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Champion Detroit City FC conquers pandemic's pitfalls in first professional season

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Though it came with a trophy at the end, Detroit City FC’s first professional season was a harrowing white-knuckled ride from start to finish.

DCFC celebrated winning the National Independent Soccer Association Fall Tournament Oct. 2, rallying to defeat Oakland Roots 2­-1 in a largely empty Keyworth Stadium due to the pandemic.

Detroit City FC players celebrate after winning the NISA Fall Championship trophy Oct. 2 at Keyworth Stadium.

Shawn-Claud Lawson and Ryan Peterson scored for Le Rouge after coming on as subs, and captain Stephen Carroll marshaled a backline that conceded a paltry eight goals during nine matches in the fall, six of those in the tournament.

Carroll, a native of Cork, Ireland, was essentially playing on one leg as he delayed having surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He shrugged off the pain and persevered through all five tournament matches, earning MVP honors.

“I'm not the game-changer kind of player,” said Carroll, who was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery Monday. “I'm the kind of player that a lot of people rely on.

“I really, really do not like watching games. For me to be sitting out watching a game and not being to do anything would probably drive me insane.”

The championship was more remarkable when considering DCFC dropped its opening contest to the Pontiac-based Michigan Stars 2-0, which followed an abbreviated fall season where Le Rouge were held scoreless in three of four matches — two of those draws.

Second-year coach Trevor James laid out the situation in stark terms to players the next time they met.

“I gave them a choice really. I said, 'We're either going to get on the same page and go for this and be supportive of everybody in everything we do or we can get out of the tournament next game, because that's what's gonna happen if we don't pull together and be together,’” James said.

“I think from there it was a matter of ‘You either want to do this and want to win this thing or you don't and you want to go home. Make your mind up. I don't have a problem if this is not for you.’”

In its next match in group play, DCFC went down 1-0 to the Oakland Roots on a Matt Fondy goal just before the half. Yazeed Matthews leveled it 1-1 nine minutes into the second half before Lawson, as he would throughout the tournament, came off the bench to deliver the dagger — a goal in the 80th minute.

The Toronto talisman was dealing with a lingering hamstring injury, which limited him to a substitute’s role. James wrestled when to insert the club’s all-time leading scoring without risking him to further injury.

Lethal sub

Lawson, who starred at Oakland University, finished the tournament with four goals, averaging one just over every 20 minutes.

DCFC's Shawn-Claud Lawson finished the NISA Fall Tournament with four goals, averaging one just over every 20 minutes.

“I knew if we were to win this, we had to have Shawn on the field to score goals, because we weren't scoring enough goals,” James said. “It was just that juggling act of trying to get him on the field long enough so he could make a difference but not too long where I could mess him up and he can't play next game.

“I don't know if it is plausible if you can do that but that is what I was trying to do. That is what it was. 'I can't put him on too early because he won't be able to play next time if we get through this but we really do need to get a goal because there isn't going to be next time if we don't get through this.' It was backward and forward with myself, having a conversation with myself to come to the point where I could get him on.”

James had other vexing lineup issues to address.

Two of the team’s top midfielders, Cyrus Saydee and Bakie Goodman, opted to sit out until the NISA tournament, which was played in a bubble setting, due to concerns regarding COVID. Their presence saw an increase in the number of DCFC scoring chances.

Forward Max Todd didn’t arrive until the start of the tournament due to having to quarantine in Canada for two weeks after flying in from the UK. Todd poached the lone goal in DCFC’s 1-0 semifinal victory over the LA Force.

James frequently tinkered with the two front spots, using Connor Rutz, Matthews, Peterson and Todd in different combinations to find the right strike partnership in a 2-5-3 formation.

His answer was often the fellow wearing the No. 9 jersey waiting on the bench.

“It was always about when rather than who,” James said.

DCFC's Stephen Carroll, who earned tournament MVP honors, played in all five matches despite playing on an injured left knee.

Not lost in the confetti, though, is Le Rouge’s improbable on-field achievement came against the backdrop of a pandemic that pushed the indomitable grassroots club near the brink. DCFC was down to its last payroll at one point during the spring, says Sean Mann, CEO and co-owner.

The COVID-19 lockdown deprived the eight-year club of matches, income and its lifeblood, fans.

Due to the Governor’s Executive Order, spectators were not permitted to attend home matches at Keyworth Stadium when the team resumed play in late July with the NISA Independent Cup. Fans were also not allowed at the NISA Fall Tournament, which was also held at the historic Hamtramck venue.

“It was really tough because we drive so much of our validation from being the entity that brings people together,” Mann said. “Those bonds, the appreciation of all the friendships and personal connections that people have made because of DCFC, and to have that taken away was really tough.

“In a lot of ways, that is the mojo that gets you up in the morning and not having that in our organization is tough.”

There in spirit

DCFC fans showed their love nonetheless.

When the club launched a community investment campaign in July, an offer for people to buy a limited equity stake in the club, the response was overwhelming. The campaign raised $1.86 million through September.

If not their wallets, supporters opened their hearts, Mann said.

A number of DCFC faithful cooked meals and frequently checked in on players. The Northern Guard, the club’s largest and most vociferous supporter’s group, adorned Keyworth with signs and concocted a remote-controlled smoke robot to pump out plumes when Le Rouge scored. (NISA put the kabash on the cloud-maker in the tournament.)

The DCFC co-owner believes the club has weathered the pandemic’s worst.

NISA, which is losing the Oakland Roots to the USL Championship, has announced the Maryland Bobcats as one of the new teams 2021. League play is expected to start later than this season’s February kick-off, Mann said.

DCFC has brought back workers furloughed earlier this year and is adding corporate sponsorship staff. The Detroit City Fieldhouse, the club’s indoor soccer facility, has reopened and City Clubhouse bar and restaurant inside is expected to soon follow suit, Mann said.

James is at the end of his two-year contract, but both sides appear intent on getting a deal done.

“If anything, we’ve proven our resiliency,” Mann said. “We got through this.

“There was an overriding confidence — maybe naively — like we were going to get a resolution one way or another. You spend all day on the phone waiting for someone to return the call, you can get down on life in general.

“There was an overriding pressure, knowing how much the club meant to so many people — not only to just staff and employees — but the community around the club. So we didn’t have an option not to sort it out.”

loconnor@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @larryo1961