Detroit City FC, supporter group at odds over profanity ahead of U.S. Open Cup match
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
That's what Detroit City FC brass and its supporters have found out over the last week, as the anticipation of Tuesday's round of 32 U.S. Open Cup match against Louisville City FC — the biggest match in club history — has been overshadowed by the club's reiteration of guidelines regarding profane apparel and chants at Keyworth Stadium and the reaction to those statements from the team's notorious supporter group, the Northern Guard Supporters.
The club's official account made two posts regarding the enforcement of profane apparel and chants, and DCFC co-owner Alex Wright followed up with a multi-part Twitter thread on Saturday to explain the reasoning and timing of the posts.
That prompted a statement released by NGS on Sunday night, which stated the supporter group planned to "punch back" in Tuesday night's USOC match and accused the U.S. Soccer Federation of "co-opting our imagery for their own benefit."
NGS was not clear on what the "punch back" would entail. In a direct message on Twitter, the NGS told The Detroit News that "more on the specifics will be released as we get closer to kickoff," adding "the players have been made aware of our plans for (Tuesday) so there's no surprises for them."
With a trip to the USOC's round of 16 on the line, Detroit City on Tuesday at Keyworth Stadium welcomes Louisville, a team which stands atop the USL Championship table and has yet to be defeated. DCFC has not previously reached the fourth round of the USOC in its history. Pretty high stakes for a match that now seems like a backdrop for a bigger fight at hand.
The brouhaha started last Thursday, when the club shared a post from 2016 on Twitter, which stated, "Just like at Cass (Technical High School's stadium, DCFC's old home venue), scarves with 'f*ck displayed on them are prohibited at Keyworth Stadium. Please leave them at home." In the new post, DCFC's official Twitter account doubled down on this statement with more or less the same message.
Anybody who's been to a match at Keyworth Stadium over the years likely could tell you that the club's enforcement of said guidelines has been relatively nonexistent. NGS always has had a reputation for being rather profane in nature.
Examples include their notorious chants "f--- Ohio" (which was especially prevalent in the 2-1 USOC match against Columbus Crew on April 19) and "Gilbert, Gores and Garber" (a chant with the refrain "f--- 'em all" directed at Detroit billionaire and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores, who previously attempted to bring MLS to Detroit, as well as MLS commissioner Don Garber).
As a group, NGS aligns itself closely with left-wing politics and inclusivity. One glance at the banners and signs that grace NGS' supporter section makes it immediately apparent that they stand for something bigger than sports.
With that said, the fact the club shared a post from 2016 in delivering this message seemed to represent one of two things.
The club was either using the older post to signal that there was, in fact, precedent for the guidelines in hopes of diminishing pushback; or, they were being instructed by USOC/USL Championship officials to deliver the message and simultaneously were winking at the supporters to inform them enforcement of the guidelines would continue with business as usual.
But there was no reading between the lines in a Friday post, in which the club again stated, "For ALL DCFC home matches, apparel with profanity, actual or implied, is prohibited. Such attire will not be admitted into Keyworth & if spotted inside, the owner will be asked to stow the item off-site and allowed to re-enter. Better yet, please leave those items at home."
And that's when things got turned up to 11.
There's no doubt the hyper-passionate group is, at the very least, partially responsible for the club — which celebrates its 10-year anniversary on Thursday — rising so quickly from an amateur grassroots operation to the USL Championship, a league that sits just one division below Major League Soccer in the hierarchy of US Soccer leagues.
That rise, though, has come accompanied with television deals through ESPN+ and new oversight that doesn't allow DCFC or its fans to play by its own set of rules.
"DCFC communicated the apparel guidelines twice over the past couple of days because we were concerned a narrative was developing online that we were not serious about the rule, that it only applied to certain matches, and that we would not enforce it," Wright said in his Twitter statement.
"The fact is that if we don't find a way to keep attire with profanity out of Keyworth, the Club will face severe consequences, among them significant fines and the loss of future (USOC) home matches and broadcasts."
The USOC could not immediately be reached for comment.
The club and its supporters have grown in tandem, feeding off each other to create a unique environment and club. Making the situation even more complicated is that nearly 3,000 supporters stepped up as investors (in a non-voting capacity) to keep the club financially viable during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of those joining the pushback on Twitter have 'DCFC supporter-owner' in their bio.
And this recent conflict is, more or less, the future those people always feared; that their local club which granted so much power to create a supporter culture in their own image would eventually succumb to oversight seeking to sanitize it.
This past season alone, entrance to the USL Championship has been accompanied by new rules and waivers to use the smoke bombs that have served as countless promotional materials from USL Championship and the USOC.
Between the new smoke rules and the recent crackdown on apparel, NGS fears a slippery slope. NGS cited on Twitter CONCACAF's request to cut down a banner in support of trans rights at a recent Club Champion's League match involving supporters of the Seattle Sounders.
"As our club grows, concerns grow considering more and more eyes will be upon us. With that said, our fight, even up to this point, remains against the (US Soccer Federation)," NGS told The Detroit News. "As far as Alex's statement, it's appreciated and we thank him for providing clarity. Nonetheless, we're confident an open dialogue between the club and supporters will continue, even in some of the more difficult situations."
And that's where this story has potential for a happy ending: "Since 2012, there has always been conflict between (NGS) and (the front office), out of which the synthesis is a far better and stronger club culture than either group could have created on its own," Wright said on Twitter.
"We want to grow this club, values intact. And we have to do some things differently to give our teams the platform they deserve. And we have to find a balance in those changes and communicate effectively. And all that is proving to be really hard. ... I think we can do a better job at this."
Wright declined additional comments to The Detroit News on Monday out of reluctance to continue "top-down communication," and said he wanted his next communication with supporters to be in a more direct setting, with a goal to resolve the conflict and ease concerns about the direction of the club.
US Open Cup
Detroit City FC vs. Louisville City FC
► When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
► Where: Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck
► TV: ESPN+
► Tickets: Visit www.detcityfc.com/tickets/
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.