My first experience with semi-professional American soccer was a rained-out NPSL game. Detroit City vs Ann Arbor, 7th of July. Even though it was pouring down rain, the supporters stand was still full, and it didn't stop the fans from jumping up and down and chanting towards the stewards that were using giant push brooms to move waves of water from the turf. The bottom 6” of one of the corner flags was underwater. People were still everywhere, in line for food, drinking in the beer garden, counting the minutes between lightning flashes. Everyone was soaking wet and hoping that a half hour would pass after the last flash so the ref's would let the game start. We got there a bit late, and a few minutes after we walked through the gate a bright bolt of light struck in the west, sending up a perfectly synced collective groan from the thousands that were still there.
Not to be discouraged, the Northern Guard instantly erupted back into song, people made note of the new time the match would be able to start, and the party continued. Tiny Keyworth Stadium had a feeling of a large-scale festival. The game had already been delayed by a over 45 minutes and nobody seemed to care. The rain had mostly let up, and in spite of conditions being something that would normally make Detroiters more than a little grumpy, everybody was in a great mood. I saw the best possible example of the kind of atmosphere that every sports team is striving to achieve at their events.
The game was eventually called off, but I left completely blown away by the fans' dedication, and knowing that from then on I absolutely had to come to as many games as I could. Not only that, it made me actively less interested in going to a sporting event that would be any different. There was an intimacy to the scale of the game that gave everyone there a sense of togetherness and community. At every match I've been to since, there was a feeling that while the game belonged to the team, the night itself was owned by the fans. Win or lose, rain or shine, the people that came out were going to have a good time.
So what have DCFC done to so effectively build it's extremely loyal and diverse fan base? How is it that a NPSL team can pull the kind of crowds that would make some D2 teams jealous? What has happened, and is continuing to happen in Detroit that has made such a successful footprint on the pitch of American soccer? I don't have answers, but I do think young and developing teams could benefit from pursuing these questions if they want to create a relevant supporters culture capable of building a successful pro/rel pyramid in the USA. Not that Detroit should necessarily be a blueprint, but it can definitely serve as inspiration. After all, it's quite an achievement to get thousands of fans to cheer in the rain for a game that isn't happening.
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