Motor City Rivalry?

Walking into the Pontiac Silverdome Friday night for the first time since 2001 was a bit strange for me. I never thought I’d see the place hold another event that wasn’t a Monster Truck rally following the Lions return to downtown Detroit, but there I was stepping into the cavernous monument to American architecture feeling euphoric as ever as I readied to witness “The Match of the Titans”, the apt title for a preseason friendly between AC Milan and Panathinaikos.

Despite the success of the FIFA World Cup 16 years ago, it long seemed impossible for high-level soccer to return to my hometown. The excuses were many but to be concise: the Fords and Illitch’s of the city never saw the value in the outdoor game, there was the question of a suitable venue, and for many the economic downturn put to bed the idea of bringing soccer to one of the country’s hardest-hit cities.

Things seemed to change when Triple Properties Inc., led by Toronto businessman Andreas Apostolopoulos acquired the fledgling Silverdome via auction last November for a cool $583,000. From Day 1, the group made known it’s desire to bring Major League Soccer to the dome and in the Motor City Supporters they’ve found a grassroots partner in that push.

Made up of a conglomerate of MLS and general soccer fans strewn throughout the Metro area, MCS fans are young and old, support different MLS clubs including Chicago, Columbus Toronto, DC  and New York, but are brought together with the same goal of attracting a Major League Soccer franchise to the Motor City.

Started as a supporters group for the highest-level outdoor soccer team in the area, the USL Premier Development League’s Michigan Bucks, the group eventually evolved into MCS, with the group’s stated goal:

To plant the seeds of a movement to establish a professional soccer team in Detroit at the highest possible level, to show that there is a genuine demand for live, professional soccer here, and that a professional team would be successful.” 

Having attended a number of the World Cup games hosted in Pontiac during the ’94 World Cup, I went back to witness this event. 16 years in the making while also looking to get a supporter’s view of why MLS would work in Detroit

“First and foremost I want to see MLS grow,” said Toronto FC season ticket holder Alan Jacobson. “One of the ways for that to occur is to nurture regional rivalries. We have teams in Chicago, Toronto and Columbus – it’s just a natural fit to have one here.

Jacobson’s MCS brethren and Columbus Crew season ticket holder Bradd Notestine agreed with the sentiment.

“It’s one of the most interesting aspects to having a team here,” said the MCS Vice President. “You obviously have the Cascadia Cup in the works with the Pacific northwest once Vancouver and Portland join next year, but I think this potential four-team rivalry would be better – all three of the current Great Lakes area teams are within a four-hour drive of here. The potential for that type of Midwest rivalry is really unparalleled in MLS and with all the traveling supporters both here and to the other cities, it would make for some incredible game day experiences.”

Odd to see Toronto and Columbus supporters agree on anything, but again, the underlying theme is “MLS Detroit”.

“Rivalries aside I’m a TFC supporter but I live here,” said Jacobson.  “This is where I’m at, I want to see the league I follow so closely make their presence here as well.”

Again Notestine agreed, “I’m a firm supporter of MLS, I drive four hours to every Crew home game but to have a team literally 10 minutes away from me – I wouldn’t switch my loyalty but I’d probably make it to more games here than down there.”

I can’t write this without including a Fire perspective, which to my disappointment I found is relatively weak among the MCS crowd. Maybe its because of so much Chicago/Detroit hate, but knowing the entire state of Michigan, there’s just as much dislike for anything from Ohio….

I finally found Fire representation in Karl Feak, who hails from Chicago but moved with his family to Michigan a decade ago.

 “Chicago and Detroit are natural rivals in just about every single sport,” said Karl. “You only have to go as far as looking at Blackhawks fans chanting, ‘Detroit Sucks’ at every game to realize there’s some hatred there. The back and forth between Chicago and Detroit fans would be a huge rivalry and a good one to promote the game. I’ve been looking forward to MLS coming here for 10 years now. You have the fans, you have the facility, you have a potential investor – we’re ready for it.”

Come on Fire fans, you know you want a new team to dislike… What’s the saying, “Detroit is a suburb of Chicago?” Think of all the possibilities.

Plans and Being Realistic

While the support for a team certainly is there and the potential for rivalry is automatic, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has also made clear that requirements for expansion cities are a solid investor and a good stadium situation, preferably one of the “soccer-specific” variety.

As mentioned earlier, those two suggested requirements remained as outliers in relation to MLS in Detroit until Apostolopoulos’ group came seemingly out of nowhere to purchase the property and present plans to turn it into a potential MLS venue.

As the league has almost completely moved away from using humongous NFL venues as homes for its teams, the 80,000-seat Silverdome would obviously need some creative work to be made suitable for MLS standards, but Apostolopoulos has a plan and an ambitious one at that.

In an article released last week, the group plans to tear the dome off and split the stadium into three sections:  the bottom two serving as a concert hall and venue for hockey and basketball, while the top tier, essentially the 30,000-seat upper bowl, serving as the soccer stadium.

Has it sunk in yet? Yes, raised soccer field!

Such an ambitious plan is sure to cost a boatload of money, but consider the amount saved by on the stadium’s purchase and you realize it’s not impossible. In fact, the stadium’s reincarnation would continue soccer’s historic relationship with the building – the Silverdome hosted the first-ever World Cup matches held indoors in 1994. 

The profile of Detroit soccer has certainly been raised following the purchase, with Garber mentioning at last month’s MLS All-Star Game that the league had held discussions with the stadium’s ownership group – the last mention of Detroit as a potential expansion city came in passing among the likes of San Antonio, Memphis and Cleveland almost a decade ago.

Though a top 10 media market, the city certainly has seen economic challenges recently, but Motor City Supporters president Andrew Kruz has been encouraged by the outpour of support for the group’s cause over the last year.

“It’s been incredible. Just in the last few months we’ve seen a two-fold increase in the people that are interested in soccer in this area. With the World Cup and this event, we’ve met a lot of new people with the same vision and learned a few things in terms of continuing to build our base. We’re working all the time to get more people involved in our cause.”

The fact that the game wasn’t great didn’t matter all that much. Detroit showed Friday night that it was capable of doing something big again with the sport. There will certainly be obstacles in expansion as the league continues to push for a team in New York City and places like St. Louis and the entire southeastern United States are underserved when it comes to the league.

Forget all that, Detroit has officially thrown its hat into ring and I for one am looking forward to see what comes of it.

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.