Detroit’s MLS bid is doomed before it ever begins

Major League Soccer

There’s been a lot of news surrounding soccer in America in recent months.

The USL is reportedly starting up a “tier III” league to fill the gap between the USL (considered the second tier of American soccer) and the NPSL (which is considered fourth-tier) with about 10 or so squads. MLS, America’s top tier, is looking to welcome Los Angeles FC, Miami Beckham FC and two other candidates in the coming two or three seasons as well, making this two-year expansion window the likeliest opportunity to be included in the professional soccer phenomenon that is sweeping the country.

One city that has repeatedly been mentioned as a contender for a soccer club has been Detroit. Detroit was one of 20 cities considered a landing spot for an original franchise prior to the formation of MLS. They lost out to fellow Midwest cities Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. It makes sense as to why Detroit would want to be a candidate in the search for a new MLS franchise; MLS (and soccer in general) is quickly becoming a legitimate product and a city in recovery (such as Detroit) would love to become an attractive destination.

The suburbs of the city have long supported soccer. The Michigan Bucks, one of the most famous franchises in semi-pro soccer, is based out of Pontiac and is currently in the USL’s Professional Development League. Detroit City FC, which plays in the NPSL and is based in Hamtramck, has also attracted a lot of interest as a club thanks to its rowdy following and frantic style of play.

The state has also shown a great interest in football; Eastern Michigan University played host to Real Madrid’s practices when the team faced Manchester United in an International Champions Cup match at The Big House in Ann Arbor. AC Roma and Paris Saint-Germain will play at Comerica Park for the same tournament this upcoming summer.

There’s just one problem: the city doesn’t really appear to want it.

For one, the MLS bid site hinges on the ownership group of Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert buying the old Gratiot County jail site from the city. The jail site has been a contentious topic for close to a decade. Located kitty-corner from Ford Field and Comerica Park, the jail site currently stands unfinished and overbudget. As part of their proposal, Gores and Gilbert offered to build a “consolidated criminal justice center” worth over $400 million in a different part of the city if the city agreed to allow the purchase of a jail site for a stadium and entertainment district.

Officials in power have seemed to be dragging their feet regarding the proposal for a variety of reasons. If the proposal was accepted, the city of Detroit, which famously went bankrupt some years back, could potentially be forced to pay back tens of millions of dollars in federally-provided subsidies used to build the jail site in the first place.

County officials have also been hostile to the ownership group’s proposal, simultaneously dismissing a proposal by saying it would be cheaper to finish the current site and demanding the ownership group potentially double its investment in the before mentioned criminal justice center.

This less than ideal, given the acquisition of the jail site is the ownership’s only plan of action to get a team to Detroit.

Another problem facing Gores and Gilbert is a federal lawsuit regarding Little Caesar’s Arena. The Pistons, owned by Gores, along with the NBA, have been sued in order to prevent approximately $34 million of public money from going into the currently under-construction arena. If the plaintiff wins the suit or the city decides to reverse its approval in a meeting next Wednesday, that means potentially irreversible damage to the Pistons and Red Wings, who planned on moving into the arena later this year.

This proves to be a problem for the MLS bid, even if the entire venture would most likely be constructed with private money. The uncertainty from the city, combined with the potential for litigation surrounding the proposed criminal justice center (given its ethical quandaries) should be major cause for concern.

None of the listed problems above even take into account the personality of the owners of the potential MLS squad and how they’ve rubbed up against the soccer community in Detroit.

The animosity was rekindled earlier this week when it was discovered the ownership group of Detroit MLS bought domain names for “Detroit City Soccer Club” and other iterations of the name, including Detroit City SC and DCSC. Fans of Detroit City FC (which popularly goes by DCFC) were predictably incensed, though management has not formally commented on the proceedings.

The Detroit MLS bid and the NASL side have not gotten along from the start, as DCFC was famously left out of the introductory press conference. The Detroit Free Press reported as such the week after the presser:

When Gores and Gilbert held their press conference earlier this week, nobody from Detroit City FC — fans or owners — was invited to attend.

While [Alex] Wright [part owner of DCFC] downplays the aforementioned “tension,” fans of Detroit City FC do not.

… [S]ome fans consider that press-conference snub a possible red flag. (Ironically, some with Detroit City FC expect Gores and Gilbert underlings to scout several of its games this season.)

“We saw the press conference not as something big for the soccer community of Detroit, but something big for a couple billionaires looking to capitalize on the next thing,” said Dion DeGennaro, of Detroit City FC’s Northern Guard Supporters.

“The fact that we have been completely overlooked shows they have no interest in reaching out to the existing soccer fans in Detroit.”

Rumors have swirled the semi-pro team is set to make a move to a professional level at some point in the next three years and it would make sense for the Detroit MLS group to at least talk to DCFC about working together. But it sounds like the sides are about as far apart as it could possibly get in that regard, as Liana Aghajanian of SB Nation points out in an excellent profile of Detroit’s soccer history.

To sum, DCFC’s fanbase (the Northern Guard) is fiercely opposed to the possibility of an MLS franchise in downtown Detroit based on survivalist instinct. The logical reasoning is if a top-tier club moves into town, fans DCFC might have collected over the years will migrate over to the new side. DCFC, a supporter-operated group, was formed with community in mind, so it would make sense that this would be a natural fear.

It’s the classic corporate greed vs. community loyalty plotline. (Or corporate smarts vs. a misguided sense of traditional identity, depending on how you see it.) It’s really hard to push for something that doesn’t seem to have a lot of support from anywhere and unfortunately, it seems to be where the Detroit MLS bid is at the moment.

Columbus and neighboring Toronto have shown there is a great vested interest in professional soccer in the region. Regional peers Indianapolis and Cincinnati (and at one point, St. Louis) have also tossed their respective hats in the ring.

It could be advisable for Gores and Gilbert to change their approach and make a different plan that involves a different site, but it seems Gilbert’s stubborn and impatient nature will ultimately win the day over as he’s in charge of the stadium deal proceedings.

Personally, I want this to succeed. Being a lifelong soccer fan that grew up in Michigan, I want to be able to cheer for a top-tier team that represents my adopted state. Detroit City FC currently doesn’t have that mobility, but Detroit MLS does. Or rather, it should.

There’s a lot to be done for Gores and Filbert if they hope to turn the ship around. But in order for that to happen, the waters have to get less choppy and right now, that doesn’t look to be happening.



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