When the Detroit Lions bested defending champions Kansas City Chiefs last week, Matt Lewis was not, like so many of his Brush Park neighbors, unrepentantly ecstatic. They might have been carefully picking out the Lions gear they would wear to work the next day, full of hope in their hearts. But Lewis?
“I was devastated,” he said.
Lewis has played defense for the other Detroit football franchise (most people say soccer), the Detroit City Football Club (DCFC), first joining in 2020. He’s from Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs’ loss hurt. He’s trying to be a good sport for the rest of the Lions season because the team’s win brought so much joy to fans in his temporary home.
“From here on out, I’m definitely rooting for the Lions,” he promised.
If he’s lucky, Lewis says his professional career will last seven or eight years. He recently signed a two-year contract with DCFC, a blessing in the USL Championship, a league where multiyear contracts are still the exception.
We often hold pro athletes to the unrealistic standard of representing a team hometown they barely know. How invested can players be in any city when it’s just a stop along their career path?
DCFC is a professional soccer team with a grassroots history, and the expectation from the front office is players spend as much time in Detroit as possible when they aren’t on the road. Lewis says he feels a duty to root for the city that roots for him. One way team management tries to facilitate a closer relationship between players and the city is to encourage players to live inside the city limits.
“I think having the authentic experience of living in the city pays dividends,” said Tiffany Ebert-James, vice president of sporting and wellness for DCFC.
Ebert-James and her husband, head coach Trevor James, live in Corktown. They moved here from Southern California in 2019. Ebert-James says she’s since gone from “Detroit-ish” to fully embracing what she says is the team’s “Detroit first” ethos. She thinks living in Detroit helps many players have a better experience on and off the field.
“If they’re happy, they perform better,” she said. “That helps us get results on the field. And all of the pros speak to each other. So if they say good things, then it helps us with recruiting. And I think they can see that we’re an organization that puts Detroit first.”
The club’s fieldhouse — with two indoor fields, offices, a restaurant and bar — sits in two adjacent buildings on the eastside. Ebert-James says 80% of the front office staff live in Detroit. The field where the team practices and plays, usually before packed stands of fans in the team’s colors of maroon and gold, is at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck. Ebert-James says the team does want to secure a place to play in Detroit.
DCFC has 20 players, and 15 live in Detroit. None of the players are native Detroiters. Of the five guys that don’t live in the city, two live in the metro Detroit communities where they grew up. The DCFC women’s team also plays at Keyworth, but it’s semi-pro. Most of the players are still in college and are only staying in Detroit for the two-month season.
Matt Lewis says soccer culture in Detroit feels different than in other cities where he’s played.
“When I think of American soccer, I think very corporate,” he said. “Somebody with some money wanted to build a stadium or wanted to have a team or something like that.”
For DCFC, though, “the community built the team, the community’s grown the team, and the community continues to support the team. There’s a lot more pressure in that as a player.”
DCFC’s history is different. The team began as a grassroots effort in 2012 with a recreational league team playing on Cass Tech’s field trying to see if soccer could take hold in Detroit. It did, and DCFC went pro in 2020, with Lewis scoring its first goal as a pro team. The team is still owned by four of the five original founders, three of them working for the team full-time.
When money got tight during the COVID-19 related shutdown in 2020, about 3,000 supporters came to the rescue, buying public stock in the team through a fundraising campaign that raised almost $1.5 million. These fans now collectively own a stake in the team.
Lewis takes the responsibility to return the community’s love seriously. He’s thinking of making Detroit his home more permanently and is looking for something here he can transition to after his playing days are over.
He feels welcome and safe in the city, but Lewis says it hasn’t been perfect. His car got stolen when he lived off Kercheval Avenue on Detroit’s east side, but he chalks that up to city living and not a Detroit-specific problem. His girlfriend moved here recently, and they’re not planning on going back to Kansas City in the offseason.
They embrace downtown with an enthusiasm many longer-term residents temper with a little ambivalence about the tradeoffs that often get made in the name of economic development, be they hefty public subsidies for private developers or the threat of displacement. A self-proclaimed “Formula One guy,” Lewis may have been one of the few downtown or downtown-adjacent residents who didn’t see June’s Detroit Grand Prix as a giant hassle but a “highlight of the summer.”
Midfielder Michael Bryant is one year into a two-year contract with DCFC. The team offers to arrange and help pay for club housing at Lafayette Towers as part of players’ compensation package. Bryant lives there and is happy in the building and the Lafayette Park neighborhood.
(Though he would like to put his desire to control the temperature inside his own apartment and for an in-unit washer and dryer on the record.)
As a Southern California native, making it through the tail end of his first Midwestern winter was tough. Having survived it, Bryant says Detroit now comes in second only to his hometown in his city rankings. He’s not shy about why. “A big difference from home is the people out here,” he said. “A lot of people are just a lot more genuine and nicer. Like, when you’re passing people, they’ll go, “Hey, how’s it going?” Like, “How’s your day?’”
“At home, it’s not like that,” Bryant said. SoCal has too many “fake people in their own little worlds.”
Bryant, who does miss California’s sushi, keeps a running list of all the restaurants he’s tried with his teammates and ranks them on a five-star scale. And he’s found new cultural offerings to appreciate.
“I really love the music scene here,” he said.
Bryant is a huge fan of the Movement music festival, and says you can often find him and some other DCFC players at Spot Lite on their one night off a week during the season. On his list of things he still wants to do in the city? Hit up a Detroit Pistons game.
Bryant and Lewis both say they make sure to challenge people who they find are more “skeptical” about Detroit when they’re in other cities for games.
Ebert-James says being a city ambassador comes with the territory.
“When we travel, we wear our badges that are the Spirit of Detroit,” she said. “Even the players that are new, they have (a) certain attachment to it.”
“If someone says, ‘What is that?’, you know, (players) take their time to explain. I think our players seem to take it on themselves that they need to represent the city.”