It’s not yet 6:00pm at the Fowling Warehouse in Detroit and capo Ron is already making the rounds with his bullhorn.
“Finish your drinks and get ready, the march to Keyworth is starting soon!”
Kickoff for the Detroit City FC match is still a couple hours away but the energy among the several hundred supporters in attendance is building. As the clock ticks closer to gametime, Ron’s shouts turn from reminders to commands and more rouge-clad fans make their way outside.
On this hot summer night in Detroit, the team is playing NISA newcomer Chicago House AC. Given the two clubs’ histories, one might expect an inevitable, and somewhat muted, outcome. But that doesn’t stop the Northern Guard Supporters from treating this like a championship match. That’s the type of energy they bring and why they’re infamous around the soccer world.
Love them or hate them, the Northern Guard Supporters Group in Detroit is one-of-a-kind.
They’re unapologetically brash and they embrace the underdog moniker.
Not because their team is inferior. Far from it, actually. Detroit City just won the most recent championship and they’ve been beating up on most teams in NISA for a while now.
The underdog mindset comes from the city’s history in general. The rise, fall, and rebirth of Detroit is well documented and locals see their club and its fanbase as a representation of that.
As Sam Shrum shared, “In Detroit we like being underdogs. In fact we prefer it. So many times people have counted this city out or tried to knock us down. That’s something we take pride in and we love proving all those haters wrong.”
No doubt, every supporters group is unique. They all reflect their communities in both overt and nuanced ways. But the Northern Guard Supporters are something different altogether. In a city with four storied professional teams, Detroit City FC is paving its own path on the backs of a supporter culture that stands out among the rest.
If you’re a regular in the online soccer ecosystem, you already know that Detroit fans are notorious for their carefully-cultivated Twitter banter. But come to a Detroit City match and you’ll see why locals are joining the Northern Guard Supporters en masse. If you’re part of the Northern Guard family, you’re in. If not, you’ll experience the best of both worlds.
The Northern Guard Supporters will welcome you warmly in one sentence and tell you to f*ck off in the next.
Don’t be fooled though. Behind this antihero culture is a diverse and inclusive group that represents the resurgence of a great American city and growth of soccer in this country.
The Northern Guard Supporters Group doesn’t have an official membership or annual dues. As they say, “it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, the only thing that matters to us is that you sing for Detroit City.”
They rely on the work of dozens of supporters to keep the group growing, doing everything from building a mobile app to disseminate chants, to organizing away trips and giving back through the NGS Cares initiative.
Over half the supporters we spoke to did not become soccer fans until recently. They never played as kids, nor did they know the rules before they came to Detroit City FC. They became season ticket holders simply because they love Detroit and because of the culture of the Northern Guard is unlike anything they’ve witnessed.
“I had never watched a full 90 minutes of a soccer match until 2016,” explained Sam. “I was always curious about the sport because it’s the global game, but I didn’t know much beyond. The main reason I bought my first ticket was because of a local newspaper article that listed Detroit City matches as a fun date night option.”
Thinking that might be a cool thing to experience, Sam took his now-wife to a preseason friendly against the Dayton Dynamo where they got to witness the raucous atmosphere at Keyworth Stadium firsthand. From then on, the couple was hooked. They immediately bought tickets to the next match but instead of sitting on the family side this time, they opted to stand among the smoke and Northern Guard Supporters.
Today, Sam is one of the capos and is infamous in the U.S. soccer community for his diehard passion for Detroit City. He is also a big reason why the atmosphere at Keyworth Stadium parallels that of what you’ll find in small towns across Europe.
Located in the culturally-diverse Hamtramck community, Keyworth Stadium is every bit a must-see U.S. soccer venue.
Originally built in 1936 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the stadium was renovated in 2016 thanks to a supporter-driven investment campaign and began hosting Detroit City matches shortly after.
To get to the stadium, you walk through the quaint neighborhood with kids playing in the streets and families on their porches. When you arrive, you are reminded of the historic European stadiums where it’s not uncommon to see locals peering over fences to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Similarly, Keyworth Stadium backs right up to the edge of the houses in Hamtramck and fans seated in the top row of the stadium can look over the concrete wall to see children playing in nearby yards.
On the opposite side of the field, the Northern Guard Supporters take up the entire length of the stands. They are loud, they are mean, and they are deep in numbers.
For most visiting teams, it is the largest crowd they will play in front of all year and the Northern Guard Supporters do their best to take advantage of that. Instead of one or two capos, they have six spanning the entire length of the stand. For 90 minutes, everyone from the most tenured fans to first-timers are showing opposing players why it’s one of the most intimidating places to play.
“When the stadium is full, with Northern Guard Supporters packed in side-by-side, it’s one of the best soccer atmospheres you’ll experience,” shared Niamh Kendall.
Detroit City might play in one of the lower divisions in professional soccer, but the Northern Guard Supporters have created a culture that rivals any club and any league.