Investors dedicated to dream of Detroit MLS franchise


Dan Duggan has dreamed of a Major League Soccer team playing in Detroit since the league was first kicked around in the early 1990s.

Although Duggan failed to convince some of area’s wealthiest and biggest power brokers to buy in during MLS’s infancy, he’s excited about the recent announcement that Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores are teaming up as part of a $1-billion proposal for an MLS expansion bid that includes building a multiuse soccer stadium on the site of the unfinished Wayne County Jail project.

Duggan was in Spain recruiting players for his Michigan Bucks when Gilbert held a news conference in downtown Detroit on April 27 along with MLS commissioner Don Garber and Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment.

The Bucks play in the Premier Development League, which is considered part of the fourth level of pro soccer in the U.S. MLS is the first tier, followed by the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League.

Garber acknowledged at the news conference that he wants to find a way to involve both the Michigan Bucks and Detroit City FC (which plays in the National Premier Soccer League, also in the fourth level of pro soccer) in the effort to bring MLS to Detroit, although there’s no firm plan on how that will happen.
It’s clear that Garber is hoping to rally the soccer community in metro Detroit around the prospect of bringing MLS to the state by as early as 2020.

“The mayor wants MLS in Detroit, the commissioner wants MLS in Detroit. Most of the people want MLS in Detroit,” – Dan Duggan

“Every MLS team has a USL team affiliate, and that’s important to a potential franchise for both player and fan development,” Tellem said. “We are fortunate to have two established minor league soccer programs here in Michigan with the Bucks and DCFC, and we’ve had conversations with both clubs. It’s premature to speculate where those conversations will lead, but we intend to keep talking about how we can work together as the bid process unfolds.

“We have tremendous respect for those clubs, their supporters and everything they’ve accomplished.”

While some DCFC fans have expressed skepticism about the plan, Duggan told the Free Press during an interview in Cleveland last week that the Bucks fully support the Gores/Gilbert effort.

Detroit is one of seven cities fighting for four expansion spots, as MLS is planning to expand to 28 teams over the next five or six years.

Detroit’s chances appear to hinge on whether a deal can be worked out for the failed Wayne County Jail site. Garber made it clear that’s the site MLS wants, and Gilbert acknowledged there really isn’t a Plan B if a deal can’t be worked out with the county.

Duggan, the younger brother of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said he thinks an outcome on the jail site will take place in the next month or two.

“I don’t think this is going to be a six- or 12-month drag on,” Dan Duggan said. “The mayor wants MLS in Detroit, the commissioner wants MLS in Detroit. Most of the people want MLS in Detroit.”

Starting with the USL

However, Duggan said he thought it was “aggressive” to think Detroit could get an MLS team by 2020. It would be the second time a top-league soccer team played in the area, joining the Detroit Express, which played in 1978-80 at the Pontiac Silverdome as a member of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

Duggan has expressed a desire to bring a USL team to Detroit and is hoping to convince the Gilbert/Gores group to consider his plan to build a 10,000-seat stadium that would also include a practice field that could eventually be used by an MLS team.

Duggan said he could get a stadium built within nine months if land was approved quickly.

The Rossetti architecture firm, which was involved in the recent proposed MLS Detroit stadium and entertainment district, had previously done renderings for a smaller stadium that Duggan has tried to pitch to investors in recent years.

Duggan said MLS teams have partnerships with USL teams now — similar to how the Tigers and Red Wings have farm teams for their prospects to develop. Duggan hopes to convince everyone involved in the larger Detroit expansion effort that a USL team should start soon here to help build momentum for the future.

“That becomes the mecca for the next five years for where the top quality soccer is played,” Duggan said. “And it’s a multiuse (stadium). If you do it and MLS comes in 2020, 2022 or whatever, they still need this facility. They’re not going to train in that (other) stadium. It would be the soccer training complex that MLS would say is needed anyway.”

Duggan said that the USL stadium would cost $11-20 million, not including the land, and would include two fields with lights and concessions.

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Detroit’s first top-level pro soccer team was the Detroit Express, which played in 1978-80 at the Pontiac Silverdome in the now-defunct NASL.
(Photo: Scott Ecker/Detroit Free Press)

“The MLS has 28 guys on a roster right now,” Duggan said. “On an average, 16 guys are seeing playing time. They’ve got 12 guys that play all year long and don’t ever see a game. So what they do is they take those guys and let them play on a USL team. And when they’re ready — and the only way they’re going to get ready is by playing — they move them up. They own their rights, they pay their salaries.”

Duggan noted that Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and the L.A. Galaxy all have MLS and USL teams in the same markets.

Duggan said his desire to have a USL team doesn’t interfere with the Bucks, which will face DCFC in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup tournament at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Oakland University.

“I was playing in a Detroit Soccer League when I was 16 because that was the only place to play,” Duggan said. “At 18 was going to Michigan State to play and decided I didn’t want to go to college. I started working and 38 years (later) I own the company I started working for.

“All the time I’ve been working I’ve continued to take the next step with soccer. It’s something I always want to keep giving back. I didn’t have the opportunities that they have today.”

When Dan’s brother, Jim, got involved in the effort to bring the World Cup to the Silverdome in 1994 — the brothers decided to try to get in on the ground floor of MLS — which was founded in 1993 and began play in 1996 — but it didn’t work out.

Instead they started the Mid-Michigan Bucks in Saginaw and eventually moved it to metro Detroit. The Bucks now play out of the Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac.

While the Bucks and DCFC are both considered fourth-level pro teams, there aren’t many similarities.

Duggan doesn’t do much marketing for the Bucks, preferring to put all of his budget toward the players, many of whom come from the best college soccer programs in the county. Those players are looking to advance far in the U.S. Open Cup, because the deeper they go the more chances they’ll get to play against higher competition and get noticed by scouts.

“We can sit around over a beer and argue which is the way to go,” Duggan said. “But if you look at it historically, in my 25-30 years of doing it at this level, there’s never been a team that has won and done well consistently at the box office, because it takes a hell of a lot of money.”

Nobody argues that between the two clubs, DCFC fans wear their passion — with scarves, T-shirts and other apparel.

“They are a marketing machine and have done a fantastic job,” Duggan said of DCFC. “They are second to none of any minor-league club and better than some major-league clubs from a marketing standpoint.

“And I think we’ve basically done the same thing from a competitive standpoint, when you move players on to the next level.”

Growth of MLS

Duggan had hoped to convince one of the other Detroit sports power brokers to invest $5 millon for an MLS francise (not counting a stadium) in 2002-05. He said he met with representatives of the owners of the Pistons, Lions, Tigers and Red Wings.

All of those owners had been involved in some form of soccer in the past. Former Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr., who died in 2014, was an honorable mention All-America soccer player at Yale. Ford Sr. was also chairman in the late 1960s of the Detroit Cougars, a short-lived professional soccer team.

Former Pistons owner William Davidson owned a pro indoor team. The Detroit Neon played in the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1994-96. They were rebranded as the Detroit Safari in 1997, their final season.

Mike Ilitch, who owns the Tigers and Red Wings, owned the Detroit Rockers, another former pro indoor soccer team, in the late ’90s.

Duggan said he thought it hurt his effort that all had been involved in past soccer ventures that had not succeeded. He also suffered from bad timing. MLS was struggling at the time and had been reduced to eight teams.

Owners like Lamar Hunt and Bob Kraft helped keep the league afloat, Duggan said, ahead of a rising wave of interest in soccer in the U.S.

“The first thing to change was this guy named David Beckham,” Duggan said. “The day that Beckham came on board (in 2007 with the Galaxy), franchises went from $5 million to $25 million. He gave instant credibility to the league and instant worldwide attention to the league. From there, the Beckham effect kept on going.”

Other aging big-name players opted to come to MLS to continue playing, helping MLS expand and franchise fees soar.

Although Duggan said he’s met with Tellem and Matt Cullen, the point men for the Gores/Gilbert effort, he isn’t sure what involvement, if any, he might play in bringing MLS to the city.

“We’ve had several meetings with Matt Cullen over the last three years to try to do something to get Dan Gilbert excited about MLS,” Duggan said. “In the last nine months since Arn got here, I’ve had several meetings with Tellem. He’s explained what he wants to do with MLS. Mr. Gores has given him this task to partner with Dan and his group, which to me was the most exciting news I’ve heard in my life.

“The fact that we’ve got two of these power brokers together for the first time, in any major sport, is a tribute to all of them. … This is the first time we’ve had the commissioner say ‘Detroit is the market we want to be in, these are the owners we want.’ ”

Source: Detroit Free Press