'They're special people': How Trevor and Tiffany James expedited Detroit City FC's culture
Detroit City FC captain Stephen Carroll can remember reading an article in 2019 that Trevor James had just been named the club’s manager.
He remembers seeing the resume: Assistant manager with MLS side Portland Timbers and with David Beckham’s LA Galaxy and chief scout with MLS’ Chicago Fire.
And Carroll especially remembers thinking: What is he doing here?
“Why would a guy with this stature and this reputation want to start at the bottom with Detroit?” Carroll recalled.
When James was hired, Detroit City had started to gain traction both locally and in the soccer world. Under Ben Pirmann, who departed in 2018 after six years of service to the club, DCFC went 49-17-17. Not bad.
But in the grand scheme of American soccer, DCFC was still a blip on the radar. It played in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a semi-pro side.
The impact of James’ arrival has been significant. He's amassed a 40-10-5 overall record, led Detroit City’s jump to the professional National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), then USL Championship, where the club has gotten off to a 5-2-1 start and will face off against league-leading Louisville City FC on Tuesday, with a chance to make the round of 16 in the US Open Cup.
But really, ask anybody around the club about the culture that James has instilled, and a majority of them will start their answer the same way.
“Trevor and Tiffany…”
Tiffany Ebert-James, Trevor’s wife, is the team’s assistant general manager and director of player well-being. Tiffany has a Master’s degree in conflict resolution and peace and a post-Master’s certificate in sports and performance psychology.
She coordinates travel and meals (her overnight oats are somewhat famous around the DCFC practice facility), and she handles contracts in the offseason. She educates the players on Detroit’s culture so they can understand the people who support them, teaches financial literacy, sets them up with internships and helps them take advantage of medical benefits that they’re offered.
Simply put: She takes a psychological approach to caring for players in a meaningful way and prepares them for life after soccer.
“They have a plan of what happens next. It’s not just, ‘Thanks for your time and we’ll see ya,’” Tiffany said.
"The supporters are wonderful and massive, but when you play in front of 6,000, 7,000 people, it's a massive high. It's something that you can't get back once you retire. So that's again, a loss that they have to deal with. ... To help guide them through that transition period is important."
She never saw herself working in soccer alongside her husband, but 31 years after the two met in a soccer shop where Tiffany worked in Los Angeles, they’ve formed a dynamic duo that has expedited the culture that Trevor was looking to build.
“I believe that these young men, they aren’t assets. They’re people. So, being able to support Trevor in doing that, it’s unique,” Tiffany said. “It’s not rocket science; it’s not brain surgery. It’s — treat people well and they’ll perform well, and we help get them where they want to be. I study game theory a lot, through the science of cooperation and those effects. It’s easy to support what I believe in.”
There are countless references in sports to the necessity for players to ‘buy in.’ It’s almost cliché at this point. It’s clear, though, that what’s going on with this Hamtramck soccer club is an exemplary case.
Midfielder Maxi Rodriguez has been a pivotal piece in the team’s success this season. It’s hard to believe — especially after his pair of goals in DCFC’s US Open Cup match against MLS side Columbus Crew, a 2-1 victory for Le Rouge — that he considered leaving the sport altogether in 2020 when he couldn’t find anyone to give him a contract.
Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, joined DCFC ahead of the 2021 season on a trial. With heaps of doubt circling in his mind in a situation that he said is usually “awkward,” Tiffany picked him up from the airport and erased all of it.
“Players come in on trial, it’s a tough situation,” Rodriguez said. “But they allowed me to feel completely at home. Tiffany does so much off the field, it’s insane. I remember my apartment, I didn’t have a lamp. Within 24 hours, she had two lamps that she gave me. Something as little as that is such a big thing, especially for me. I’m coming halfway across the country, playing for a club with people I don’t really know.
“For Tiffany to do small things like that, it’s amazing.”
Those small gestures are applied to every player and add up to something much bigger — a sense of trust, a true feeling of respect.
“They’re amazing people,” Rodriguez said of the James duo. “They treat us with so much respect and they do so much for us, I’ve honestly never been around a manager quite like him. He’s a special manager. Tiffany’s a special person as well.
"As a player, you have those expectations and you want to deliver, especially for a coach that gives you so much."
It’s somewhat noteworthy that this was never the plan. Carroll said that her role is something "we never knew we needed." Tiffany had intended to apply her education to nonprofits and other social work. But she’s making a difference here, initially in a part-time role and now as a full-time integral piece, both on and off the pitch.
“She does so much for them; she looks after them, so that’s one role in itself,” Trevor said. “But with the team, she does so much. Everything we do, it’s very rare that anything is not on-point; whether it’s travel arrangements, buses turning up on time, meals.
“It makes it so easy for me to focus on the performance and the on-field side. It’s sort of morphed into that role because of her ability to do so many jobs.”
A few days before DCFC's win over Columbus, Tiffany noticed the team was having a blast watching cricket during lunch, so she went out and bought them the equipment to play at the indoor practice facility. They loved it; mimicked their favorite cricket celebration.
And wouldn't you know it? When Rodriguez scored in the 85th minute to beat the Crew, the team ran to the supporters' section and hit that celebration in perfect sync.
"Whatever little action that they can or think will help us be happy or perform better on the field — they all kind of go hand-in-hand," said first-year player Brad Dunwell. "They're doing everything they can (to ensure) that box is checked."
Trevor's arrival in Detroit was massive and immediately recognized as such. The lane that Tiffany organically found has been less recognized, but just as important.
The James duo just bought a house in Corktown, finally planting their roots after not knowing what the future would bring when they moved from LA in 2019. In their downtime, you'll likely find them walking to brunch in their neighborhood or strolling down Detroit's Riverwalk.
"We don't go far out of Detroit," Trevor said.
And that's exactly what DCFC players were hoping to hear.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.