Source: Michigan News
Standing on the sideline at the Detroit City Fieldhouse, Matt Hale beams with pride as his son, Jeremiah, deftly changes speed with the soccer ball, maneuvering around defenders.
Jeremiah, 11, advances closer to the soccer net and kicks the ball just inches from the goalie’s outstretched arms. As Jeremiah celebrates the goal with his teammates, Hale—a married father of five—sometimes thinks about seeing his son’s game close to his Detroit home rather than traveling to the suburbs.
Plus, he says, it’s easier on his wallet: The cost is thousands of dollars less than what he would pay on many suburban club teams.
“When (the youth program) came along, we were just thrilled to find something that was in the city that a lot of neighbors of ours were playing for,” said Hale, who works for a Detroit nonprofit agency.
The fieldhouse, located at 3401 E. Lafayette St., is operated by the Detroit City Football Club, an entity that brings residents together with its professional team, leagues and community investment. The club was founded by University of Michigan alumnus Alex Wright and four partners in 2011.
More than 200 kids represent the club in their house “City Select” youth teams, plus another 2,500 youths in the affiliate programs. Hundreds more have access to clinics and classes held during colder months inside the fieldhouse.
Detroit’s interest in youth soccer has steadily increased in the last decade with the club’s programs running alongside leagues operated by the city of Detroit and the Police Athletic League. Wright says the club gives families of City Select players affordable access to the team by using proceeds from alcohol sales from the men’s professional and women’s semi-pro matches at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.
“It is connecting kids and families from all over the city that love the game,” he said.
Many league participants also support the club’s professional men’s and women’s teams. It’s not unusual to see fans of all ages enthusiastically chant and march less than a mile to Keyworth Stadium from Fowling Warehouse, a bar that combines football and bowling.
“The crowd energy is something that you just don’t see in American sports,” said Stephanie Munier, a club fan who moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor about six years ago “It’s the kind of thing you’d expect at a raucous soccer match in the U.K. or in Mexico or in Europe, where people are into the match—body, voice and soul.”
Some fans also give back to the community by donating clothes, health supplies and other basic needs to the homeless and other at-risk populations near Detroit’s Cass Park.
“We have a respect for the club … and having that mutual respect for each other and recognizing how we’re both supporting each other’s growth,” said Amanda Jaczkowski, Hamtramck council member who has been a longtime season ticket holder with family members.
The community involvement in the team is what Wright—an accomplished local TV producer—and several friends hoped would happen when they discussed starting a club more than a decade ago.
“It was an idea whose time had come,” he said.
The partners founded Detroit City FC, a minor league soccer team whose motto is “Passion for Our City, Passion for the Game.” The club’s mission was to satisfy the demand for soccer in downtown Detroit, to represent the city in a positive light and to build community through “the beautiful game.”
The team originally played at the Cass Tech High School football field, where more than a thousand spectators came to the first match. By the third season, game attendance exceeded 3,000 people, creating a need for a larger set up. Team owners found it at Keyworth Stadium in 2015, and coordinated a pledge drive of 527 investors who gave $741,250 to renovate the site.
In 2018, the owners converted an empty 75,000-square-foot fieldhouse for a practice space. The site—which had been occasionally used by the Detroit Red Wings from the late 1990s until mid-2010s—has two soccer fields, club offices and a bar.
Being a team owner wasn’t what Wright envisioned growing up in Detroit and Plymouth. Although he loved sports, his interests involved travel and screenwriting, which led him to the University of Michigan. Wright, who graduated with degrees in Italian studies and film/video studies, credits his mentor Jim Burnstein, director of U-M’s Screenwriting Program, in developing his creativity.
“The goal of each semester was to write a script, which was tough, but the engine above it all was Jim’s gift for motivation,” Wright said. “I’ve never felt more confident about the idea of writing something than I did when I’d walk out of one of his lectures. You can also tell he’s a sports fan who has that big run-through-a-brick-wall-energy.”
Burnstein praised Wright for his accomplishments.
“Here was a kid with vision who saw the world in a different way, and when he had his chance, he formed something special in a city he obviously loves,” Burnstein said. “He just wanted to make a great big difference in Detroit. And I think that’s something that kids learn at U-M and in our program, regardless of where they go.”
As he reflects on the club’s next 10 years, Wright said he envisions the men’s and women’s teams continued on-field success and growth among fans in the region and beyond.
“This is the club I want to take my grandkids to see, and alongside them, an entire generation who grew up learning to love the sport of soccer in rouge and gold,” he said.
The men’s team, known as “Le Rouge,” ended the 2021 as champions of the National Independent Soccer Association’s third division. Before the end of the year, they announced their intentions to join the second division of the USL Championship.
In addition to the men’s team, the club founded a women’s semi-pro side in 2020. The team played only three matches during the COVID pandemic-shortened season. Last summer, they finished third in the Midwest North division of the UWS League. They begin play in the USL-W League this spring.