Photos by Nick Brancaccio, Windsor Star. Article originally appeared July 27, 2015 in the Windsor Star.
The best soccer team you’ve never heard of plays in a fourth division league across the river in downtown Detroit.
Detroit City FC plays on a high school football field in a neighbourhood your parents warned you about. But for many of the 5,000 or so people who come out to Cass Tech high school for each game, it’s the best sporting experience in the city.
As the team prepared for a friendly match against the Windsor Stars recently, about 300 members of its fan club — the Northern Guard — set up shop at Harry’s Detroit Bar just west of Midtown.
“This is a grassroots soccer club, it’s what pure soccer is all about,” said Drew Gentry, one of the group’s leaders. “This is how it was meant to be played, our friends and neighbours against the other town’s”
“It’s lightning in a bottle. The right owners, the right club, the right atmosphere at the right time,” he said.
Once Gentry puts on his black military helmet and bandanna, he becomes Sarge, one of several Northern Guard captains. He kicks off the pre-match march from Harry’s to Cass Tech Stadium every game with a speech on the roof of his jeep.
“Supporters, what is your profession?” he yells to the crowd, quoting Greek warrior Leonidas.
“Ahoo, Ahoo, Ahoo,” they respond.
After that, they’re off to the stadium, Spartans marching to war with flares, flags and a drum line.
“It’s a form of intimidation,” Gentry said. “Our opponents can hear us coming as they warm up, as we get closer it just keeps getting louder and louder. It’s the first step in the intimidation game.”
Northern Guard supporters spend the entire 90 minutes of the match on their feet, chanting and singing. A favourite is “Nobody, likes us. Nobody likes us. Nobody likes us, we don’t care.”
“The goal is to keep the atmosphere going for 90 minutes,” Gentry said. “If you leave the match with your voice still intact, you’ve failed the club. In most American sports, you wait until something happens. In soccer, you will it to happen.”
The team’s roster is made up of mostly current and former university soccer players. A solid core anchors the defence, creative midfielders keep the ball moving and strikers Javier Bautista and William Mellors-Blair lead a powerful attack. The Stars’ defenders had their work cut out for them keeping Detroit off the board in their 1-0 victory July 22.
Since the team’s first season in 2012, Detroit City’s home games have taken on an almost mythical status for the twentysomethings who’ve flocked to Detroit in the past few years.
Laura Cavis was one of the rowdies at the pre-match party at Harry’s. Wearing the team’s maroon and gold colours and a skull bandanna around her neck, she put a little distance between her job as one of Les Rouges supporters and her day job as a preschool teacher.
“It’s a warm environment, very welcoming,” she said. “Even though I’ve only been here for three matches, I feel I’ve been coming out much longer. It’s not intimidating to ask questions if you don’t understand a chant, the traditions or something about the play on the field.”
Even with some chants which can’t be printed and big talk about intimidation, the Northern Guard was never dangerous or really out of hand. One of their chant leaders is 11 and many young families came decked out in maroon face paint.
“Soccer fans are different than other sports fans,” said Kirsten Johnson, a 27-year-old speech pathologist who came to the game with Cavis. “If you know nothing about soccer they’ll say, ‘Oh, let me teach you.’ I’ve always liked that.”
This friendly atmosphere sprung up from the Detroit City Futbol League, a local recreational league made up of teams representing Detroit’s historic neighbourhoods. Each squad adopts a youth team and an award is handed out at season’s end to the team doing the most community service.
Alex Wright, one of Detroit City’s five owners, said the team’s games act as a gathering place in a city often characterized by lazy metaphors about it being a symbol for American decline.
“We’re reluctant to say our soccer team that plays two months a year is really playing a part in changing a city,” Wright said. “But we are aware we can create a social centre, a heart for people interested in Detroit. We didn’t start a soccer team to save anything. We just love soccer and wanted to be part of something.”
Even so, City’s management is proud of its community work, holding equipment drives for underprivileged kids and working with the Detroit Police Athletic League. In June, the team wore special jerseys with the LGBT pride flag across the chest — only the second American sports team to do so, Wright said.
“We’re proud of it,” Wright said. “Yes, it’s minor league, but no team in America is run like us. Guys like us don’t run sports teams. We embraced our supporters and they embraced us. The result of that relationship is the atmosphere you see here.”
For Johnson, who grew up in Detroit, moved away and came back last year, this team is something special.
“It’s not what you expect,” she said. “There are so many people who say we need an MLS team in the city, but I tell them, we have a perfectly good team right here.”