KALAMAZOO -- There are other ways to win, perhaps, cleaner ways, paths less fraught with anguish, less dogged by anxiety; but that is not Detroit City’s way, and it never has been, not for one moment. We make it difficult, make it seem maybe even impossible, then we do it anyway.
One can measure the distance Le Rouge this season have climbed in emotional terms. Two months ago, the players filed off the Keyworth pitch stunned, each lost in their own reverie, trying to understand how 5 minutes’ poor concentration had undone 80 minutes of fluid football; having played two and lost one, how unlikely did transcendence seem? The scoreboard was unflinching: Detroit City 2, Kalamazoo FC 3. The silence in the locker room seemed to brood.
Mundanity beckoned, but City declined the invitation. Today’s match ended with the same men, no longer silent, no longer brooding, now bouncing in celebration, singing “Campeones, campeones, ole, ole, ole!” as they lifted the Great Lakes Division championship trophy to their howling, delighted supporters.
It took an incisive, jaw-dropping bit of skill from Senegalese teenager Abdoulaye Diop in the 71st minute of play to break open a tense game, giving Le Rouge a much-needed season-ending victory, 3-1, over that same Kalamazoo FC today.
“It was amazing, I am so glad to get my first goal,” Diop said after collecting his Man of the Match award. “I [saw] two guys coming at me, and I thought, why not? Why not just take it?”
The fateful ball fell to Diop’s feet during a sequence of play that saw Le Rouge dominating play over the tiring hosts. A sort of attacking conga line emerged atop the Kalamazoo box, as Max Todd’s darting interior run was ended by a desperate Kalamazoo tackle, only for the ball to fall to Danny Deakin, who’d been influential throughout. Deakin’s jinking run took him into the left channel and finished with a shot, which when blocked came to Diop, 19 yards from goal, just left of center, a massed but scrambling home defense between.
The midfielder’s first two touches told the story: Avoiding a ferocious attempt at a tackle with a lightning-quick two-foot shuffle, Laye burst into the area, his second touch settling magnificently, backspin seeming to hold the ball in place a moment. The home defense - twice-battered in the previous 20 seconds - was just that fraction too late to intervene, instead becoming the closest witnesses as Diop pulverized the waiting pelota into the top-left corner of the Kalamazoo net: 2-1, Detroit City, and rising. The goal was his first for the Rouge & Gold.
City finished the scoring in stoppage time, substitute Tommy Buono coolly slotting home the insurance goal as Kalamazoo’s desperation and weariness took them.
For Detroit City gaffer Trevor James, this result is the culmination of a long climb-back after losing to Kalamazoo, 3-2, in Le Rouge’s first home NPSL match of the year. “It seems like every game we play is a must-win game!” James said. “From the first home game where we lost to this group here, it sort of forced us to play a little bit of catch-up, and every game was a little bit more important because we’d lost 3 points in that game.
“We seem to be doing it every week! And of course today was, if we won we get the bye and day off, if not we go straight into the playoffs. So it seems like we’ve been at this for a while now.”
The hour-plus that preceded Diop’s thunderbolt was classic NPSL: Two teams toiling in the roasting-pan environment of Riverfront Park, the lumpy pitch making connections fleeting. Le Rouge’s usual swirling possession game was stood off by Kalamazoo’s unusual 3-4-2-1 shape, which tucked both players in the attacking band inside, crowding the central areas City generally controls. DCFC answered these gambits by abandoning their usual patient buildups in favor of quick longer balls into attacking spaces.
The opener, though, came off of opportunistic defensive pressure. Kalamazoo won a throw deep in their own zone, and le Rouge intelligently pressed forward; Bakie Goodman’s late-arriving pressure caught Osman Haji just receiving the ball. Instead, Goodman won it and was immediately felled, winning a penalty with only 8 minutes elapsed. Todd’s drilled finish on the spot kick gave City a lead that lasted for a quarter hour: 1-0, City.
The hosts responded with redoubled grit, flying into tackles and lobbing long balls for pacy striker Dalton Michael to run onto, to some good effect. Any thoughts Detroit City may have entertained of putting the game away early were comprehensively answered by a lung-bursting 10-minute stretch of pure effort from Kalamazoo. Their ascendance was capped by a quick-penetrating attacking move through the left channel that freed attacking mid Isaiah Nieves to finish past a helpless Hunter Morse in the City goal.
At 1-1, the game seemed to nose about in the corners for its destiny; the next goal would surely be hugely important, but how would it come? Kalamazoo is still the only NPSL team to best Detroit City this season, and it looked at times like a repeat was on the cards - in the 34th minute, for example, when Morse came out adroitly after Michael was played through on the City goal - but the interval came with the game still deadlocked.
James sent Le Rouge out in the second half in a different shape - Will Perkins dropped in favor of Cyrus Saydee, the middle-heavy 3-4-1-2 now a 4-2-3-1 that leaned to the left with the ball. In short, this switch worked very well, partially because it put a tremendous amount of stress on K-Zoo’s defensive right, but also because it got a fresh Saydee into the mix against a host side that looked totally enervated with a half-hour yet to play. City increasingly controlled play, Kalamazoo dropping deeper and deeper, defending with admirable doggedness.
Once Diop’s winner hit the twine, the outcome seldom seemed in doubt, as the Detroiters took to the task of counterattacking with glee. Buono’s insurance marker was only the final of a host of clear-cut chances carved out by the boys in rouge in the final 10 minutes.
The win, combined with Med City FC’s 1-0 upset of Minneapolis City FC on Friday, was sufficient to lift City (10-3-1) into the bye round for the upcoming NPSL Midwest Region playoffs. City will play in the semifinals Friday, time and place to be determined.
We know we’ll make it difficult, somehow. But that’s what makes it worth having, right?