Photo credit: Detroit City FC / Twitter: @DetroitCityFC

MLS expansion: Detroit’s bid comes amid Detroit City FC’s popularity

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HAMTRAMCK, Mich. (AP) Immediately after the opening kickoff, colorful smoke was already floating through the air and fans were in full voice, singing and chanting in a display reminiscent of matches in Europe and South America.

This wasn’t Milan or Liverpool, though, or even Portland or Seattle. This was a fourth-tier soccer match at a renovated old stadium in Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit.

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The team is called Detroit City FC. It competes in the National Premier Soccer League and its players aren’t paid, but this season the club drew about 5,000 fans a game at its new home field, turning a night at Keyworth Stadium into one of the area’s most unique sports experiences. DCFC’s growth is a testament to soccer’s grassroots appeal in the United States, and it comes as a group led by NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores is trying to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Detroit.

The question now is: What will happen to DCFC if MLS shows up? And would an MLS team be able to capitalize on the soccer culture that’s already here?

The answer may not be that simple.

“It’s a tightrope,” said Alex Wright, one of DCFC’s five owners. “It’s going to take some time and some conversation.”

There are over 80 teams in the NPSL, representing big cities like Chicago and Boston as well as places like Fredricksburg, Virginia, and Binghamton, New York. DCFC was founded in 2012, and the ownership group felt there was enough soccer interest in the Detroit area for the project to succeed. The barriers to entry weren’t exactly high. Wright says each co-owner had to kick in $2,500 for the buy-in and a chance to own a team and build it from the ground up.

“It was something we as founders who had day jobs could do on nights and weekends, but it also allowed us the flexibility and the freedom and opportunity to kind of like, really have some fun with what kind of team we wanted to be,” Wright said.

[ MORE: Nashville joins cities seeking MLS expansion team ]

DCFC outgrew its home field and now plays at Keyworth. There’s an independent supporters group – Northern Guard Supporters – and fans march to matches together from a nearby bar.

Near the entrance to the supporters’ section at the stadium, there’s a banner laying out some ground rules for the uninitiated. Fans who venture into that area along one of the sidelines can expect to stand the whole game, hear plenty of foul language and have smoke bombs set off around them.

“As long as you can stand the smoke and stand the swearing – and just stand for 90 minutes – you fit right in,” said 35-year-old Drew Gentry, a Northern Guard co-founder.

Gentry became interested in soccer after stumbling upon a Champions League match on TV and being amazed by the fan atmosphere.

“I’m like, `What do these people have? This is soccer, it’s not supposed to be interesting. Why do these people love this sport so much?'” he said.

Gentry wanted a local version of what he’d seen, a team he and his community could throw support behind. His is just one story of how an American under 40 came to love a sport that struggled for so long to gain a foothold in this country. Now fans are gravitating toward soccer for any number of reasons – and the group putting together Detroit’s MLS bid knows it.

“There’s a group of people that grew up with soccer now. They’re not necessarily people that grew up with the NFL or something else,” said Matt Cullen, a principal of Gilbert-chaired Rock Ventures. “It is almost like a little bit of a counterculture kind of thing, and people enjoy it in a different way. I think it’s the experience as much as the game at times.”

That’s certainly true at DCFC games. The players aren’t exactly household names. Fans go because of the atmosphere and the excitement of being part of something that they’re all helping build.

“In a more professional, traditional American setting, I think the mentality is you have to be something for everyone,” Wright said. “I think what soccer is proving is that while that is true – that is one way to do it – that’s not the only way to do it. To be something real for some people, is also another way to go, because we’re not trying to fill a 65,000-seat stadium and we don’t have 162 games a year.”

[ MORE: “This guy’s crazy, but he can play” — Jermaine Jones in his own words ]

MLS teams don’t have to draw 65,000 fans a game either. If there is a new team in Detroit, it would be in good shape if it can enjoy the type of loyalty DCFC receives from its fans. There is precedent for that kind of smooth transition. The Portland Timbers were a successful minor league team before being elevated to the MLS level in 2011.

There’s some skepticism among the DCFC die-hards. The Northern Guard website includes a list of lyrics to various fan chants, and one of them aims its profanity-laced hostilities directly at Gilbert, Gores and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

“It’s really important that everyone understand how much time and effort the supporters put into what they do,” Wright said. “If you don’t understand that, it’s really hard to understand where they’re coming from when you read what they write online or on social media. It’s not vitriol if you’ve been spending so much of your time building something up and you’re worried that it’s going to be forgotten.”

The MLS group has been quick to praise DCFC. Arn Tellem, who works with Gores as an executive at Palace Sports and Entertainment, said he’s met with the DCFC hierarchy, and he raves about the experience at the team’s games. He said DCFC and the Michigan Bucks – a Pontiac-based team that won the championship of the Premier Development League this month – have shown that there is great interest in soccer in the Detroit area. But it’s not yet clear how, specifically, the MLS group and DCFC might work together.

Elevating DCFC to MLS status would be one way to try to preserve the club’s charm and grassroots appeal. That’s a model MLS has followed elsewhere, but Gilbert and Gores would likely have some work to do to win over the trust of some of the local fans.

An MLS team could also try to coexist with DCFC in the hope that each can in its own way help soccer grow in Detroit. There are examples of minor league teams playing in MLS cities, although those teams don’t necessarily draw many fans. Portland Timbers 2 – a team in the United Soccer League – drew about 2,500 at a game Sunday, a figure that would represent a step back for a team like DCFC.

Wright says DCFC looks forward to further conversations with the MLS group about their visions for the future. As for Gentry, he said recently that nobody from the MLS bid had reached out to his supporters’ group.

“I will believe an MLS team is in Detroit when they kick off their first match,” he said. “Until then, it’s not something that I’m going to lose sleep over, only because I’ve got stuff to do to grow my team – the team that’s already here.”

The proposed MLS expansion team could start playing in Detroit by 2020, but that still leaves DCFC plenty of time to build an even greater following. Right now, the big priority for the MLS bid is securing a new stadium for a Detroit team to play in. The group is pushing for a site in downtown Detroit, but there are potential roadblocks.

If the stadium issue is resolved and Detroit is indeed granted a team, talks between the MLS group and DCFC figure to take on much more significance.

“I think we want to be inclusive with DCFC and the Bucks and work with them, and we can learn a lot from them. I think the groups that are running these organizations are really smart and civic minded,” Tellem said. “They have done an incredible job, and I think we can learn a lot from them and we will. Every time I’m with them, I leave feeling more positive that we have to do this together. We can’t do this without them.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Real Monarchs beat Louisville City to win first ever USL Cup

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Real Monarchs scored three unanswered goals as they routed Louisville City 3-1 at Lynn Stadium to win their first ever USL Cup title.

Noah Powder’s goal in the 66th minute sealed the deal for the visitor’s, adding to the goals scored by defenders Erik Holt and Konrad Plewa in the first half.

Surprisingly enough, it was Lou City who got off to a superb start on Sunday night, though.

Only six minutes after the initial whistle, Lou City’s leading goalscorer, Magnus Rasmussen, scored the game’s first goal, breaking a record for the fastest goal in a USL Cup final.

The defeat brings an end to Lou City’s historic run of consecutive USL Cup-winning seasons.

On July 1, former Real Salt Lake defender, Jamison Olave, took over as the Monarchs interim coach following Martin Vasquez’s unexpected resignation.

Man arrested after English soccer player reports homophobia

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TRANMERE, England — A footballer in England’s third tier reported being subjected to homophobic abuse from the stands, leading to police making one arrest.

Wycombe goalkeeper Ryan Allsop told the referee of the abuse at halftime of the League One soccer game at Tranmere as his team won 2-0.

Tranmere says it is very disappointed to learn of a homophobic comment made.

In a statement, Merseyside Police condemned abhorrent incidents.

Police Chief Inspector Jason Crellin added that “hate crime has no place in our communities, and not least at a showcase sporting event attended and watched by many people.”

Brazil beat Mexico to win U-17 World Cup (video)

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Brazil became Under-17 world champions for a fourth time in dramatic fashion as Lazaro Vinicius Marques’ scored a 93rd-minute winner to edge Mexico 2-1 at Estadio Bezerrão on Sunday.

Brazil’s comeback started in the 84th minute when Kaio Jorge converted from the penalty spot, following VAR’s decision which ruled contact on the tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Gabriel Veron, inside the 18-yard box.

With Brazilian legends Ronaldo and Cafu in attendance, the host’s had the better of chances throughout the first 45 minutes. Without any luck, however, Brazil were unable to get the ball past Eduardo Garcia, instead hitting the bar on several occasions.

Then in the 66th minute, Mexico – winners of the tournament in 2005 and in 2011 – stunned the home crowd when Bronze Ball winner Eugenio Pizzoto’s cross into the box was headed into the back of the net by Bryan Alonso Gonzalez Olivan, breaking the deadlock between two sides that had met in the same game back in 2005.

What was going to be a stunning, underdog victory for El Tri, turned into a heartbreaking night for Marco “Chima” Ruiz and company.

Brazil, on the other hand, are now only one championship away from tying Nigeria’s record of five championships.

EURO qualifying wrap: France, Iceland, Turkey earn wins

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With their tickets already booked to next summer’s big tournament, France and Turkey picked up wins in Sunday’s Euro qualifying action, which saw defending champions Portugal clinch qualification.

[ READ: Defending champions Portugal qualify to EURO 2020 ]


Albania 0-2 France

Albania opened their new, 22,500-seat stadium with a hard-fought loss against France.

Early on, Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso gave the impression that the home fans were in for a long night at the inaugurating Air Albania Stadium, opening the score just eight minutes in with a well-placed header. In the 31st minute, an unfamiliar face, Leo Dubois, connected with Antoine Griezmann, who slotted the ball into the bottom-right corner. France finish the qualifiers leaders of Group H with 25 points. Throughout the 10 matches, the world champions lost only once, a 2-0 loss against Turkey.

Andorra 0-2 Turkey

Real Valladolid’s Enes Unal scored a first-half brace as Turkey coasted past Andorra 2-0. Turkey, who clinched a spot next summer after finishing Group H two points behind France, controlled possession and chances at goal.

Moldova 1-2 Iceland

Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson scored the visitor’s second and winning goal in the second half, as Iceland walked away from Zimbru Stadium with a 2-1 win on Sunday.

With 19 points throughout 10 games, Rúnar Kristinsson and company felt five points short of qualifying directly for next year’s competition. That said, they’ll partake in the Euro 2020 playoffs, looking to squeeze their way in.

Elsewhere

Luxembourg 0-2 Portugal

Serbia 2-2 Ukraine

Kosovo 0-4 England

Bulgaria 1-0 Czech Republic