It’s February 2020. The window of true systemic reform is dead.

Nobody is really focused on this idea. Not everybody would agree with it anyway. In Detroit, spirits are high after winning the NPSL Member’s Cup (hell yeah, brother!), and all are looking forward to our first season free from the NPSL’s regular clown show. In Chattanooga, NISA’s lack of territory rights are the primary focus after CFC was locked out of the USL by the Chattanooga Red Wolves. In New York, Cosmos fans who are focused on reform are waiting on the results of a lawsuit by owner Rocco Commisso against USSF regarding the NASL’s loss of sanctioning.

But make no mistake about it. NPSL Pro’s attempt to buck the PLS could have been the difference maker, a chance for community clubs to truly build themselves into professional squads without having to take on a rich investor who would gain the right to change things and override the community that built it. The NGS Twitterati who discuss systemic issues and reform in soccer had backed a dead horse. Reform was always a long shot, and failure is the default option in any effort for it in US Soccer. But we were finally pro and we could focus on the good that NISA was going to do towards that effort in the Spring.

Maybe in another life, we’d have had time to come back to those conversations and lament what was lost. But in this one, we only got a single game of NISA’s Spring 2020 season. City took down the Los Angeles Force 0-2 in LA, while a jubilant NGS watched in the Detroit City Clubhouse. We had a few bye weeks coming up before we would get to see another match, but we were about to have the most soccer we’d ever had in a year- including the launch of the new women’s team!

The Pandemic Hits

Two weeks later, COVID-19 was surging across America. The panic had hit the west coast first- after seeing photos of stripped Seattle grocery stores, my wife and I had stocked up on food and essentials in case the worst happened. On March 12th, practically every sports league in America announced the suspension of their seasons on the same day, including NISA. I normally work from home, but I was in the office at the time trying to remain focused through the bad news. In January I had taken over the Southfield chapter of #misec, an information security group meetup, who had been discussing our response to the threat of the pandemic- and the evening of March 12th was one such meeting.

One of my speakers for the night canceled due to pandemic fears, leaving me to pull out a half-finished slide deck and deliver it off the cuff with zero rehearsal. I had people ask me point-blank: we’re not going to be canceling any of our events, are we? I didn’t know. Taking over a group like this was complicated enough, let alone deciding when it needs to stop meeting. The former chapter director I’d taken over from wasn’t there that night either, also due to health concerns.

I gave my talk last in a series of lightning talks that evening. It went worse than expected- I had neglected to include the source of some of my graphics, violating the license for its free usage by the generous individual who had created them. The content of the talk was nothing special and I felt that I had delivered it poorly- it was my second time speaking with #misec, and I wasn’t proud of either performance.

As the meeting ended, one of the members of the group announced to us that Converge Detroit, our annual big conference and cross-chapter meetup, had been canceled citing pandemic concerns. I took this as my cue to cancel the upcoming Southfield meetups, which would soon be followed by all of #misec agreeing to cancel in-person meetups through the rest of the year and beyond.

The world had collapsed within an 8 hour span. The weight of everything I was responsible for and everything that was being lost was too much at once. I drove home, parked, then leaned my head against the steering wheel and sobbed. The stay-at-home orders would be coming in soon- my world would be pared down to wherever I could get to on foot or with my bicycle, with precious few humans involved.

The Brink of Collapse

Similar scenes were playing out across the lives of many supporters. I was fortunate to have continuous employment the entire time, while others had their livelihoods threatened. Fear of personal safety or for family was now center stage, overriding many things that people had obsessed over previously. None of this can really be separated from a discussion of how the group was looking at all things DCFC and NISA- a community is made up of its individuals and their experiences.

But the stay-at-home orders and cancellations weren’t just a delay for Detroit City FC, either: they were nearly a death sentence. They were orders I agreed with- I thought we could flatten the curve, ramp up response, and hopefully return to normal sooner than we did. But our club did not have a rich owner who would simply write checks to make our problems go away. We had always been dependent on revenues to live- the ticket and jersey sales that some teams don’t seem to care about at all were the lifeblood of our club. It meant that DCFC was beholden to its fans and their desires in a way that few other teams have ever been.

Now those revenues were gone. The offseason had just ended, but we were locked in our own houses with every reason to believe that the touchstone that made sure we all saw each other could die a sudden and undeserved death. Club ownership would work all-nighters on loan applications to try to keep the team afloat. All of our recent expansion into things like the Detroit City Clubhouse or going professional was now a liability on the books- a potential cruel twist of fate that while other clubs that stayed amateur might be able to hibernate and return, we might have flown too close to the sun.

At one point, CEO Sean Mann actually took out another mortgage on his house, putting his personal assets on the line to keep the club afloat. In the wake of the move to USL Championship, I can’t emphasize this point enough. DCFC had been given several opportunities to sell out and give the owners a decent chunk of change in exchange for giving the brand to investors who might have taken it to MLS to claim our work as their own. Instead, he was willing to take on significant personal risk to keep DCFC as DCFC. This is not an individual who blinks at the first sign of trouble and took the easy path; there is significant risk appetite to make sure that things get done correctly, and NISA still didn’t pass the test in the end. We’ll see how NISA managed to exceed that high risk appetite later in this series- but it’s important to remember that the people making the calls had already bet their house on the club before these things happened.

From the supporter end, there was an immediate movement to repudiate any refunds on season tickets. Better to lose money for a season that would never occur than to receive our money back and never have a club again. This wouldn’t be enough to keep the club afloat, but it would prevent a bad situation from becoming even worse. To really fix the problem, however, DCFC would need a significant capital infusion. This would arrive in the WeFunder supporter ownership campaign, templated off of the campaign that Chattanooga FC had done previously to gain resources to fight off the Red Wolves. Many DCFC supporters had invested in CFC at this time, and many CFC supporters would return the favor now.

The club was valued at $10M, with 10% of it for sale to raise $1M. The buy-in was $125 per share, with the option of converting your season ticket into an ownership share if you didn’t want to roll it over to 2021. The response across the Internet was enthusiastic, with many taking up the opportunity to own a piece of the then-darling of independent soccer and keep it afloat. The reaction was so swift, in fact, that many locals feared they wouldn’t be able to buy in quickly enough- and indeed a fair number did miss out, or otherwise experienced issues with WeFunder’s extra confirmation steps that their shares were never confirmed.

Going in, we all understood that this was not a real financial investment that we could expect to yield returns. There was no true community control of the club that would be established by this- a 10% stake wouldn’t have overridden a single one of DCFC’s other owners, and there was no board seat on offer anyway. Most of us didn’t feel the need for such a seat- for me, it’s a relief to not have to worry about electioneering and popularity contests for the seat, allowing us to stay focused on other supporter work. The shares represented a simple pride of being able to say that this club was ours, and to continue having a club at all. Without supporter ownership, Detroit City FC would have gone bankrupt and died in 2020. Perhaps the crest would have lived on when somebody bought it out of bankruptcy proceedings, but the soul of what this is would have changed.

DCFC had faced many threats over the years, especially the MLS bids, but those were mostly threats to growth and becoming professional, relegating us to an eternal fourth division NPSL team. COVID had changed the stakes, and with them the tenor of the conversation. City could die if enough went against it now. If half the NPSL had collapsed, we would have simply realigned our conferences and continued on in the amateur game. The hiccups of that league were insulting and below our station, but they weren’t existential threats. But if NISA went under at the wrong moment, or if a storm like COVID hit, that could be the end.

Nobody could have marked it at the time, but the scars from the beginning of the pandemic until the completion of the WeFunder were one of the major shifts in readiness towards USL. We had already given up on PLS reform when NPSL Pro died, and the fear of losing the club sucked the oxygen out of any discussion around reforming the system during this period. Many of us, including myself, had only become interested in soccer because DCFC got its hooks into us. When we would say Club > League or focus on DCFC over any wider issues, it was because the loss of DCFC would be the loss of the sport itself to us.

But while the groundwork was being laid, we wouldn’t be prepared for any USL jump for at least a year. Our expectations of NISA as a professional league with real money behind it were higher than they had been for NPSL. We expected teams to be professionally operated, backed by the strong league office that version zero had promised to us. The pandemic would certainly pose its challenges, and we knew that- but it wouldn’t excuse everything.

The next four installments of this series will focus on individual NISA clubs and their impacts on the league’s optics and operations. We’ll start with the most infamous club that received approval as a professional club before the league regretfully retracted their membership: the New Jersey Teamsters FC.

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