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Fueled by its fanbase, Detroit City FC rises to meet loftier expectations

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

“The new normal.”

It’s a term thrown around a lot in a COVID world, but Detroit City FC is currently in the process of returning to the old normal — thousands of visceral reactors packing the stands, chants from whistle to whistle, and of course, thick clouds of colored smoke fading into the sky at the start and end of each half.

Detroit City FC fans set off various colored smoke bombs after the start of last weekend's match against Chattanooga FC at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.

Kicking off its inaugural pro season in 2020, there was almost none of that. Not even leaders of the Northern Guard, the team’s famed supporter group, had the credentials to get in.

Some brought ladders to push against the back wall of Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium for a glimpse of the action, others did their duty by lighting smoke bombs from outside the gates, but alas, the vibe was unmistakably gone, because, hey, this was hardly ever about soccer anyway, right?

The atmosphere has come back in 2021, with fans now being allowed into games, but as the old normal returns to Keyworth, a brand-new one awaits Le Rouge in the NISA spring championship final on Saturday night: Expectations. 

DCFC has lost just one game in the NISA fall and spring seasons, its first two professional seasons, and won the 2020 NISA Independent Cup and 2021 NISA Legends Cup. The Northern Guard is no longer cheering along the plucky upstarts; wins matter a lot more in 2021 than in 2012.

Le Rouge’s opponent in Saturday night’s final will be determined in a Wednesday semifinal between the Los Angeles Force and Chattanooga FC, who’ve both fallen to DCFC already this season.

And although a hypothetical downturn in fortune over the next few years probably won’t push those fans away, it remains that when they show up to cheer on Le Rouge these days, they expect to see a win.

“I’ve said this before every game we play,” DCFC head coach Trevor James said, “we play with some pressure, because we know how much this club means to so many people."

The pressure is now twofold: On one hand, there’s the obligation to not let down such a committed supporter group — that part’s always been there. On the other, DCFC has convinced itself that there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t win every game.

“Normally, you win a game, you tie a game, you lose a game, win a game, throughout the course of the season,” James said. “We haven’t really experienced that this season, up to this point.

“I think it's changed a little bit of the culture; it’s made us realize what you can achieve if you do your job. You don't have to win one week and then lose the following week. There's no reason why the other team should win. So that’s more of our outlook.”

That’s not an outlook unique to the club. NISA executive vice president Josh Prutch agreed Tuesday with the idea that DCFC is currently in a league of its own.

“I think it’s great,” Prutch said. “I think it makes every team step up to the table and improve their game.

“I’m saying here and now that I think there are MLS (Major League Soccer) clubs that don’t want to play them.”

Chattanooga FC goalkeeper Nicholas Nelson, front, is dejected as Detroit City FC soccer players surround Patricio “Pato” Botello Faz after he scored a goal in the first half last weekend at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.

That’s quite the turn of events for a club that’s considered the antithesis of what MLS represents, a club that to this day has an unwavering group of detractors looking to downplay the accomplishments of an independent football club to signal a desire for something bigger and better.

The reality is that opposition has only strengthened DCFC’s fanbase and pushed the team forward.

When opposing players and coaches complain about the volume of smoke bombs or other playing conditions caused by observers, the Northern Guard emphatically makes it worse the next time around.

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When other fanbases claim to be more dedicated, or speak down on the Northern Guard’s methods of support (they really love the F-word), the DCFC faithful has been known to arrive in droves at an away game, hours from Detroit, and take the stadium over, just to prove a point. They’re a petty group, and proud of it.

That pride goes both ways, though, and in principle, it’s still stunning that a grass-roots operation like DCFC cultivated such a dedicated fanbase before the on-field prestige could define itself — but that’s also part of the magic.

“The fans getting in the other players’ heads is a good thing for us,” defender Stephen Carroll said. “They’ll hold you accountable for everything you do.”

Like two pedals of a bicycle, they’ve pushed each other along: DCFC gave a small group of people something unique to cheer for; those fans gave the players something unique to play for. 

DCFC showed its thanks by allowing the supporters to be themselves, which resulted in more people wanting to become fans, which exponentially heightened the environment, which resulted in DCFC becoming a destination for players (some with MLS experience themselves), which elevated the club’s prestige, and thus the cycle has gone.

Until now. 

DCFC has caught up with the prestige of its fanbase. That’s not a slight on its pre-professional days — it accomplished plenty then — but rather an observation of changing mindset. 

These days, it’s the team getting into opponents’ heads, for no other reason than simply being the machine it is. Chattanooga coach Peter Fuller said Tuesday his team’s 3-0 loss to DCFC in April’s Legends Cup final was so demoralizing, it took weeks to get right.

“I think losing to Detroit in the final of that was devastating for us,” Fuller said. “I think it was devastating for the players. We had a fairly long hangover from that. I think it affected some of our performances during the spring.”

Chattanooga held its own in its last meeting on Saturday, but still couldn’t overcome a 2-0 halftime deficit. L.A. Force’s only meeting with DCFC this season also ended in a 3-0 loss. As it prepares to crush dreams all over again this Saturday, it’s impossible not to notice how things have changed for DCFC, the new normal at Keyworth.

Le Rouge is no longer the underdog. It's a menace — The Bogeyman.

Just like its fans taught it.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

NISA Championship

At Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck

► Who: Detroit City FC vs. Chattanooga FC or Los Angeles Force

► When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

► Tickets: https://tickets.detcityfc.com

► Notable: Detroit City FC will play the winner of Wednesday's match at Keyworth Stadium between Chattanooga FC and the Los Angeles Force.