coach who handed him a bag, which contained an Andros Townsend match-worn Spurs jersey.
James makes a point to go over to say “hello” to Maki during warm-ups and Tiffany once shared a bagful of PG tips tea imported from England.
Maki drove to Erie, Pennsylvania, to live stream 20 minutes of the AFC Ann Arbor-Rochester Lancers playoff match July 18, which had been delayed. The match was won by Rochester on penalties.
Trevor James and Tiffany Ebert were among those watching Maki’s live stream.
“He said to me the next day ‘I feel bad I didn't have your phone number, I would have called you on the way home and kept you awake while you were driving,’” Maki said. ‘It's the little things.”
Detroit City FC vs. Chattanooga FC
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck
Tickets: $15 at the gate