MLS expansion plan for Detroit already has one big polarizing issue

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An MLS expansion team could play in a new downtown soccer stadium in Detroit. (Rossetti)

Detroit downtown soccer stadium

An MLS expansion team could play in a new downtown soccer stadium in Detroit. (Rossetti)

It's the latest glimmer of a new Detroit.

It's also a nagging reminder of the old Detroit.

The announcement on Tuesday of a possible Major League Soccer franchise in the Motor City sent a charge through the American soccer world, which didn't even envision Detroit at the top of the expansion list until this week. It also created buzz in the city, which has had a close relationship with all of its sports franchises as far back as anyone can remember.

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"It warms the cockles of my Detroit heart," said Michigan native Alexi Lalas, "to know this is potentially going to happen."

The former United States men's national team star is not alone in that.

The possibility that a city that filed for bankruptcy only three years ago might have a fourth stadium and a fourth team downtown within the next few years (and maybe a fifth, depending on the Detroit Pistons) brings hopes of a boom not only for an urban area but also the sport of soccer itself. Just last September, Ford Field drew more than 34,500 fans to watch the world champion U.S. women's national team in a Victory Tour win over Haiti. If the MLS comes to town in the next several years, the expansion side will likely play only a few steps away in a billion-dollar development with a 25,000-seat stadium.

And therein lies the caveat. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who is teaming with Pistons owner Tom Gores on this project, wants to build a stadium on the site of a failed jail in downtown.

"The home that we are really excited about is the jail site," said MLS commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday at a press conference announcing the plan. "We're intrigued by what the possibilities can be."

Yet of all the places in downtown Detroit, why there? Gilbert, who has invested heavily in Detroit's revitalization, calls it a "better alternative" for a "front door" to the city. But a jail is fairly important in the infrastructure of a city – both for the inmates and for the victims of crime.

"He took this press conference as a way to bully the county and city to give him what he wants," said Detroit journalist Anna Leigh Clark, who edited "A Detroit Anthology." "There's plenty of space for a stadium."

That sentiment was echoed by the co-founder of Detroit City FC, Alex Wright, who has built a highly successful, semi-pro team within his native city by ingraining it into the existing layout of the area. Wright has sold 2,000 season tickets for the upcoming season in the National Premier Soccer League and may raise the cap before the May 20 home opener.

"They say there's no space left in Detroit, they have to build up now," Wright said. "I see space every single day that is primed for ideas."

The debate about the site will parallel the discussion of the future of the club. What best represents Detroit? What way forward is ideal?

"It is not without challenges," Lalas said, "and I think a lot depends on the ability to understand what Detroit is, what it isn't, what it is becoming, and what it wants to be. If it is done correctly, it can be outstanding and successful and organically Detroit – and part of a different type of identity that is emerging."

What isn't up for debate is whether new Detroit is thirsty for big-time soccer. Detroit City FC began five years ago by staging games at Cass Tech high school, and the growth of the club – traced back to a patch of grass at the Silverdome – is a sign of a vibrant market for the sport.

"What we've proved and what we continue to prove is soccer with a community focus can be extremely successful in Detroit," Wright said.

This is part of what's worked in Orlando, which is surprisingly successful as an expansion market even to those who live there. Orlando City tapped into a thriving international community in Central Florida and made the team feel truly local, rather than just an extension of the tourist areas. The second-year MLS club's owners made a new team feel organic, and that's what Detroit's owners must do as well.

That will be especially important considering every added franchise risks the dilution of the overall MLS product. The talent pool here in the U.S. and globally is deep, but is it deep enough to sustain 20-plus clubs in MLS? Detroit has had past success with new teams like the Michigan Panthers, the Detroit Shock and the Detroit Drive, but those teams won. Then they left town.

One essential aspect of any MLS franchise is a rivalry, and at least that will be taken care of. The league has teams in Chicago and Toronto, where hockey hatred has run deep for decades. Yet the lead rival will likely be Columbus, a hotbed of U.S. soccer for a while and a place that has drawn the ire of Michiganders for a long time.

No matter where the team is located or who's on it, Detroiters will very much want to beat Ohio.



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