Detroit City FC debuts Friday as a professional team in the vast unknown of the National Independent Soccer Association with the same core players who helped the organization reach unprecedented heights in semi-professional circles.
DCFC starts the NISA regular season against LA Force at Cal State Los Angeles. Kickoff is 10 p.m.
That means Rouge and Gold marquee performers mercurial midfielder Cyrus Saydee and goal-grabber Shawn Lawson (15 goals in 21 appearances last season) are back.
“There is more to come from both of them if both play within themselves,” said coach and general manager Trevor James, who is entering his second season after winning the National Premier Soccer League Great Lakes Division and Members Cup in his first term that was highlighted by a 22-match unbeaten run.
Rock-solid central defender Stephen Carroll and midfielder dynamo Bakie Goodman are joining the familiar pair.
Also returning are forward Yazeed Matthews and defenders James Vaughan and Tendai Jirira, who played pivotal roles in Le Rouge’s Members Cup championship run last fall.
To cope with the critical loss of 6-foot-4 central defender Jalen Crisler (one goal, three assists in 25 appearances), who signed with USL League 1 Forward Madison, James fortified the back line by signing former Cosmos and Indy Eleven defender Kevin Venegas while securing Venegas’ defensive partner Matt Lewis on loan from New York. The Cosmos are slated to join NISA for the fall season.
As part of the same loan deal, DCFC secured Salvatore Barone to shore up the midfield, which will be without the attacking playmaker Danny Deakin, who is playing for Sheffield FC in England’s seventh tier.
Ghanaian Michael Kafari, 28, is also on board. He made 32 appearances with North American Soccer League’s Puerto Rico FC from 2016-17.
Last year, Kafari played with third-tier Swedish club Motala as well as NPSL ASC San Diego and the Cosmos.
“He’s going to be a big plus in it for me,” said Sam Stockley, a USSF A licensed coach and ESPN+ analyst who has been working with DCFC during training camp.
In goal, newcomer Austin Rogers brings an impressive resume, as well as a varied collection of passport stamps. The 6-foot-2 Portland native has played professionally in Mongolia, Albania and Romania. Stateside, he’s appeared for the NPSL Kitsap Pumas and the Portland Timbers U23 team.
Nate Steinwascher (Sterling Heights/Detroit Mercy), who earned the Golden Glove award for posting six shutouts in Members Cup play, returns but his full-time job as an accountant will likely limit him to a backup role.
James admits three or four possible recruits were wary due to the uncertainty with the new third-tier NISA, but the Englishman’s tentacles — a network of connections from working 30 years in the game — were likely to snag a few gems.
The GM and coach previously served in coaching, scouting and player development roles for Ipswich Town, Colchester United, Newcastle United, FC Porto, FC Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon and the England National Team.
In the U.S., James has been employed by Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire and USL Championship’s Indy Eleven.
As technical director at Indy Eleven, he crossed paths with Venegas, who made 22 appearances for the club in 2018. James was let go in a front office overhaul but the pair kept in touch, often exchanging texts.
In his first year with DCFC, James tried to sign Venegas, who had played eight games with Minnesota United in 2017 after the club made the jump to MLS from the NASL. The fullback accepted an offer with the iconic Cosmos instead.
Venegas got a firsthand look at DCFC when the Cosmos drew 1-1 at Keyworth, then lost 2-1 at home in the Members Cup.
“We kind of joked about it later because … they beat us pretty much for the championship,” said Venegas, 30, who had five goals for the NASL Minnesota United in 108 appearances from 2012-16. “So, he was always kind of joking that I made the wrong choice. He was giving it to me a little bit there but yeah, it was kind of just a timing thing and I was just doing what at the time I thought was best for my career.
“But then again, I stayed cordial with him and this offseason, we started talking to each other and he said, 'This year we're going full pro and we need to keep growing. We have the potential here and really truly still have an interest in you still coming out,' and so we negotiated and the timing worked out.”
Venegas was sold on Le Rouge's atmosphere, especially playing in front of 5,000 to 7,000 spectators at Keyworth Stadium. Last year's visit with the Cosmos left a lasting impression.
“The first five minutes I couldn't even see across the field because there was so much smoke in front of the players and everything,” he said. “That's the kind of environment players want to play in front of. That's what brings the club to another level.”
DCFC’s 2020 roster also features a pair of luminaries who been on the periphery but could see larger roles this season.
Midfielder George Chomakov (Madison Heights/Schoolcraft College) is in his sixth season with Le Rouge but has been beset with injuries. Former captain Dave Edwardson described the Bulgarian as one of the hardest workers in training.
Forward Roddy Green (Spring Arbor University/Commerce Township) has blazing speed but has fought for playing time. Green made seven appearances totaling 89 minutes in all competitions last season.
“Everybody will have to play a part this year,” James said. “I think they will play a larger role than last year. I will say that George and Roddy in the year that I have known them have really developed into better players.
“You see them in training now … they’ve picked up the pace, they want to play quickly. Their game has improved, undoubtedly.”
Chomakov runs his own sportswear brand Champion Grind, coaches Hamtramck High girls and boys teams and assists at Schoolcraft College. He will also coach Sporting Detroit, which debuts this summer in the United Premier Soccer League.
For Chomakov, the achievement of playing professionally for his hometown club is not lost on the midfielder whose parents Stoyan and Sasha immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12.
“Honestly, for me, it’s a dream come true,” he said.
Detroit City FC watch party
Detroit City FC vs. LA Force
10 p.m. Friday, Detroit City Clubhouse, 3401 E. Lafayette