Saturday, April 21st, 2018 – Detroit City FC 2 Chattanooga FC 1
Every year it becomes more evident that there are two competing visions of how to build Soccer in America. The first, and the one that’s been around longer*, is the top-down, centralized model represented by the USSF, MLS, SUM, and their subsidiaries. The second is the grassroots, community-based model, best exemplified by independently-grown clubs.
While small, local clubs have existed in this country for over 100 years, it’s only in the past decade they’ve become truly relevant on the national scene. If I had to pick a date, I’d say the founding of Chattanooga FC in 2009 marks the beginning of that era. As the sport has grown in popularity and become more ubiquitous – just go to any public place with a good number of people and count the number of soccer jerseys you see – the number of independent clubs has exploded. And, while most of them sizzle for a year or two and then fade into nothingness, there are a few that stick.
Chattanooga and Detroit are very different cities with very different cultures, but the fact that lower-division soccer has flourished in both strongly suggests that it can happen anywhere. One thought I had while watching Saturday night’s match was, “This feels bigger than the exhibition it is. This is a glimpse of what American Soccer can and should be.”
In my opinion, grassroots soccer is the best way to build a true footballing culture, one where kids play pickup at the local park or indoor facility and dream of playing for their hometown club one day. This model allows soccer to get into the nooks and crannies that the federation and first division ignore because they’re focused on chasing larger TV markets and the dollars that are included.
Detroit is a major battleground between these two opposing philosophies because everything about the city – population size, big money power-brokers, successful pro sports town – seems to fit the top-down approach perfectly. The problem is the grassroots movement has planted a flag and built a stronghold here, and might actually win.
While recent events in US soccer have been mostly negative (failure of USMNT to qualify for the World Cup, USSF’s “status quo” election, collapse of the NASL), they don’t necessarily affect those of us who are on the ground helping our clubs thrive. The only time the federation directly impacts us is when they fail to provide a league option that makes sense as a viable next step.
There’s a potential fix for that too. And even if NISA doesn’t get off the ground, the continued growth and development of independent clubs will eventually make the formation of another pro league inevitable. The only question is how long it will take.
What’s been built in Chattanooga and Detroit are the consequences of a rapidly expanding soccer culture, one that those in the power structure hadn’t foreseen, and that they probably aren’t sure what to do with. If the pair of matches between CFC and DCFC are visions of the future, we should feel excited and encouraged.
*I’m specifically addressing the past 30 years, aka the modern age of American soccer that began with the USMNT’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup.