The First Round of the 2016 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup takes place this Wednesday, as lower division teams across the nation battle to move on for a potential match-up with professional USL sides on May 18.
One of the biggest storylines of the tournament’s early stages involves two teams in the same region who are making waves in lower division soccer for very different reasons. Although they play in different leagues, the matchup between the Michigan Bucks (PDL) and Detroit City FC (NPSL) on Wednesday night at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., has garnered much of the attention in the First Round, and for good reason.
To look at these teams is to see how two sides can go about building a soccer club successfully, albeit through very different means, and with different goals.
The Michigan Bucks, who play the majority of their games at Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, Mich., have found the most Open Cup success as an amateur club since the tournament’s Pro Era began. Having first participated in the tournament in 1997, the Bucks were the first amateur side to knock off an MLS team in the tournament, dispatching the New England Revolution 1-0 in 2000. Twelve years later, a new generation of Bucks players matched the feat, defeating the Chicago Fire 3-2 in extra time. In total, the Bucks have defeated professional clubs nine times in their previous 12 U.S. Open Cup appearances. Showing why they are one of the most formidable participants in the tournament every year. Their 13 all-time tournament wins are more than long-serving MLS clubs the Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo have amassed.
The Northern Guard has become a revered supporters group in American soccer circles.
On the other end of the spectrum sits Detroit City FC. With the Northern Guard, DCFC's main supporters group, Detroit City has a level of backing from its fan-base that rivals some MLS sides. With a strong contingent and vibrant presence at both home and away games, the passionate and growing fan-base dictated the club expand their season ticket cap by 200 tickets ahead of the 2016 season. While they haven’t experienced as much on-the-field success as their Wednesday opponents, there's no shortage of off-field success being built upon by a club that's only entering its fifth year of competitive play.
With the recent announcement of possible MLS expansion to the Motor City, both clubs have voiced a keen awareness of how it may impact their side. Despite being the “new kid on the block,” Detroit City acknowledged the impact not only of the announcement, but also what an Open Cup derby game of this magnitude can have for a team defeated somewhat easily by the Bucks 3-0 in last year's First Round.
“There was a game being played on a number of different levels that day (in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup), and we lost the one that had a score,” DCFC co-owner Alex Wright told ussoccer.com. “I think that's why people are excited about this being a featured game [in the First Round], because of our level, plus a new level with the MLS announcement, it's really focusing everyone on soccer in Michigan.”
“There's this huge announcement about soccer, but we're the only team playing soccer in Detroit,” Wright continued. “With all this talk about soccer in Detroit, there's a ton of interest in this game.”
Owner Dan Duggan, who has seen the Michigan Bucks win two PDL championships in 2006 and 2014 as well as two more Regular Season crowns in 2008 and 2015, approaches the soccer landscape in the Metro Detroit area differently.
“We've won more championships than any other team in amateur history. We've done everything there is to do,” Duggan said. “Their (DCFC) thing is about marketing, our thing is about promoting soccer players. There are two different ways to go about it. They do a fantastic job at marketing their team and what they do, and we do a fantastic job at getting the top players in the country to come here, win, and then go on to the next level, which is all the Bucks are about.”
The Bucks dispatched Detroit City to the tune of 3-0 in the First Round of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
Although DCFC has done well to garner off-field attention with their growth and success, head coach Ben Pirmann knows they need to find a result against a tough Bucks side this week.
“To be fair to the Bucks, they beat us handily last year,” Pirmann said. “They're a very good team. I give them all the credit in the world on the field. They put an excellent product on the field, they're well coached, and they recruit some of the best players in the country. They've got the resources to do it, and they take advantage of it.”
With a team made up primarily of college players, the Bucks have shown they have a proven formula for success at the lower levels, however their prep time this season compared to year's past will be considerably shorter. The club is holding open tryouts just days before their match-up against DCFC, giving them two days to prepare with a team thrown together relatively last minute.
“In the Open Cup all you have to do is have one bad half, or one bad five minutes, and that's what we're focused on,” said Duggan. “Not making mistakes, and finding eleven guys that can play together on short notice.”
DCFC voices similar concerns with preparing for the match with a relatively short window. “It's a concern, and it's something our soccer ops folks are very focused on,” Winter said. “We're extremely lucky to have Ben [as our head coach]. Both tactically and organizationally he puts our team in the best position to succeed.”
In contrast to the Bucks' three days of preparation, Detroit will have a little less than two week’s preparation time for the match.
Regardless of prep time for the tournament, which kicks off prior to the start of regular season play for both teams, the Bucks aren't taking anything for granted walking into a First Round rematch against a team they advanced past last year.
“Last year has no bearing on this year, and it never does, regardless of who the opponent is,” Duggan said. “This is the U.S. Open Cup; we know more about upsets in the Open Cup than anybody, and you want to be the team that doesn't get upset. If we're deemed the favorites, it doesn't matter to us. Our focus is to try to get 11-14 guys who can get together, and can win the game.”