Excited about MLS expansion in Detroit? Don’t hold your breath

A rendering of Triple Properties' proposed development at the failed Wayne County jail site. (Courtesy image)

A rendering of Triple Properties’ proposed development at the failed Wayne County jail site. (Courtesy image)

For sports fans, perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the staggeringly incompetent mismanagement of the former Wayne County Jail site is a proposal to build an MLS stadium on the site.

The proposal, from Toronto-based Triple Properties (owners of the Penobscot building, among others) calls for a billion-dollar retail and residential district around a 25,000 seat, soccer specific stadium.

The proposal is intriguing, if all you’re looking at are the pretty concept drawings and the hand job Triple Properties Managing Partner Steve Apostolopoulos is giving Detroit City FC supporters over on Twitter.

There has been a lot of discussion about the possibility of an MLS club coming to Detroit in Detroit City FC supporters’ circles, and I feel like every comment is couched with the “I would love to have MLS in Detroit, but…”

It’s like your racist Grandfather telling you all about how he thinks that Miguel Cabrera is one hell of a ballplayer before he goes on a rant about how Mexicans arrr turkin ar jerbs.

I don’t understand the sturm und drang over the possibility of this proposal going forward. It’s the wrong time for MLS in Detroit and this half-baked plan is just one of many reasons that it’s not going to happen any time soon.

This isn’t the first time Apostopoulos has tried to bring Major League Soccer to Detroit. He tried to lure the league here with plans to renovate the Pontiac Silverdome. Like this proposal, those plans that looked great on paper, but mainly because they would only be possible with the help of Dreamworks.

Apostopoulos should be given some credit, though, as he clearly believes in soccer in Michigan. His lofty dreams are admirable, but he’s clearly not the right person for this project, as everything he’s proposed so far has been so unrealistic.

Even if the plan from Triple Properties moved forward, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a built-in fan base ready to support an MLS side here in Detroit. The 1,700 who show up to Cass Tech every week is really good, for the NPSL. Apostopoulos’ plan calls for a 25,000 seat stadium, which would be as large as MLS parks in Los Angeles and New York and bigger than those in Houston, Columbus, Kansas City and Portland. It just doesn’t seem sustainable.

There was a great article in the New York Times last week about the savvy job the front office at Sporting Kansas City did in reviving support for their club. This story, on a much smaller scale, could have been (and has been) written about DCFC. Sporting and City have both catered to the supporters and let the ardor those people show do their marketing for them.

In spite of what’s going on in Kansas City, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, with the help of front offices around the league, continue to try to stomp out the rowdier aspects of supporter culture from the terraces. There is some fear that the kind of things that go on in the supporters section at City matches — the smoke and bawdy chants and songs — might make us less the 12th man and more unwelcome guests at future matches.

Apostolopoulos, smartly, seems to be courting City SGs, telling them how much he likes what we do and inviting some supporters for beer.

As far as what you guys do at the games…a game is not a game without #smokebombs,drums!
@SteveApost 7/24

Then again, after much protest a couple years ago following the announcement that his company was going to tear down the historic State Savings Bank in Detroit to build a parking lot, he said they were never going to do any such thing and blamed the confusion on his father’s thick, Greek accent.

That story is just kind of silly and has nothing to do with soccer, but I think it shows what we’re dealing with here. Rather than responding to the outcry and simply saying that they’d reconsidered, he lied about the original plan for the building and blamed the messenger for people being upset. How would an owner like that handle concern from his club’s supporters? In a sport like soccer, where the loyalty of your supporters is so essential, having an owner who is a stand-up guy is key.

I’m not saying that Apostolopoulos isn’t, I’m sure he’s nice enough. I just believe that at the moment, he isn’t the right person to bring the MLS to Detroit.

Others have talked about Detroit City FC working their way up through the ranks, but the owners have said from the beginning, and reiterated the other day, that although they believe Detroit would be a good home for an MLS side, they aren’t going to be the ones to do it.

So Apostolopoulos can’t make it happen and DCFC ownership won’t make it happen. What now?

Well, the short answer is, nothing happens now. All this talk about MLS stadiums ignores the fact that Major League Soccer isn’t interested in coming to Detroit in the first place, at least not right away.

New York City FC was just added to MLS and will start play in 2015. David Beckham is probably going to exercise the option to own an MLS club that was built in to his his LA Galaxy contract and has already been scoping out possible stadium sites in Miami. Additionally, Orlando City FC, one of the top clubs in USL Pro, is working on an MLS-caliber stadium in anticipation of being promoted.

Beyond that, there are several other towns in line ahead of us. Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham and San Antonio all support bigger clubs than Detroit and have proven for longer that they have what it takes to support professional soccer.

Soccer culture needs more time to mature here in Detroit. We need to show that we can make professional soccer a sustainable venture before Don Garber comes calling. Like the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia, we need to show that, to borrow a phrase, the support here in Detroit is organic and able to grow beyond the couple thousand of us passionate City supporters and the casual fans who show up to my local every four years to watch the World Cup.

So for now, many of us who dream that one day we can grasp the top rung of American soccer will be continuing to grow soccer culture in Detroit by dragging our friends and family into the supporters section, teaching them the words to Wonky Eye and getting them hooked on the beautiful game.

To the casual fans, who want MLS here but haven’t done anything to help us earn it, perhaps you should come see what it’s all about. If we work together, maybe some day the MLS dream will come to Detroit.


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