Twenty-one summers ago, a patch of grass was placed in a hulking stadium in suburban Detroit. And from that patch of grass, something amazing would flourish.
It was 1994 and the Pontiac Silverdome needed real sod to become the first indoor venue to host the World Cup. It turned out the grass would thrive longer than the building, as the Silverdome is now in a state of rot. The grass, however, was moved to Belle Isle, a sliver of land on the Detroit River. Years later, a group of friends started to play recreational soccer on that turf, and they came up with an idea.
The five friends founded the Detroit City Futbol League in 2010, with teams representing the various neighborhoods of the city. Hundreds of people showed up to play and stayed to socialize.
"After the games, each of these neighborhood teams would leave their uniforms on and go to a bar in that neighborhood," said Alex Wright, one of the founders. "We thought, 'If we can get 10 percent of the people in this league to commit, we could have a [minor league] team.' At that point, everyone thought that was a crazy idea."
It wasn't so crazy.
Five years later, Detroit City FC is one of the most exciting sports stories in a sports-crazy town. The semipro team, consisting of college players from the area and some older former pros, now sells out the stands at Cass Tech High School regularly for matches against regional teams like the Fort Pitt Regiment and the Erie Admirals of the National Premier Soccer League. Wright says the crowds of 3,500 are so consistent that there's a thought to moving to a larger home in nearby Hamtramck.
For now, the club is quite a sight. It plays matches across the highway from Comerica Park and Ford Field, with the skyline of the Motor City as the backdrop.
"We have no media marketing budget and we sold out in two and a half months," said Wright, a TV producer in Detroit. "From 10 minutes before the game starts, [fans] are chanting, singing, playing musical instruments, doing choreographed dances and moves."
The assortment of fans is rich, even if many of the fans themselves aren't. Some drive to the matches from the suburbs and some ride their bikes from a few blocks away. The club's owners created business cards with "Passion for our city, passion for the game" in English, Spanish and Arabic to appeal to many areas of Detroit, and community organizers were dispatched to various neighborhoods to spread the word about the team.
If the success of soccer in Detroit is surprising, that's exactly what the club is counting on. They want to lever the skepticism about the health of the city to their favor – to make locals want to see what's happening in an area thought to be full of only urban blight.
"If people didn't have a ridiculous perception of this city, there would have been a team 20 years ago," Wright said. "It's like that blind spot that people have. Because of the history of our town, it makes it hard for people to believe this is possible, and it's totally possible."
Part of the charm is the barnstormer feel, with players hanging out at bars and restaurants after the match. The owners themselves have other jobs: one is a lobbyist; another is a math teacher. Some of the players even stay at the house of the one of the owners' grandparents.
"We want this team to be Detroit's soccer team," Wright said. "Not the retro logo that people wear ironically."
The only trace of irony is how well the club has meshed its humble roots and big-city reach. Next week, Detroit City FC is scheduled to announce a title sponsor that Wright describes as "a well-known Detroit-based corporation." That's a pretty big step for a team that lists food trucks as concessionaires and can't even sell beer at games because it plays on a high school field.
And the team is good, too. It suffered only three losses last season and none the year before – pretty strong considering the club's players aren't salaried and some of their opponents feature paid players. (The head coach is Michigan State assistant Ben Pirmann, so Spartans aren't allowed to play for the club because of NCAA rules.) It's more or less a college all-star team, with a few older guys thrown in.
For the players and the fans, the club is something that fills a void. That's why it sustains itself – it's not just a curiosity.
"The funny thing is, we don't see it as some weird miracle," Wright said. "In the same way as if there's a neighborhood with no coffee shop and you know the new place that serves coffee is gonna do amazing. If you live downtown and you know what kind of sports town it is, and no one serves soccer, of course it makes sense."
It does make sense, 21 years after soccer history was made at the Silverdome. They laid down some real grass, and a real grassroots story grew.