DETROIT – It’s a chilly, rainy evening in Hamtramck, yet thousands of people are packed into Keyworth Stadium.
Some are wearing ponchos, some have their hoods pulled tight over their heads and others are braving the elements. No matter how they’re handling the weather, they’re probably all hoping no lightning will make an appearance and cause a delay.
“It’s more than a soccer team,” fan John Ferguson said.
Detroit City Football Club is going pro this year after starting small less than a decade ago.
The team was founded in 2012.
DCFC was approved by U.S. Soccer in 2019 to play professionally in the National Independent Soccer Association and a women’s team will play its first season this year.
In just eight years, the team has grown from barely known to a community of supporters that spill beyond Detroit and even beyond Michigan.
According to numbers from boysinrouge.com, competitive DCFC matches in 2012 averaged just under 1,300 attendees. That average in 2019 was 5,779.
The year ended with a total annual attendance of 111,578. When things were just getting started, 9,948 people attended DCFC games during its first year.
On any given match evening, a large crowd can be found marching to Keyworth to fill the stands.
“Soccer without atmosphere can be watched on the couch,” Clark Geerlings said.
And it’s all about atmosphere at a DCFC game.
They’re chanting, they’re playing drums and they’re lighting smoke bombs, but they’re not there just to watch soccer -- they’re continually building a community that is about so much more than the sport.
They’re fiercely dedicated to DCFC, and they can be found everywhere, but who are the Northern Guard Supporters? Where did they come from? And why are they so passionate?
“To me, City was a Big Bang theory that just couldn’t be stopped,” Enrique Solomon said.
Solomon has been around since the team was forming in late 2011. He’s watched the club evolve and even attended the very first DCFC match.
While his support goes back to the beginning, the team has consistently picked up more fans whose loyalty runs deep, no matter how long they’ve known about Detroit City or how they discovered it.
Megan Heberlein said she “went grudgingly” to a few games when her husband dragged her along a couple years ago. But she quickly became hooked.
Illuin Darlington Bai also went to her first game a bit reluctantly.
“I was convinced to go to a match by my high school history teacher who had been a supporter for a few years just so that I could get him to shut up about it,” she said.
Bai said it took a few games before she felt a connection to the club. Now, she’s involved with community outreach programs and has drummed at some games.
Many other fans, such as Danny Horen, discovered the team simply through word-of-mouth.
While they can be found at Keyworth or marching through the streets of Hamtramck before matches, their focus is beyond sports.
“To steal a line from a pre-game speech, it’s not just about sports,” Michael Ireland said. “DCFC and NGS are not just soccer franchises that collect a fan’s money and it ends there. DCFC has been working to put deep roots down in the community.”
Chris Copacia, who has been a fan since 2014, said the community side of DCFC “is essential and influential.”
Revitalization came to Hamtramck when the historic Keyworth Stadium was renovated for the team to play there.
But helping doesn’t stop there.
DCFC fans focus heavily on bettering the community through various initiatives.
Each June, the NGS participate in Prideraiser to raise funds for the Ruth Ellis Center, which provides services to LGBTQ youth in the Detroit area.
Last year, $26,283 was given to the center.
Northern Guard Supporters Cares also makes a big impact by focusing on organizations that support the environment, social services, civil and human rights, and youth development and education.
Last month, the Detroit City Clubhouse was packed with fans who spent a Sunday wrapping gifts that were given to Freedom House Detroit. More than 275 gifts and $1,000 worth of gift cards were donated, along with personal care items.
NGS also provide a way for people who may not otherwise be able to go to games a chance to attend through the Let’s Make Roots initiative. Tickets to DCFC games are given to community members, such as local children.
Additionally, proceeds from alcohol sales at home games helps Detroit PAL, an athletic program for Detroit youth.
The Clubhouse also provides a space for people of all ages to come together to play soccer and learn more about the sport.
“Anyone can give to United Way, Red Cross or other large organizations. The club and supporters dig deeper into the roots of the community and give where it’s really needed,” fan Matthew Tominkson said.
Beyond the NGS, numerous other groups also support DCFC and the greater good, including Rouge Vendetta, which has hosted its own Prideraiser and other charitable events.
An inclusive space
Many DCFC fans describe how the bleachers at Keyworth are a place where they can be themselves, surrounded by a group of supportive people.
“This club, this team is so approachable, it’s incredible,” Josh Prentice said.
Prentice described how open the players and team owners are with their fans.
“You can pop in to the Clubhouse on a random night, and you might get to talk to (owner) Sean Mann, and maybe get some inside scoop on upcoming DCFC news. You might see a few players who are working camps, reffing DCFC adult league games or just hanging out,” he said.
Calvin Bagley echoed that, noting that the team stands behind the fans and their ideas.
“The community aspect of the club is unmatched but it is two-fold between the club and supporters,” he said. “The supporters come up with an initiative and the favor of support is returned.”
It’s not just an open and welcoming team and leadership that keeps fans coming back.
“In NGS, we don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what baggage you have; if you support the club and the city, you’re one of us,” AJ Hunter said.
That atmosphere provides a place for all people to come together, no matter where they come from or what they stand for.
“Everyone who is not racist is allowed. All colors, creeds, religions -- a true melting pot. Everyone has problems, but we keep the prejudices out of it,” Solomon said.
The games draw people from all walks of life and backgrounds to a place where, no matter who you are, fans say you belong.
“My wife has always struggled to feel like she fully fit in and was easily socially exhausted,” Sam Shrum said. “In our first year, she was the one dragging me out to make sure we drove hours for away matches and see people that immediately made her feel like one of them.”
It’s that open arms environment that fans say sets DCFC apart from other sporting events and teams.
“The supporters and the club have a symbiotic relationship that is very intimate, up close and tangible. It has never felt like being a fan of other teams where it feels cold and distant. City has shown it loves us as much as we them,” Ronald Galang said. “I’ve never felt such a strong bond with other people at a sporting event like I have at a City match.”
And those bonds and the desire to make a difference in their community continually remain a solid backbone of DCFC and its fanbase.
“What I can best boil it down to is that I feel safe in the stands and with the other members of NGS,” Bai said. “I don’t feel like I need to hide who I am from anyone in the Guard because no matter what, they’ll have my back.”