Northern Guard Invasion, May 11, 2016

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Northern Guard Invasion, May 11, 2016

When was the last time you held a flag?

When was the last time you held a flag?

When was the last time you held a flag?

When was the last time you held a flag?

Sam Schlenner, Sports Editor

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Warning: Profanity follows.

George and Leslie Bishop had to work, so they did not come to last year’s U.S. Open Cup match between Detroit City Football Club and the Michigan Bucks. But, this year, there they sat the evening of Wednesday, May 11, on the extreme north end of the bleachers, which stand on a rise above Oakland’s pitch. On the slight hill, even farther north than the Bishops, lengths of yellow cord and one stretch of caution tape were fastened to metal stakes and a garbage can to form a border that would try to contain the color-coordinated, noisy flux of City’s independent supporter group.

“Sometimes on away games, we’ll stand with ‘em,” George said. “But most of the time, at home games, we sit on the ‘quiet side.’”

“They don’t need us,” Leslie said.

***

Chris Dungey, a Bucks fan for five years or so, sat in the top row of the southernmost part of the bleachers.

“It’s not a typical football experience,” he said. “It’s very quiet at [Ultimate Soccer Arenas, the Bucks’ home turf]. Detroit City has got it all over the Bucks as far as a supporter group. I feel a little lonely here, to tell you the truth. I don’t know if there’s going to be any other Bucks fans here.”

Dungey saw the 2015 U.S. Open Cup match, the incarnation of this rivalry.

“They crowded us out of the arena last year, but we beat their ass anyway,” he said. “It was so satisfying, cause I had heard all kinds of static coming in from the parking lot. ‘You must be one of their parents, because there’s nobody else here.’ I think there might have been a hundred Bucks fans in the whole place.”

Dungey mentioned Dan Duggan, the Bucks’ chairman, CEO and co-founder.

“He cares about winning more than he cares about advertising the product,” Dungey said.

And Duggan does the former quite well. After 20 years of existence, the Bucks “hold nearly every PDL record and US Open Cup record by an amateur team,” according to their website.

The PDL is the Premier Development League, tier-four American soccer, the highest amateur level along with the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), in which Detroit City plays. The Bucks have won the PDL regular season title four times and the national title twice. They’ve beaten Major League Soccer teams twice (New England Revolution in 2000, Chicago Fire in 2012), which is akin to the West Michigan Whitecaps beating the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.

These match-ups are possible because of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a single-elimination championship series that runs all summer and is “open to all affiliated amateur and professional teams.” It’s an inclusive concept used in Europe (e.g. England’s FA Cup), South America (e.g. Brazil’s Copa do Brasil) and elsewhere.

The Open Division teams played in the first round of the Cup on May 11. In subsequent rounds, the winners move up to play tier three, tier two and finally the MLS, after which the Cup converts to a 16-team tournament. Since the MLS started in 1996, its teams have won all but one (1999) U.S. Open Cup Championship.

May 11 was the first round, and for travel purposes, the Bucks and Le Rouge (a nickname for Detroit City) were paired up for the second year in a row.

Dungey had seen the Northern Guard before. He and his wife were staying at the MGM Grand for the Belle Isle Grand Prix last year. City is moving to Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium for the 2016 season and onwards, but they used to play at Cass Tech, a quick jaunt up Grand River from the casino hotel. Dungey and his wife headed over. He said it was fun to be around that energy.

“Tonight I hate ‘em,” Dungey said. “They’re very irritating. I hope they clean it up a little bit. But, probably not. When you hear some of their singing, you’ll understand what I mean. But that’s what a club needs …”

He hopes the Detroit MLS team — proposed by Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores in a press conference featuring MLS commissioner Don Garber in late April — would garner such enthusiasm.

“You can bet that Detroit City will form the core of that support,” Dungey said. “I don’t see Detroit City surviving with an MLS team a mile away. I don’t know how that works.”

Eight drum beats graced the atmosphere. The rhythm of some heart. They came from the northwest, near the adjacent parking structure.

“I think their fans would probably rather see a better brand of football.”

Then instead of drums, it was a police siren. Four bursts. Probably not from a cop car.

***

They’re called the Northern Guard Supporters. If you hadn’t already known that, or what they’re about, one or some of them had helpfully adorned the south side of the northern fence with instructive banners, which read, selectively, from left to right: Northern Guard; WE SCORE, WE SHOUT…; (Picture of grinning skull); (Picture of five bombs in a row with “F” stamped on each); ONWARD TROITY (a “drug-addicted house pheasant” with his own Twitter page); NO PYRO, NO PARTY; The Guardfather; MARK THEM ZERO!!!; and a Tudor Crown followed by I WILL NOT CALM DOWN… I WILL RAISE HELL AND BREAK SHIT.

Perhaps the most descriptive one hung on the far left. In Old English script: NGS Detroit City. Above, the Notre Dame leprechaun posed ready with a black beret instead of a green country hat, skull bandana instead of a beard, and birds flying instead of fists.

At the entrance by the parking structure, a ticket taker reminded them, “No re-entry.” It fell on the ears of the people least likely to leave. They filtered through the gate like the quiet, calm citizens they usually are. At least 13 people carried supporter flags. Color scheme: rouge and gold. Acceptable dress code: army helmets and beanies, lucha libre masks and capes, sunglasses, bandannas and especially, especially scarves.

Now a drum beat once a second and someone hit the siren again. They moved out. Destination: the roped-off pen on the hill. They used to do this on Henry Street in Midtown, down the three blocks from Harry’s bar to Cass Tech. At points, Henry Street is an eastbound one-way. They’d march west.

***

It was a true culture clash, evident early on. The Bucks warmed up, but Le Rouge warmed up with three people filming them.

“Duggan doesn’t do much marketing for the Bucks, preferring to put all of his budget toward the players, many of whom come from the best college soccer programs in the county,” George Sipple wrote in a pre-game Detroit Free Press article. “Those players are looking to advance far in the U.S. Open Cup, because the deeper they go the more chances they’ll get to play against higher competition and get noticed by scouts.”

Sixty-two former Bucks have been drafted or signed by the MLS since 1999. The Cup, at least in the later rounds, would be a chance to join them.

And they’d have to do it fresh. The Bucks held tryouts the Sunday before the Wednesday game. The roster wasn’t even posted online before gametime. According to Detroit coach Ben Pirmann in the Free Press, both teams had about two days to train.

***

Matt Marceau, face painted like a skull, stood by the fence up the hill from the Northern Guard’s front line. Skulls are a Northern Guard motif.

“We kept hearing that the city of Detroit was dead,” co-founder Ken Butcher explained, as quoted on the Northern Guard Supporter’s website (noonelikes.us). “Well, if we are dead, then we were gonna be the walking dead.”

Halftime is break time for the Supporters, who never stop singing, chanting, taunting or standing. It’s a funny word choice, “Supporters.” Implies something borne. And do they strain.

It was scoreless, an improvement over 3-0, the mark at the same time in 2015’s game.

“It’s definitely a rivalry,” Marceau said. “They’re the biggest of the other big clubs in the area, so it’s definitely a team we notice. And losing last year hurt.”

The Bucks had three shots on goal to Detroit’s zero at the half of the game on May 11. This didn’t faze Marceau.

“All we have to do is hit that net once,” he said, “ and we win this match.”

It was not just any other game.

“This is the national tournament,” Marceau said. “I mean as much as we love our league, this is the biggest thing we’re going to do tonight. This is the biggest thing we’re going to do all season. If we beat the Bucks, that’s the biggest thing we’ll accomplish. Until we beat the next team in line.”

The Open Cup is the way. An avenue to the top.

“If we keep going, we’ll find the MLS eventually,” he said. “And we’ll be able to stand toe-to-toe with them and see what happens. It might not be beautiful, but we’ll be there …”

MLS. While Dan Duggan has vied for professional soccer in Detroit for years, it’s a four-letter word for at least one of the Northern Guard. And it wasn’t just the FCK MLS banner held proudly in the first half, or the CLUB>LEAGUE one after that. MLive and the Free Press have reported on the skepticism a couple of the Guard’s leaders have of MLS Detroit. The Northern Guard penned an open letter expressing concern that the MLS would suppress the local flame of afición the City supporters, ownership and team have nurtured for almost five years. The team itself was only tacitly cautionary in their statement, but nowhere near warm and fuzzy. Both had the same basic message: Detroit City worked and works because it was built from the ground up.

The club was founded in a bar four years ago. The Northern Guard got kicked off by the Butcher brothers, lifelong soccer fans who had finally found the perfect outlet. It went from there, to the point where, in what co-owner Sean Mann called the largest crowdfunding campaign ever executed under the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption, the club raised over $700,000 in 109 days this winter for renovations to Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium, City’s new home for the foreseeable future. Supporters painted the benches rouge.

This is the same community priority City wants to see MLS Detroit have, co-owner Alex Wright said in the Detroit News.

Marceau echoed that and said he’d be on board if the MLS team was City, if the focus was on the community and supporters and if the team followed the same grassroots credo.

“If it gets just papered over onto a generic MLS club, no, I’m done,” he said. 

Noah Toumert of American soccer website The First Eleven argued it’s not about money (attendance is not in jeopardy, at least not from the lifers), it’s not about compromising loyalty (that of the Guard is not in question), but that it’s about hijacking a brand that’s already been built:

How can a group of passionate soccer fans that made a professional club with their bare hands be expected to jump behind multi-million dollar investors and latch on to an identity they did not create and have not supported the last four years?

But would MLS Detroit need Le Rouge or its supporters? However fervent, they would not fill a 25,000-seat stadium, at least not currently.

To complicate things, there was this from Crain’s Detroit on May 15:

DCFC ownership said it has had talks prior to the announcement with the Gilbert-Gores camp, and both sides are open to figuring out a way both clubs can exist in the local soccer ecosystem. MLS clubs have lower-level teams as part of their developmental system, and DCFC could become part of that in Detroit.

“We’re open to discussions,” [co-owner Todd] Kropp said. “For us, the priority is to ensure this is done in a right way, for the community and supporter base.”

And if Gilbert-Gores offered to buy Detroit City FC, it’s something Kropp and the others would listen to, he said.

Gray is approaching the heavily-defended edges of a close-knit, fiery world that so desperately wants to keep being rouge and gold. In the second half, the Northern Guard made clear its stance:

Fuck ‘em all, fuck ‘em all

Fuck Gilbert, Gores and Garber

We’re Detroit City and we are the best

We’re Detroit City so fuck all the rest!

***

The signal came from someone by the Detroit bench: Penalty shoot-out would be at the south goal, the one opposite from the Guard.

No matter. Just carry the flags high, keeping singing and relocate.

Ninety minutes hadn’t done it. Neither had the two 15-minutes overtimes. 120 minutes of play and no scores.

The south side of the field was marked with yellow cord too, but only in one way, parallel to the sidelines. The Northern Guard lined up.

First up was a Buck. Shot it over the top. One Supporter in a black newsboy cap who stood on the front line pumped his first and then flipped the bird with both hands. For a couple of seconds, he looked about eight years old.

Seb Harris, you’re my hero!

Sebastian Harris, an Oakland University alum, number four, was up next. The Guard quieted down for the first time all game except halftime. Some even shushed each other.

The keeper got a read to his right. He dove and got a hand on it. But the ball sprung up. In.

Harris ran to make his flyby.

“Come on!” You could hear him over the crowd. More siren.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Russell Cicerone walked up for the Bucks. Some small steps and he kicked a grounder slightly to the left. Made keeper Evan Louro go to the earth as well. He bobbled it, but the ball had little more momentum. Louro snagged it.

A Supporter yelled and pointed at the pitch. Maybe at Louro, maybe at Cicerone. A girl about 12 stood to his right. Maybe his daughter. She was no less excited. Another Supporter carried a champion’s belt in his left hand. His arms hung over the two yellow cords. They could taste it.

Lou-ro! Lou-ro! Lou-ro!

Now it was Jeff Adkins. More shushing.

One step and stop. Somebody shrieked. The Bucks keeper shifted his weight to the right foot. Double time for Adkins, keeper thought he was going right, but he shot it top-center and put City up 2-0. After it went in, Adkins walked away with his back to the Guard and looked at the goal.

The cheers for the score gradually shifted low and then rose into an air-raid siren.

Louro thought it was going right. When the Buck plopped it in top-left, he realized this, aborted his western dive and fell on his left knee. The Buck kissed his hand and gave the Guard a wave. They did not like that.

Tyler Moorman up next for City.

Come on Moorman. *Shush* Moor-MAN. *Shush* MOORMAN!

He kicked it straight right. The keeper thought it was going left and committed.

3-1.

Louro mismatched on the next one. He went left and the Buck had a clean shot to the top right. 3-2.

Matt Nance up for City. This was to win it.

The Bucks keeper got a perfect read to the right. He dove and slapped it away.

As Jordan Snell walked up, the Northern Guard kindly reminded him that if he missed it, City would win.

He snuck it past Louro to put it to 3-3. But those were all the Bucks’ attempts. Danny Deakin could win it for City.

We’ll get you a Whopper if you hit it, Danny.

Deakin skied it. His arms followed, hands holding his head.

Now each team had another chance. There was that classic roar.

Louro misplayed the next one. At first. Thought it was going left, and on the approach, he let his weight fall in that direction. Then he caught himself, dropped into a squat and sprung right to just get a hand in the right place and push City to within a goal.

A woman stood in the front row. Black shirt, black pants, black scarf. Right arm was tattooed and bracelets were mobile on the left one from the force of her celebration. She shared a throat with a red-tailed hawk. Might have worked any profession during the day, but right then, she was alive.

A City goal would win it.

Brett Nason held 150 hearts in his feet, for which he was cat-called three times. From a Bucks fan or from a Supporter? Either was plausible.

Nason jogged at first, dragged out his moment, then it looked like he wanted to get it over with. When he burst into double time, the Bucks keeper tried right and then launched left, but Nason kicked it up by the crossbar with the inside of his right foot. The keeper realized the fatal inconsistency of what was happening, and he twisted up as gravity took care of the last half of his dive. As he tumbled to the pitch, breaking the fall with his right hand and forearm, he got to see a worm’s-eye view of the end.

On April 15, David Brooks posted this on the Northern Guard’s Facebook page:

Let’s win a US Open game this year, and give me a bit more faith in this ‘organically grown’ system.

The Northern Guard after the game:  Best believe now.

Brooks: I’VE SEEN THE LIGHT and it’s ROUGE

Sergeant Scary, lead capo of the Guard, was the fastest of them. It took him five and a half seconds to reach the middle of the pitch. He aimed for the shirtless Nason, who had taken a brief moment to shake his right fist in satisfaction before turning and running to the party rushing him and the rest of Le Rouge.

A man in black sparked a red smoke grenade by the sideline and gently tossed it to the pitch like it was a matter of etiquette, just the thing to do. Someone behind him kicked the capsule so it did its business off the playing surface.

It’s worth wondering what the three-year-old thought as she galloped out to the pitch invasion on the man’s shoulders.

***

“This is a community-run team that started five years ago in a bar in downtown Detroit, and we just beat arguably the best amateur soccer team in America,” City co-owner Alex Wright said. “I’m so happy for the guys.”

Ben Pirmann, City’s coach, said everything led up to this night, and he had told the guys so.

“For our community, our club, our city, this is huge,” he said. “Our fans deserve this.”

And they drank their fill.

Dan Duggan was on the hill behind the Bucks bench, disassembling scaffolding by himself. He tried to smile.

“Season just starts, you know,” he said. “Guys’ll put it together. Good game. First time they’ve ever played together. Did a good job, just didn’t score a goal. That’s soccer, you know? … The guys, they don’t know each other. But it’s the same for both sides. When you play at the fourth division, you got college kids coming in. We had three kids that took finals today and just got here. That’s what happens when you play this early … All the best to Detroit. I hope they go to Louisville and win the game. That would be fantastic.”

***

“This is the awkward walk over.”

About fifteen Supporters remained, standing in their own aftermath between the yellow cord and caution tape. The comment was directed from a member of the Guard to Nason, who scored the winning penalty kick. It was his first season for Detroit, and he ambled toward the sideline.

“Welcome to City.”

Detroit unveils the renovated Keyworth Stadium and plays AFC Ann Arbor at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 20.

The Bucks play K-W United FC at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21 at Ultimate Soccer Arenas.

Le Rouge lost to Louisville City FC in a penalty shootout (3-1) in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, May 18. But right after the Bucks game, under the sulphury smoke struck brilliant by the stadium lights, Wright looked at what had just happened and the week ahead and called it the biggest soccer story in Detroit. Ever.