Detroit

Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

Report: Ford Field likely to host Detroit expansion side if MLS bid accepted

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With 2020 just a few years away, Detroit could have a faster solution to its stadium conundrum as it seeks entry into Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Projecting the USMNT call-up list against Portugal ]

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the city’s expansion group — led by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons co-owner Tom Gores — has added the Ford family to its partnership as Detroit moves closer to having itself MLS bid heard.

In addition to the Fords joining Gilbert, Gores and the rest of the group, it seems as though Ford Field — where the NFL’s Detroit Lions currently reside — is seen as the venue in which the expansion side would play upon entry into the league.

Detroit was previously planning a $1 billion stadium project at the Gratiot Avenue jail site, with a 23,000-seat venue in the cards. However, that longer seems to be the case.

“Partnering with the Ford family bolsters our powerhouse group and provides a perfect stadium solution in the heart of Detroit’s central business and sports and entertainment districts,” said Detroit Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who is also a member of the Detroit ownership group. “Over the last two years, we have invested significant time, effort and resources into our bid to bring MLS to Detroit. After careful study and analysis, we concluded that the downtown location of an MLS stadium is paramount to an MLS team’s success.

“And no MLS stadium sits in a better downtown location than Ford Field.  We also saw additional evidence that multi-use stadiums can be very successful in the right situation and we believe our new proposal is superior for the city and for MLS in every way.”

The parties involved are expected to make a push towards expansion in 2020, where the entry fee is $150 million, as opposed to waiting until 2022 when the fee is expected to increase for clubs interested in joining MLS.

As it stands, Detroit is one of several major cities being considered for expansion. Los Angeles FC (2018) and David Beckham’s Miami project are the next clubs in the works right now, while Cincinnati, San Antonio, St. Louis, Nashville and others appear to be close behind in the pecking order.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has previously stated that the league is looking to reach 28 teams by 2024, and that would be the cut off for expansion.

Garber and MLS released the following statement on Thursday following the reports of Detroit’s amended bid.

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

Photo credit: Detroit City FC / Twitter: @DetroitCityFC
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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

Amateur player in Michigan sentenced to 8 years for referee’s death; Could face deportation

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Bassel Saad pleaded for forgiveness as he was sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison for the ‘involuntary manslaughter’ of referee John Bieniewicz last year.

Saad, 37, was set to be handed a red card in a men’s league game and punched Bieniewicz, who died from the attack.

[ MORE: Testimony in trial | Detroit fans donate ]

Bieniewicz’s widow held up a red card of her own at the sentencing, and thinks the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Saad is eligible for parole in 2023, but could see as many as 15 years in prison with the chance for deportation.

From the Associated Press:

She said the sentence and plea deal were generous, adding: “It will always be murder in my eyes.”

“One man has enough pent-up frustration, enough vengeance in his heart, that with one blow he can take my husband’s life and in the process destroy not only my family but his family,” Bieniewicz said.

Saad, 37, will be eligible for parole after eight years. The maximum punishment is 15 years in prison, and he also could be deported. He expressed remorse and said he prays daily for the Bieniewicz family, which includes two children.

“I hope he’s with us, he can hear me. … I hope one day they forgive me,” Saad said.

The story has served as an important example that is unfortunately necessary: We all take sports far too seriously, and it should never ever come to violence on the pitch, even more so against an official.

Tragedy in Michigan: Referee dies after being punched by player

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Just one day after The Guardian ran a comprehensive piece on the vibrant adult soccer scene in Detroit, there’s a tragic story coming out of the Michigan city’s suburbs.

Veteran referee John Bieniewicz has died as a result of injuries suffered from a punch to the head from a player during an over-30 men’s game on Sunday.

The 20-year referee was in the process of ejecting player Baseel Abdul-Amir Saad from a game when the player struck him in the head. Saad was “arraigned Monday on a charge of assault with intent to do great bodily harm.”

And so a men’s league game has led to the death of a father, husband and respected official.

From the Associated Press:

Bieniewicz, 44, was a dialysis technician at Mott Children’s Hospital who lived in the Detroit suburb of Westland with his wife and two sons, said Acho, who was a classmate of Bieniewicz’s at Catholic Central High School.

“I speak for all his friends when I say we are devastated. Crushed. Just a senseless way for a great guy to go out,” Acho said. “He deserved better.”

The incident, along with a similar death in Utah last year when a referee was killed by a teenage player, is raising concern about the safety of amateur sports.

“Never in my life did I think it would happen here,” Joseph Cosenza, a player in the game Sunday, told Fox 2 News in Detroit.

“All of that over a meaningless, know-nothing, over-30 men’s soccer league that, honestly, it’s not worth it,” Cosenza said.

“You know, we all want to go and play, but the more I talk to friends, the more they say it’s not worth playing anymore, because this is starting to happen more and more often.”

These brutal stories are necessary to publicize, as the photo of the man and his family, if only to remind players, coaches and parents time and time again that real people are officiating and playing alongside you. It’s not a video game.

Our condolences to Bieniewicz’s family, friends and the entire Detroit soccer community.