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DCFC have played host to semi-professional clubs Glentoran FC and FC United of Manchester. Last year they organized a friendly with Serie B’s Venezia FC - the Italian side’s first match in the United States. This summer they've got friendlies lined up against FC St. Pauli of the German second division and Club Necaxa, who play in Mexico’s top tier. So how has a six year-old amateur team, whose players aren't paid, managed to accomplish all this?
(Matchday fever at Keyworth Stadium is as exciting for DCFC's players as it is for fans - photo Jon DeBoer/DCFC)
“If you’re going to be your city’s soccer club, you have to be your city’s soccer club. You need to make it as easy as possible for all of your fans to feel excited about supporting the team,” says DCFC Community Liaison Phil Lucas. “We celebrate our diversity and remind people that everyone is welcome. Soccer is the unifying agent of the world and we feel that it can only be used more to bring people together. We’re a small organization but I feel very excited about our commitment to being a club of the city.”
That commitment has seen Detroit City FC partner with the local YMCA and the Detroit Police Athletic League (DPAL). The YMCA programs offer affordable soccer leagues for kids ages 2-17 at venues all over the city. The partnership with DPAL will provide a year-round program for youth players looking for a higher level of competition, at little to no cost. DCFC’s non-profit branch, Detroit City Sporting Coalition, provides the funding to run the program and the organization intends to include a minimum of three teams for U-10 and U-12 boys and girls with plans for expansion each year. While the partnerships with the YMCA and DPAL are recent, Detroit City has several community-focused initiatives already in place. Soccer Tots provides practice sessions and games for kids aged 2-4. Fans aged 2-12 can enroll in Rouge Rascals, a membership program which offers merchandise, exclusive events and a discounted season ticket. While each initiative helps cement the Detroit City fan of the future, it’s also a legitimate means of giving back to the supporters who Lucas says are unlike any others in the country.
Their Club - Their Stadium
Based on the response from fans, it seems Detroit City’s efforts to provide a legitimate experience are working wonders. In February 2016, thanks to the investment of supporters, the club raised $741,250 to revitalize Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, MI.
“It was actually a few months away from being declared unfit,” notes Lucas. “It was ready for the wrecking ball! I don’t say that to be dramatic - the stadium was literally crumbling. The amount of money that had to be put into it, just to get it barebones operable, was the amount that we raised. It was a huge commitment by our fans to put their money where their mouth is. They’re ‘City Til We Die’ and they chant it every day, but they really mean it.”
(Detroit City open their 2018 U.S. Open Cup account against Pontiac's Michigan Bucks of PDL - Jon DeBoer/DCFC)
The fans appreciate the club’s commitment as much as the matchday flavor on offer at Keyworth every weekend. “There’s nothing like a match at Keyworth,” said one fan, Thomas Coatoam. “There’s no experience like it in this country. “In the beginning we had about 200 people in the Ultra section (Northern Guard) and now it’s 3000 easy out there for games – the growth of this club is like nothing I’ve ever seen in sport. People have just clicked with the enthusiasm and passion and that true experience of unbridled ferocity. We stand, we chant – we never stop – for 90 minutes.” Stephanie Quesnelle, a fan who volunteered to help renovate the stadium with her husband, agreed: “Keyworth is special because we have a connection here with the players and the coaches – with the whole club.”
Detroit City host the Premier Development League’s (PDL) Michigan Bucks on May 9th in the First Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. They’re expecting Keyworth to be filled to the brim. And the difference it makes to the players is palpable. “The whole atmosphere spills right out onto the field,” said DCFC forward Roddy Green. The team’s long-serving defender, Seb Harris, can only shake his head in amazement when asked about the feeling of playing in front of that noisy Keyworth faithful: “It’s unreal – 6, 7, 8-thousand people coming to games to make noise. It’s difficult to explain until you’ve really been in it.”
Revitalizing a stadium in the Hamtramck area may have been a head-scratcher for some, but Lucas is convinced it’s the perfect location. “Instead of us going and asking for a tax break, we wanted to do something that brought people together and in a place where not a lot of people thought would make sense. ‘Why not downtown Detroit?’ That was the response we got from some people,” explains Lucas. “We could have built a brand new, fancy stadium downtown, but our owners saw an opportunity to save a piece of history. Most of the time, that’s harder to do.”
While maintaining Keyworth as a home field is an impressive effort, Lucas feels that the community impact can be even more important. “There are so many secondary elements that came from the renovation: community revitalization, the economic impact of people coming to the city to watch games, to eat dinner, and so on. The concept that the Hamtramck area is a great place to live, a great place to see, a great place to stay? These are conversations that, a few years ago, might not have been had by the average Detroiter,” beams Lucas. “When you look back on the history of a city 50 to 100 years from now, you usually remember the things that are no longer there rather than the things that still are. People often say, ‘Oh, I really wish that could’ve been saved,’ or ‘Oh, it’s a pity that’s no longer there.’ Keyworth didn’t deserve that story.”
(Keyworth from on high - a soccer oasis in Motown - Jon DeBoer/DCFC)
Remaining in Hamtramck was also important to the club because of the Detroit City fanbase they've built there. It’s an incredibly diverse melting pot known for its large immigrant population. The city is majority Muslim and has large Yemeni, Polish and Latin American communities. “DCFC being in Hamtramck is such a unique opportunity, as the city has such an amazingly diverse population. That’s why we distributed Polish t-shirts - because we have a huge Polish population in this area of the city. That’s why we have a Polish heritage night. That’s why we have a Mexican heritage night. That’s why we make promotional flyers in Spanish, Arabic, Bengali or Ukrainian - we want people to feel welcome. We want to celebrate our diversity and remind folks about all of the unique peoples and elements in the Detroit area,” asserts Lucas.
Fans First for DCFC
Detroit City’s vision for the future is one that puts their fans first, and Lucas insists that the authenticity of the matchday experience sets the club apart from many semi-professional and professional clubs alike. “From the first bar that you step into, to meeting up with other supporters, to marching to the stadium, to going through a ticket booth where people are friendly and welcoming, to getting your affordable concessions, to standing in a section of the stadium that’s 80 years-old, to lighting up a smoke bomb when someone scores, to hugging a stranger in celebration - it’s all authentic.”
(Scarves up! The Northern Guard supporters group have their say at Keyworth)
For Detroit City FC, the successes they’ve enjoyed in the past six years have in large part been a result of committed efforts to provide quality soccer to their particular community. From remaining in Hamtramck, to organizing friendlies with clubs their supporters want to see, to enhancing opportunities for youth players, DCFC has developed a one-of-a-kind following in a unique part of the city and they’ve done it all by remaining true to their roots.
When Detroit City FC host the Michigan Bucks next week, fans will anticipate a genuine matchday experience, as it’s what they’ve come to expect. According to Lucas, much of that is down to the fans themselves. “Whatever the future holds for us, and whatever the future holds for soccer in Detroit, Detroit City will be here and we’ll be loud and strong. DCFC is special and the people are what make it so.”