NISA’s Michigan Stars Ready for Everybody

The Div. III Michigan Stars seem to have a peculiar talent for making enemies – and they couldn’t care less – as they take aim at both U.S. Open Cup and further NISA successes in 2024.
By: Dan Vaughn

On Chris McInally’s desk, there’s a gray cap with red stitching that reads Michigan Stars vs Everybody. The club’s Chief Operating Officer had it made after getting grief from some Detroit City fans a few years back.

“It just kind of skyrocketed from…Detroit [City FC] fans hating us”.

For some context, the current USL Championship side and fellow Michiganders, who play out of Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, have well-documented beef with the Stars going back to their shared time in NISA between 2019 and 2021 and in the NPSL before that (from 2012 to 2019). That dislike was only compounded by a super-heated Open Cup Second Round game in 2022 (won 3-0 by DCFC) and protested by the Stars’ brass.  

“Then [it progressed to] Chattanooga fans hating us, Maryland fans hating us. It really just became us against everybody.”

The phrase stuck and it became “our rally cry” according to McInally. The third-division club rode that cry to a NISA championship in 2022 and a runner-up finish the next year. Now, they’re strong contenders to reclaim the league’s crown this year in 2024.

Aiming for Open Cup Glories

The Stars kicked off their 2024 campaign with a First Round matchup in the Open Cup against Steel City FC last week. On the road against an amateur side looking for an upset, the Stars weren’t sure what to expect, but McInally was impressed with the Pittsburgh-based opponent.

“The crowd was great. I don't know exactly what the number was, but the stadium [Ambrose Urbanic Field on the campus of Pittsburgh University] was full. There were people standing and the crowd was loud, it was a fun environment for their players and for ours as well,”  said Colin Stripling, who started for the Stars in the match. “They put a lot of butts in the seats, which was cool. It always makes it – as a player – that much more enticing to play.

The Michigan Stars are happy to be hated – it’s part of their brand

“Growing up, you want to be scoring goals and making key passes and big tackles in front of a bunch of people,” added Stripling, formerly a Monmouth Hawk in his native New Jersey. “That's why we do this as players – and Steel City did a great job of creating an atmosphere for the First Round.

The match ended in a 1-0 win for the professional Stars thanks to a headed second-half goal from Niels Lellouch. The scorer and difference-maker on the day was thrilled to get the winner even if it was with the Stars’ only shot on target in the 83rd minute.

“We had a tough first half, but then we picked it up in a second and they [Steel City] were getting tired,” said Lellouch, a lanky center back, about what was the Michigan Stars first-ever win in the historic U.S. Open Cup. “I knew we were going to win it, I was just lucky enough to be the one scoring. That was pretty amazing.”

The match measured up in every way to the high bar set by a spectacular First Round of the 2024 competition which produced 88 goals and seven amateur-over-pro upsets in 32 games across three days.

While the Stars did enough to advance, they’re confident they can improve. “Our second half of our last game showed that we could do some really good things and I think even from that, we can even do better,” Lellouch said. “So I'm pretty optimistic about our next round.” McInally, who built the current roster, agreed:“We have a ton of new players and it takes time to gel as a team. And we've also signed a couple more people since that game. It was first-game jitters and it’s past us.

“Now we've got…Minnesota's MLS NEXT Pro team and we're excited for that opportunity,” McInally added.

For Stripling, this year’s competition is the third time he’s played as a professional in the Open Cup. And he’s relishing the chance to shine on the national stage once again. “That's the thing with the Open Cup,” he said. “It is probably one of the coolest tournaments, because anyone can be beat on any given day.”

“That’s the whole spirit of what this Open Cup is,” Stripling added.

Niels Llelouch after scoring a late winner against Steel City in the First Round

Stripling played on a Chattanooga FC team that beat Div. II USL Championship club Memphis 901 3-1 in the Cup back in 2022, before losing out to 2019 Open Cup champions Atlanta United. But after this year’s First Round win over Steel City, his Michigan side now face fellow Div. III club Minnesota United 2 – who routed Chicago House AC 3-0 in their First Round game thanks to a second-half hat-trick from Jordan Adebayo-Smith.

These Michigan Stars all seem thrilled that the venue for the upcoming match is Allianz Field in Saint Paul.

“It's a shiny stadium. It's great for us to play in a soccer-specific stadium,” said Stripling as he discussed next week’s matchup. “It's gonna be fantastic to lace up and be able to experience that type of venue.”

Frosty Follow-Up in Minnesota

For McInally, being on the road for a second matchup is less of a concern than the temperature.
“I would love for these back-to-back road matches to be someplace warm, so we can get out of the snow and the cold weather. But we went to Pittsburgh where it’s cold and now we're going to Minnesota, which isn't any warmer.”

Lellouch, on the other hand, isn’t bothered by the consecutive away days or the weather. They haven’t blunted his enthusiasm at all: “I'm just very excited, like the rest of the players, with the fact that we're going to play in the first-team stadium, and hopefully in front of all their fans as well.”

Next week, when the Stars go on the road to take on Minnesota United 2 in St. Paul, it’s another club to add to their list of opponents represented on McInally’s Everybody cap. With a strong roster that’s grown with some new signings since the First Round, it will be interesting to see if they can live up to the challenge at Allianz Field.

One thing is certain: these Stars will keep on playing without any fear of making a few new enemies by winning along the way.

Dan Vaughn is a veteran soccer journalist and the founder and editor of Protagonist Soccer. Follow him at @TheDanVaughn on Twitter/X.