Detroit, Soccer, and Expressing Yourself

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2019 will be a momentous year for Michigan soccer and its return to a higher level of play, fueled by Detroit City’s participation in the NPSL’s Founders Cup and Lansing Ignite’s role as a founding member of USL League One. With the state’s already dynamic soccer scene returning to a more professional level, we want to take a look back at one of the early figures in Michigan’s professional soccer history.

The Detroit Express played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) from 1978 to 1981 and American Soccer League (ASL) for several seasons after a shift in ownership. The club won its only league title in ’82 roughly one year after joining the ASL. Playing at the Pontiac Silverdome, which no longer stands, the club was actually the NASL’s second club in Detroit after the Detroit Cougars, who were short lived and only lasted one season.

Brandishing a roaring car as their badge, the club consistently finished third or higher in the NASL’s central division but failed to earn anything significant in the playoffs. This lack of silverware didn’t stop the club from earning a variety of interesting connections to the global soccer world, ranging from their ownership by Jimmy Hill, a former Fulham player who was also chairman of Coventry City, and two expedition appearances by Manchester United and Northern Irish legend George Best while touring Europe.

Despite its end in the mid 80’s, the club, like much of the original NASL, has managed to survive as an idea and inspiration. The club’s badge and merchandise has appeared in modern American TV shows like How I Met Your Mother and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and perhaps most importantly helped sow the seeds of soccer in a state and a city that have shown that not being in MLS isn’t an excuse to be missing from the conversation of soccer in the US. The Great Lakes conference of the NPSL has some of the league’s biggest clubs, the likes of Detroit City and AFC Ann Arbor, and Michigan is set to play a major role in the NPSL Founders Cup and USL League One.

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The fact that the Detroit Express weren’t at the level of the more successful NASL clubs is perhaps a fitting fact, as it may have set up the region for becoming the amateur and independent soccer hotbed it is today. Instead of a relationship with soccer that circles around trophies and being at the top, Michigan stands out as one of a few states untouched by the upper tiers of professional soccer and instead is full of communities that enjoy soccer and soccer culture. Michigan soccer, which is admittedly a term too broad and stereotyping than the clubs it refers to deserve, has become a corner of US soccer where people can truly express themselves, turning away from the temptations of glory hunting or the dangers of enfranchisement.

It is impossible to know how much the Express truly affected soccer in their home city or state, but their brief life as a club who put a decent product on the pitch for anyone who cared surely has helped plant the roots in a state that is now a burning core of the independent soccer movement in this country.

- Dominic Bisogno

Lola Vaughn