Michigan usually has a consistent amateur competitor in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, a team you all might know as the Michigan Bucks. They’ve made the tournament a total of eight times in their 15 seasons, their most recent appearance coming in 2008. But instead of them, a different team is representing Michigan this time around. For the first time since 2001, a USASA team from the state has qualified: Detroit United.
Owner/manager George Juncaj started his soccer journey immigrating to the United States in 1983. He played semi-pro in Southern California for his first few years, before coming to Michigan when a new opportunity arose in 1993. He played with various amateur teams around Metro Detroit until fights between players and spectators (fueled by ethnic hatred) forced him to hang up his boots.
Juncaj returned to the local soccer scene in 2002, playing simple pick-up with some friends, when younger players started to come around and join in the action. At some point, others started to cause trouble, and that’s when he decided it’s time to start a team in a structured league.
The new team that Juncaj started would come to be known as Detroit United, and the name comes from his past experiences at the amateur level, as well as inflicting a change in how an amateur team in Detroit comes to be:
“The reason I came to Detroit United, I looked, and … you basically have ethnic groups. You have the White Eagles (a Polish club), you have Drita (Albanian), you have the Kickers (German), etc. … So I said, you know what, I’m going to put Detroit United, where it’s going to be an option, whoever lives in Detroit, they can come play for this team. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I have two, three guys from Africa, I have a guy from Israel, I have many from Europe, I have an Argentinean, I have a Brazilian, and I used to have a Chinese guy. I used to have a Japanese guy, but he left soccer, and he went to play pro baseball in Japan.”
Juncaj feels that it’s important to not have any barriers keeping certain players from his team, unlike the many ethnic clubs that dot the soccer landscape in the Detroit area. “I never ask a person ‘where are you from?’ It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
As mentioned earlier, there are many international players on the squad. However, the core group of the team is mostly American. The first player Juncaj was quick to point out is Tommy Eller. He’s described as a fast player, controlling the ball very well, and one of the most unselfish players in the game (winning an award in that respect). According to his coach, “he might be one of the better players in the state of Michigan.” Other players mentioned include his captain, defender Tom Stark, as well as goalkeeper Ryan Mathe, Zach Wilkes, and Worteh Sampson (the last two formerly suiting up for the pro indoor team Detroit Ignition). Sampson also played for a time with the Charlotte Eagles of the USL Second Division. Those five players are the core group of the team.
Another player that might be recognizable, if you have been following this year’s road to qualification, is Fernando Gatica. He scored twice in Milwaukee in the win over the Kickers, then scored again in the semifinal battle with Nebraska’s 402 Academy. Juncaj has praise for him, but mentions that his ego is a little inflated. “He’s not a star yet. He’s a very good player; he controls the ball, which basic Argentineans do. But, he’s also got to be a team player. … Nobody can win a game alone.”
Speaking of that Kickers win, Detroit United managed to finish the match with only 11 healthy players. 14 were set to make the trip, but two were held back as they traveled separately, then were involved in a minor car accident before even leaving the area. Then, early in the Milwaukee match, a Detroit United player had to be removed from the pitch due to an injury, forcing the team to make the only substitution they had.
Although Detroit United is a new entry into the tournament, they have a little history in qualifying. They made a run in 2007, qualifying for the Region II tournament along with Ann Arbor FC Elite (the team they defeated earlier this year 1-0 for the Michigan title that qualified them for the Region II tournament). In the quarterfinals, they defeated the NPSL’s Princeton-56ers 2-1 on a late goal by Humberto Toscan, then matched up with famed Chicago club RWB Adria with a spot in the Open Cup on the line. Unfortunately for the club, they lost 3-0, and with AAFC Elite also losing in the semifinals (to Bavarians SC), the state of Michigan lost both their chances for a tournament bid at the very end.
George Juncaj has high hopes for both his club, as well as soccer in Detroit in general. He feels his team could compete in the National Premier Soccer League, but believes there’s a structural problem with the league itself. “I want to go to the NPSL, but there’s really nothing there, not enough teams. You’d be playing the same team four or five times. It’s not fun. They only have five teams . (currently there are six in 2010) I told them, you get eight to ten teams, you call me.” He mentioned the Premier Development League as an option, but currently the rights to Detroit (as well as the rights to any USL level team) are held by Michigan Bucks owner Dan Duggan, who remains committed to his team, even after Juncaj says he sent Duggan offers to buy the club.
As for professional soccer in the area, Juncaj believes there’s a good chance for Detroit to provide great support. “I really do think we have enough people who love the game in which we can have not just a USL team, but we can have an MLS team…. I think that would be the goal for the younger generation. I love seeing Chicago, I love seeing Columbus playing because you feel closer to your home.” He hopes investors come around and give Detroit a spot on the big stage, and feels that between all the soccer-loving Americans in town and the different ethnic groups, support for a professional club could be outstanding.
Detroit United is set to open their 2010 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, June 15, as they play the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL Second Division. They look to show the ‘Hounds that United’s players are up to the task and well prepared to advance in the tournament.