At the end of the day, it’s all about what you make.
The Michigan Bucks make players, collecting a whole host of talented footballers and making slightly better footballers out of them. It’s worked well for years, well enough that their trophy cabinet is stuffed to bursting with silverware.
Detroit City Football Club is working on an entirely different level, one the Bucks’ owner once derided as ‘marketing’ but which, in truth, is more like magic. City doesn’t make players and then hope to win games with them. City finds players, then puts them in front of the Northern Guard, all to distill a rarer vintage.
What Detroit City makes, you see, are legends.
Wednesday night at Keyworth Stadium, City made a few more, knocking their bitter rivals out of the U.S. Open Cup for the second time in three years. A soft penalty and softer red card made hard work of it, but Le Rouge persevered for a 1-1 draw after extra time to force a penalty shootout they won 5-4.
“[The referee] made two decisions that went against us, and they weren’t right,” DCFC manager Ben Pirmann said. “But at the end of the day, I think the right team won.”
Legends cannot be created in a coaching test-tube; they require a difficult combination of talent, opportunity and - crucially - observation. When City keeper Nate Steinwascher laid out to his right at 10:48 p.m., guessing correctly that Bucks midfielder Ivo Cerda was shooting for that corner of his goal, the screams of thousands of supporters hung in the air, hours of thundering profanity whittled down to a choked-off scream, the echoes reverberating around the concrete shell of the stadium. Even Time stood on its toes, peering into itself; Cerda’s shot, goal-bound; Steinwascher’s desperately outflung hand, getting just a touch; the ball, diverted (enough? ENOUGH!) trickling a tantalizing inch past the post and out; Steinwascher, landing hard on his side, his head canted hard to watch; that same body, seconds later, upright and exultant, sticking his tongue out at supporters in the sheer joy of the moment, hearing the clash and roar of their approbation.
“These are the moments you live for as a goalkeeper,” an obviously delighted Steinwascher said. “I saw him approach the ball with his hips closed the whole time, so I just had to go. I had to go.
“These players are good. I know they’re gonna put it in the corners, so I just gotta pick my spot, drive as hard as I can to a corner, and hope to get the slightest touch - and that’s what happened.”
Steinwascher’s heroics left room for Roddy Green to finish off Le Rouge’s second consecutive victory over their lauded counterparts. Relatively fresh after entering late in extra time for a cramping Rafa Mentzingen, Green’s stutter-step approach put Bucks keeper Jimmy Hague off just enough, giving his sharply-struck shot a chance to push through Hague’s fingertips and into the side-netting. Northern Guard, huddled at the south end of their stand, maintained strict silence during the City penalties, so it was possible to hear the spinning ball hit the twine, the mildest swishing sound immediately buried in an avalanche of human emotion, City players and support staff running in every direction toward the support as the madness of euphoria truly began to take hold. Green tore off his jersey to reveal a black ‘DETROIT VS EVERYBODY’ shirt as smoke and delight wreathed him.
“I was in this situation last season,” Green said, recalling his missed spot-kick in City’s defeat by Midland-Odessa in the NPSL national semifinal. “I was thinking about that a little. … I’ve been practicing a lot on my pens. I changed my pen routine. I knew that if I hit it right, it was going in.”
X x x
If this game had ended differently, I’d be writing that it’s a pity that the endings of things so color our memory of them - because, for the first time in our history, this was a matchup with the Bucks that Le Rouge deserved to win. Not that the match was dominated by either side for long stretches - this was a truly well-balanced match, two lower-level heavyweights cannily circling each other, looking for openings.
The City defensive unit - which had warmed up for the match with a series of drills that emphasized communication and cohesion - routinely stood up the powerful Bucks attack outside the penalty area, marking and grinding and waiting for a loose pass to start a break the other way. The best chance for the visitors came midway through the half, when a teasing cross called for a punch from Steinwascher, which led to him getting kneed in the thigh, which meant some tense moments as he waited for the pain to subside enough to allow him to take goal kicks. Le Rouge, on the other hand, kept trying to play into space, only to find that a) the wind was howling against them, and b) the Bucks recruit elite athletes who can - y’know - run, so that approach didn’t work out.
Undeterred, City burst from the halftime locker room full of intent, trying to take the game to the visitors, controlling more of the ball and playing on the front foot. The Bucks seemed surprised by the shift in the tenor of the game, struggling to clear their lines as Le Rouge hammered away, Twice in quick succession Bucks defenders watched corners bounce clear through their box; on the first occasion, City hit the post, and on the second Mentzingen steered a header off the crossbar.
Comes now Shawn Claud Lawson, the tip of the Detroit City spear. Lawson has had a frustrating game, working hard to pressure a quality pair of centerbacks, not finding the ball much. But here it is, suddenly, appearing like a vision after rebounding off the crossbar - la pelota, all alone for a moment, which is all Lawson needs, ghosting in amongst the trees in defense, slashing a viciously-struck shot off the underside of the crossbar and in: 1-0, City, with 32 minutes left.
Goals change games, of course. That goal seemed to signal the end of this match as a normal football contest, and the beginning of its time as the center of Weird World. Detroit City seemed about to smother this game with a really comfy pillow when the center official, in the 84th minute, judged that two guys running diagonally toward the corner who collided deserved a spot kick. Afonso Pinheiro Neto managed to power the shot past Steinwascher, and with less than 5 minutes, the game was again level.
But that was nothing compared to the Weird that visited extra time. Greg Janicki, a wise head brought on by Pirmann to marshall the defensive effort when City was still leading, made a tackle at midfield that his airborne opponent rendered incredible by performing a triple-twist flail. The match official, apparently distracted by all that flailing, went straight for his back pocket to issue Janicki a red card on his first, mundane foul.
“The red card was clearly not a red card,” Pirmann said. “It was what it was.”
A late handball penalty shout by the visitors - on a fairly obvious infraction - was waved off in the dying seconds of the match, perhaps as tacit admission of earlier injustices.
Thus inspired by the swirling clouds of Weird enveloping the stadium, Northern Guard roared into furious overdrive, drumming and pulsing and never letting City go slack - and, so inspired, the 10-man Rouge slid into a comfortable 4-4-1, relying on two-banks-of-four to obviate the Bucks’ advantage in manpower. Few chances were created in extra time, and the one that did emerge (off a Bucks corner in the 118th minute) was hacked off the line by Jimmy Fiscus.
The moments which forge legends aren’t easy to define, but they’re easy to witness. For long minutes after Green’s winner, Keyworth was removed entirely from workaday spaces, becoming instead the smoky birthplace of a mythos. The players, climbing onto the fence which surrounds stands to thank and be thanked; the supporters, spilling over one another in a rush to share this love, this triumph, this feeling that connects us. Even the reserved Pirmann fell into the cauldron of joy in the sparkling moments just after, blasting high-fives with anyone nearby while shouting “LET’S F--KING GO” into the night.
There’s legends to be made, folks. This is just starting. Let’s. F--king. Go.
Detroit City FC opens NPSL play Sunday at Ann Arbor, with kickoff slated for 3 p.m. Le Rouge returns to U.S. Open Cup play next Wednesday, traveling to Cincinnati to play the USL front-runners in the tournament’s second round.
US Open Cup 1st Rd: DETROIT CITY FC 1, MICHIGAN BUCKS 1, A.E.T. (DCFC advances 5-4 in penalty shootout)
Detroit City FC 0 1 (0 0) - 1
Michigan Bucks 0 1 (0 0) - 1
Goals: DCFC - Lawson 58’. Bucks - Pinheiro Neto 85’ (pen)
Discipline: DCFC - Caution, Sinclair 64’, Centala 87’, Saydee 90’; Ejection, Janicki 95’ . Bucks - Caution, J. Timmer 48’
Bucks x-x DCFC
Pinheiro Neto SAVED 0-0 Deakin SAVED
Goldsmith SCORED 1-0 Bartel SAVED
Barone SCORED 2-1 Centala SCORED
Dunwell MISSED 2-2 Sinclair SCORED
Timmer SCORED 3-3 Carroll SCORED
Guitar SCORED 4-4 Bentley SCORED
Cerda SAVED 4-5 Green SCORED
Detroit City FC (4-2-3-1): Steinwascher; Bentley, Fiscus, Carroll, Sinclair; Centala, Bartel; Mentzingen (Green 113’), Deakin, Williams (Saydee 60’); Lawson (Janicki 80’).
Michigan Bucks (4-5-1): Hague; Ruhaek, Timmer, Mukuna, Borges (Pinheiro Neto 69’); Cardenas (Rufe 65’), Vasquenza (Guitar 46), Barone, Dunwell, Cerda; Goldsmith.