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.”

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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

Unhappy reunion for Klinsmann as Bayern beats Hertha 4-0

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BERLIN (AP) Jurgen Klinsmann endured an unhappy reunion with Bayern Munich as his former protege Thomas Muller started a 4-0 Bundesliga rout of his Hertha Berlin team.

“It was nice to see him again but of course even nicer to win,” Muller said after Sunday’s victory lifted Bayern to second place, four points behind Leipzig.

Klinsmann gave Muller the first of his so far 336 Bundesliga appearances when he brought on the then 18-year-old for the last 10 minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hamburger SV on the opening day of the 2008-09 season. Klinsmann was fired as Bayern coach in April 2009 as its title hopes faded.

But Muller has only fond memories of his mentor, who later went on to be United States coach.

“I have a special relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann. He made me a professional. I still have the mailbox message from when he called me up for the start of training with the professionals,” Muller said. “He gave me my chance to earn my spurs. He put me straight in. He was my first coach.”

Klinsmann was only cleared to face his former club on Saturday after the German soccer federation and league confirmed they received missing documents for his coaching license.

But Klinsmann, who also played for Bayern between 1995-97 and coached Germany at the 2006 World Cup, could only watch as his team was completely outplayed in the second half.

Hertha showed little initiative going forward and finally paid the price for sitting back when Muller rifled in from close range.

“The first goal opened the game,” said Klinsmann, who had been hoping to extend Hertha’s unbeaten run to five games.

The visitors thought they had another goal minutes later, but Robert Lewandowski’s goal was ruled out through VAR for heading the ball out of Rune Jarstein’s hands.

Lewandowski finally got his goal from the penalty spot in the 72nd after Lukas Klunter tugged Leon Goretzka’s arm.

“The turning point was the penalty,” said Klinsmann, who felt it was a harsh decision.

Thiago Alcantara sealed the result three minutes later with a brilliant strike in off the underside of the bar after Goretzka sent him through, and Ivan Perisic headed in Muller’s cross in the 84th.

Bayern had been missing defenders Niklas Sule, Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez through injury, with forward Kingsley Coman also out and midfielder Joshua Kimmich suspended. Canadian teen Alphonso Davies made his 10th consecutive league start.

Santiago Ascacibar started for his Hertha debut after his winter transfer from second-division Stuttgart. The combative Argentine is Hertha’s first signing following financier Lars Windhorst’s investment of $250 million in the club.

Also Sunday, Bayer Leverkusen won 4-1 at bottom side Paderborn to move sixth.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ciaran Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

La Liga roundup: Messi scores, wins game in Setien’s Barcelona debut (video)

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Barcelona’s vintage playing style in their 1-0 win over Granada highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Barcelona 1-0 Granda

With a goal from Lionel Messi against an iron-willed Granada, Barcelona are back at the top of La Liga.

The win is the club’s first under Quique Setien, who debuted as the Catalans manager after replacing Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona rolled back to the years of Pep Guardiola‘s tiki-taka, as they culminated the game with 83 percent possession and completed 1005 passes. That said, Granda – playing  with 10 men from the 69h minute on – were bulletproof until the 76th minute. Messi gently pushed the ball with his weak foot, finishing what had been a series of fluid, build-up passing.

Setien deployed a nuanced 3-4-3 variation – far from Valverde’s 4-3-3 formation that ended up costing him his job after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Super Copa semifinals.

Players like Sergio Busquets were asked about the distinct styles, but he was candidly opposed to comparing the managers and their philosophies.

“We were a solid team. We had control of the ball. They created little against us,” he told Movistar. “It’s true that we struggled when they dropped deep but, in general terms, the team played a good game.

“It’s not about comparing. Every coach has his style and his way of seeing football. You’ll see what Setien asks us to do. We’re not going to reveal it. We’re delighted with what Ernesto did and we’re delighted with Setien.”

With Real Madrid and Atletico right behind, the defending champions have a long way to go this season. They’ll have to build on the win and, more importantly, further deepen their chemistry under the ex-Real Betis boss. Integrating winter signings into the fold might present itself as a challenge, too.

But one thing is certain: Barcelona can still play like they did back in their glory days. If that sticks, a lot can happen.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Mallorca 4-1 Valencia

Real Betis 3-0 Real Sociedad

Villarreal 1-2 Espanyol

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Celta Vigo

Serie A roundup: Ronaldo sets record with brace in Juventus win over Parma (video)

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s two-goal performance against Parma highlights Sunday’s Serie A action.

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Juventus 2-1 Parma

Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals as Juventus edged visiting Parma 2-1, going four points clear of Inter Milan, who drew with Lecce on Sunday.

Ronaldo opened the scoring at Allianz Stadium in the 43rd minute and added his second in the 58th minute, extending his scoring mark to seven straight games – the first Juventus player to reach that mark since Frenchman David Trezeguet in late 2005.

With the double to count for, the Portuguese sees his overall count move up to 16 goals this season, seven behind Serie A’s leading scorer Ciro Immobile, who has put together an extraordinary season.

Surpassing the 15-goal mark, Ronaldo becomes the only player within top five European leagues to at least score 15 goals in each of the last 14 campaigns. A big boost for the 34-year-old recent form has been Paulo Dybala, who provided the assist for the match-winning goal.

After a slow start this season, questions were asked about the chemistry between Ronaldo and the Argentine. But as Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri noted after Sunday’s game, Ronaldo is unlike others: he can create a world of trouble, but manage to resolve it all on his own.

“You have a world class player who might cause you a few problems every now and then, but can also resolve 100 of them,” Sarri said about Ronaldo after Juventus’ victory. “So you have to take him into account and work around his characteristics.”

Juventus will hope Ronaldo remains on what has been his best form this season as they host AS Roma in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal on Wednesday. For Parma, the campaign that is to crack the top six resumes on Sunday against Udinese.

Elsewhere

Milan 3-2 Udinese

Lecce 1-1 Inter Milan

Brescia 2-2 Cagliari 

Bologna 1-1 Verona

Genoa 1-3 AS Roma

Salah: ‘We don’t have to think that now we’ve won the Premier League’

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“We’re gonna to win the league, we’re gonna win the league!” rang throughout Anfield on Sunday night, and justifiably so.

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The 2-0 victory over Manchester United now means Liverpool have defeated every top-flight side this season. There is no team in the Premier League (anywhere else in the world, really) that exhibit the level of consistency that Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool exhibit. None.

It’s a historical season, a memorable one for all Liverpool supporters – even on the back of a Champions League winning season.

16 points clear of Manchester City, and unbeaten after 21 bouts, it’s now a near-impossible mission for the Reds to disintegrate the empire they’ve built. But along the lines of Klopp, who is implores the title-winning feeling is still missing, Mohamed Salah is weary of admitting that the league is a wrap.

“I think we just need to keep [our] focus on each game,” he told Sky Sports after the match. “We don’t have to think that now we’ve won the Premier League or whatever, no.

“We just need to take it game by game. I think that’s the only way we can win the Premier League. We struggled last season at the same time so we have to keep calm and just focus on each game.”

Perhaps Salah’s strike deep into injury-time is the quintessential embodiment of the fighting spirit and unapologetic hunger that is very much alive within Liverpool’s dressing room.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“There are a lot of games left,” captain Jordan Henderson concurred on not falling for complacency-oriented mindset. “We’ve taken it game by game for a long time now and it’s put us in good stead so there’s no need to change.

“It is special and we’re enjoying our football but you’ve got to stay hungry, keep learning, keep wanting more and this group of players wants to do that.

“The manager’s on us all the time to improve and we know that we can. It’s about every single day, keep going until the end of the season.”