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'Start of something big': On 10-year anniversary, Detroit City FC reflects on growth

"Estadio Casstecha," the narrow pitch that changed the whole wide world. Sixty-four degrees and cloudy.

Players wore white jackets over rouge jerseys as they entered the field. Detroit’s skyline towered over them. The halftime show featured team co-owner Sean Mann holding high the flag of Detroit while racing around the pitch on a black lawnmower with blue flames shooting up the side.

And just like that, in a 1-1 draw with AFC Cleveland that was seen live by more than 1,000 fans at Cass Tech High School, Detroit City FC was born. 

“Don’t get me wrong. I had played in some big-time college atmospheres,” said Joshua Rogers, the club’s first-ever captain, and also a Michigan State soccer alum. “But this experience just seemed different. There was a feeling that it was the start of something — and something really big.”

Some foresight, eh?

The local soccer club debuted as a semi-pro team in the National Premier Soccer League and rose to a USL Championship contender in exactly one decade. 

DCFC celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its inaugural match against Cleveland on Thursday, just two days after playing in the U.S. Open Cup’s round of 32 and a few weeks after defeating an MLS side at home;  a wholly improbable ascent — at least to some.

“Nothing surprises me with this club,” said Kylie Stannard, who coached the club in its inaugural season and now leads the men’s soccer program at Yale. “I like to call us ‘the originals’ and I certainly take great pride in helping build the foundation, along with so many more people that have paved the way for what the club has become. Having the right people at the right time is everything.

“They have absolutely nailed this in every way possible.”

Back then, there was no TV broadcast, local or otherwise. The club’s games certainly weren’t being broadcast into homes worldwide through an ESPN app, like they are today. The Cass Tech field was narrower than a typical soccer field and “terribly bumpy,” Stannard said, but they made it work.

It was a physical match between two clubs from blue-collar cities. From the jump, DCFC had an identity that remains true today.

“A lot of it was bootstrap and scrappy,” said Zeke Harris, a Michigan soccer alum who played five seasons with the club. “But that’s actually what I think made the team kind of authentic and why people are just attracted to it.”

If you watch the highlight package from that first match on YouTube, what stands out the most is the fact that DCFC didn’t just have a surprisingly large amount of supporters at this game; they were all actually dressed like they’d been diehard fans for years. Rouge and gold everywhere. Scarves, t-shirts — everywhere.

Stannard said that the “amazing support and energy from the crowd” was “absolutely jaw-dropping for a team playing their first-ever game.”

Harris, meanwhile, saw a lot during his tenure with the club, which was extended when he became the team’s first-ever color commentator alongside current play-by-play man Neal Ruhl.

Outside of that first game, Harris’ wildest experience was seeing two Northern Guard Supporters get married at halftime of a June match against Buffalo (officiated by NGS co-founder Ken Butcher) in just the team’s second season.

“Being in the city, one, and then having so many fans and people there for a brand-new club — who at this point was unproven, but still already started to generate buzz and a fanbase and the energy around it — it was really exciting,” Harris added. “It’s no feeling like it that I’ve been able to experience.”

Stefan St. Louis had the team’s first-ever goal, just 10 minutes, 54 seconds in against Cleveland, poking in a cross from Tom Oatley. While Cleveland tied the game with a goal in the 35th minute, Oatley, who played at Western Michigan, can remember feeling like he was a part of DCFC lore in the blink of an eye.

“Everything went really fast (after the goal). I had the chance to score, but couldn’t find the back of the net, sadly,” Oatley said. “We ended up tying the game, but the fans made it feel like a win.”

Goalkeeper Jeremy Clark, who grew up in Sterling Heights before going on to play at Michigan State, recalls a unique type of support from DCFC’s fans. They reached out to players before the game to learn pronunciations of names and figure out how to work them into songs and chants, he recalled.

“That Northern Guard group did a really good job of getting to know the players. And then, in turn, that turned into us getting to know them and hanging out with them, and it helped the culture a lot,” Clark said.

In its semi-pro days, DCFC was made up of quite the motley crew. Some still played for their college teams. Others were recent college graduates. And then there were guys like Craig Hearn, who was 31 when the club was announced and never anticipated playing competitive soccer again — that is, until he got an invite to try out from DCFC co-owner David Dwaihy, who also played on the team.

“I had heard that they were starting the team, and I called my dad and said, ‘Hey, we always said if there was a professional team or close to a professional team in Detroit, we’d buy season tickets,’” Hearn recalled. “(Dwaihy) says, I played against and with you for years, just come to try out. Just try out and see what happens…so I went to tryouts and I made the cut.

“And I was like, alright, well, I guess I’m not buying season tickets; I guess I’ll be on the team.”

Detroit City FC’s inaugural match — and the growing crowds that followed throughout that first season — was validation. But it wasn’t just validation that soccer could work in Detroit, Clark said. It was proof that this club was truly filling a void, both for the community and the players.

“You dream about playing in an environment like that,” Clark said. “Did I ever know at 17 years old that I was ever gonna get a chance to play in that environment? I don’t think so … soccer guys were trying to play in cool environments and great stadiums and be a part of the supporters. To have that type of environment in that league, at that time, it was unbelievable.

“Growing up as kids, you didn’t really have anything like that.”

Ten years later, the club’s rapid ascent has come with what feels like a counter-intuitive approach to what the actual results have been. 

“I think they went into this with an open mind … with long-term (sustainability) as the goal vs. short-term gain,” Rogers said. “They have, and I hope always will, do things their way, putting the community of Detroit and the amazing people who make up the organization and supporters first. The owners knew from day one that there would be no success unless the team was rooted in the community, embraced the community and gave back to the community.”

While DCFC was sent home from the Open Cup on Tuesday via penalty kicks, the contrast of these two matches is stunning. The foothold that Detroit City FC has gained both globally and locally — a women’s team, a youth academy and several youth clubs throughout the Metro Detroit area — even more so. 

“I'm not quite sure playing in the USL, beating MLS teams or scheduling friendlies with Serie A, Bundesliga 2, and LigaMX teams was in their 10-year plan,” Rogers added.

“DCFC has truly stamped its name on the U.S. soccer scene.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.