As cheers erupted along with maroon-and-gold smoke at Keyworth Stadium on Saturday night, the most popular man among Detroit City FC fans very well might have been an opposing defender.
It all started when DCFC's Kevin Venegas passed a ball near midfield to the edge of the Los Angeles Force box. Force defender Seamus McLaughlin intercepted the pass and lobbed the ball back to keeper Brandon Gomez, but the intended pass was just a bit too hard.
McLaughlin's blunder dribbled its way to the back of the net, resulting in a 62nd-minute own-goal that lifted DCFC to a National Independent Soccer Association Championship on home turf in front of a raucous capacity crowd in Hamtramck.
“I think the game was a classic final, really," DCFC coach Trevor James said. "Two very good teams not wanting to give much away. I think it was a typical final. … it came down to inches in the end and who was going to get the breaks, and we ended up getting the break."
The win put the exclamation point on a perfect season for Le Rouge (7-2-0), and marks the club's sweep of the Legends Cup championship, spring regular season championship, and now, the postseason title.
Who says there's a professional sports championship drought in Detroit?
"You don’t play a final, you win a final," said Pato Botello, forward and chief enforcer who helped pin LA in its own territory for most of the night. "It doesn’t matter how you win them, and tonight we won.
"It was a lucky mistake by them, but we were going to take anything they gave us ... Once we put the first one on, I knew our defense wasn't going to let one in."
Make no mistake — Le Rouge put the pressure on throughout the match, keeping the ball in LA Force territory the bulk of the time. That's what led to McLaughlin's own goal. On the defensive side, DCFC keeper Nate Steinwascher was flawless, and the play in front of him allowed for minimal LA chances.
As regulation wound down and the Force tried to dig out of its deficit, Steinwascher made several stops in the waning minutes to ice the win.
"He was in control for most of the game and he’s been outstanding all season," James said. "We’re getting kind of lucky that we get to expect what he does and we take it a little bit for granted, which we shouldn’t but, you know, he’s been immense for us this year and again tonight."
The clubs traded jabs in a physical 49-minute first half, though Le Rouge controlled the pace of play for most of the period. The Force amped things up after the own goal and tensions ran high as a result. From 70 minutes until the end of regulation, six yellow cards were handed out. The Force were given five to Detroit's one.
“We’re proud of the fight we gave, fighting against the reigning champions," Force coach Thales Peterson said. "They’ve won everything so far. We were away from home in a packed stadium, that was very tough. And it came down to one little detail that didn’t go our way."
Botello nearly had a goal in the 35th minute, but he was unable to convert on a strike from the top of the box that went wide right and out of bounds.
Speaking of Botello, he and Force captain Abraham Villion got crossed up in the 18th minute near midfield. Botello was receiving a pass in Force territory and, while turning away, elbowed Villion in what appeared to be near his right eye. Villion was down for about three minutes with blood pouring from the injured area.
Villion was tended to by trainers, but stayed in the game.
"We knew it was going to be a battle coming in," said Steinwascher, a Sterling Heights native. "Defensively we had our roles, and we did what we had to do."
City's win marks the second in a row against LA (6-0-3) this season. The club rode a hot second half to a 3-0 win, also at Keyworth, on June 2.
After the NISA Championship match, the men’s pro team will play in the expanded Independent Cup tournament in July. The league’s fall schedule begins in August. City will begin its bid for its second consecutive NISA Independent Cup when it takes on FC Buffalo at Keyworth Stadium on July 14.
DCFC might have a target on its back as it continues to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with within the league, but until play resumes this month, Botello said the team will enjoy its place on top.
"I've never won anything in my life until I came to Detroit," Botello said "So, for me, to win three championships this year is unbelievable.
"I can’t describe the feeling, to be honest with you. But it’s something surreal."