U.S. Soccer

Melee in the Mitten: Michigan Bucks and Detroit City FC Clash in Open Cup First Round

One of the standout pairings of the first round of the US Open Cup is the Battle for Michigan that draws together the defending USL PDL champion Michigan Bucks and Detroit City FC, NPSL upstarts from Motown’s Cass Corridor.

The anticipation partly derives from the promise of a riveting contest, but it also requires an understanding of this moment in the development of American professional soccer. Given that understanding, the matchup starts to look less like an early-season scrabble between two teams of college kids and more like a test of club philosophy and architecture.

Building for the Top Flight

The Bucks represent the classic American model of how to build a professional soccer club: talk to the executives and money guys from the top flight, build relationships, and play the long game. Provide important services to the leaders from the top flight. These college kids need a final gloss-coat to their skills? Become the place where players are provided that final touch. Along the way, the club competes, but the ultimate goal is always over the horizon - build a culture of players and coaches, build a stadium, and burst into the professional ranks, pulling the string tight on all those connections.

“The idea from the beginning was to get an MLS team,” Bucks founder and owner Dan Duggan says. “Especially after 2003, when we moved into the Detroit market, the goal has been MLS for Detroit. The idea initially was to build the PDL team up and flip it for an MLS team. Now we know we’re going to keep it even when we introduce a USL team.”

Michigan Bucks
The Michigan Bucks are one of the most renowned U.S. Open Cup "giant killers," having most recently knocked off the Chicago Fire in 2012.

Over the years, the Bucks have built an impressive history. The club has been crowned USL PDL North American champions twice (2006 & 2014). It was the first PDL side to upset an MLS team when it traveled to Boston and beat the New England Revolution 1-0 in the Second Round of the 2000 U.S. Open Cup. Perhaps more remarkably, the Bucks tied a Miami Fusion team led by legend Carlos Valderrama, 3-3, in the next round of the 2000 tournament, before falling on penalty kicks.

The Bucks continued their “giant killing” tradition in the 2012 edition of the U.S. Open Cup. At Ultimate Soccer Arenas – the site of Wednesday’s game – the Bucks got a late goal to force extra time en route to shocking the Chicago Fire, 3-2.

Overall, the amateur Bucks have beaten professional teams in the tournament eight times since 1996 and their 12 all-time U.S. Open Cup wins are the most by any amateur team in the tournament’s Pro Era (1995-Present).

The People’s Club

Arrayed against this bastion of old money patience and agricultural player-development is another kind of club entirely – Detroit City FC, famous for flawless iconography, compelling downtown vistas, and its rabid, roaring font of profane adulation, the Northern Guard supporters club. The club, also known as, ‘Le Rouge,’ was founded in 2012, and from its inception was meant to be different.

“We built the club from the ground up to represent our values,” said Alex Wright, one of five DCFC co-owners, who’ve seen their initial $10,000 investment ($2,000 each) mushroom into a stake in one of the hottest soccer growth-property in North America. “Trying to do things the right way in the community, treating our players the right way, our fans.”

Detroit City FC
Detroit City FC supporters group Northern Guard create a vibrant atmosphere at Le Rouge home games at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. Photo Credit: John DeBoer

One of the first decisions was the most crucial. Instead of approaching supporters as potential liability issues, they gave them space to develop their style. The results have been breathtaking. The Northern Guard has become the viral marketing engine of the now-mighty DCFC economy. Detroit City averaged an attendance of nearly 3,000 in 2014, with the vast majority of the fan base wearing the team’s hip, well-designed gear: scarves, of course, but also replica kits, t-shirts, tank tops and onesies for the wee ones.

The only previous appearance in the U.S. Open Cup by Le Rouge was last year, when the team fell in penalties to Chicago-area Croatian club RWB Adria after a hard-eyed 2-2 draw.

Two XIs Finding Their Way

As tempting as it is to treat Wednesday’s game as a test of club ideologies without all the confusion inherent in interpretation, it is nothing of the sort. It’s a game of football. Ninety minutes, 11 on a side (at least to start), and not a one named ‘Pragmatism’ or ‘Hopefulness.’

“I understand the contrast [between the clubs], but it won’t mean anything,” Detroit City coach Ben Pirmann said. “I mean, in terms of the game, the 90 minutes: the philosophies, the approaches, the branding, whatever; they mean nothing.

“It’s our guys against their guys. It will be tough.”

The Bucks return most of the defense that shut out the Kitsap Pumas in the USL PDL championship last summer. Michigan State junior Zach Carroll, a regional All-American for the Spartans, will anchor the back line. However, the Bucks find themselves suffering from the timing of the game.

“It used to be that the Open Cup came around in June, and that month makes a big difference for us,” Duggan said. “We could get a few games under our belt, and if we were playing well, we’d have a chance. Now, we won’t have 50 percent of our final roster available for this game.”

The timing does present a challenge for both teams. As semi-pro outfits that rely on collegiate players for most of the sparkle on the roster, they’re just at the point of finalizing recruitment of those players for the summer. Even making out coherent lineups can be a challenge at this stage.

Detroit City FC
Moonrise over down town Detroit where DCFC plays its home matches. Photo Credit: John DeBoer

“It’s like, last year, I gave a lot of credit to the previous year,” Pirmann said. “I was a second-year coach. I screwed up. Now I know; every year’s different. I had the selection wrong, shape wrong, everything.

“It’s such a big game and so early. Honestly, we’re just trying to get as many guys to practice as we can.”

The midfield looks to be a strong point for the Rouge & Gold. 2014 MVP Cyrus Saydee is battling a knock, but Dave Edwardson and Spencer Thompson offer industry and experience.

In the end, there will be soccer, and someone will win - but each idea will live on, trying to find its way. “I know the two clubs are completely different,” Duggan said. “We couldn’t come from perspectives that are further apart. But you look at it, and they’re doing great at what they’re doing; we’re doing great at what we’re doing.

“Maybe, down the road, you’re looking for a marriage of the two.”

Perhaps such a marriage would broker peace in Michigan, but for now, all anyone wants is this - the Battle for Michigan, with glory just over the horizon. The soul of the game will survive, surely, regardless the outcome.

  Detroit City FC logo
Michigan Bucks Logo
Founded 2012 1995
Head Coach Ben Pirmann Demir Muftari
Affililiation National Premier Soccer League USL Premier Development League
Stadium Cass Tech High School; Detroit, MI Ultimate Soccer Arenas; Pontiac, MI
Appearances/Record  2nd appearance: 2014-15 (0-0-1)                        12th appearance: 1997, 1999-2001, 2003, 2006-08, 2012-15 (12-10-1)