Detroit Express

The Detroit Express was a soccer team based in suburban Detroit that played in the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) from 1978 to 1980. Its home field was the Pontiac Silverdome.[1] The Express were co-owned by Roger Faulkner and by famed English soccer pundit Jimmy Hill who was also the managing director and chairman of the English club Coventry City. The team was coached by Ken Furphy.

Detroit Express
Detroit express carlogo.png
Full nameDetroit Express
Nickname(s)The Express
Dissolved1981; 40 years ago (1981)
StadiumPontiac Silverdome
CoachKen Furphy



The Express were Detroit's first professional soccer team since the ASL's Detroit Mustangs disbanded in 1973, and the city's first NASL entry since the Detroit Cougars played their last season in 1968. The club made a splash by signing England forward Trevor Francis; he missed the first third of the season (arriving only after the European season ended in May), but still led the team with 22 goals and ten assists in 19 games. The coach's son, forward Keith Furphy, was second in scoring with 11 goals and 12 assists, while David Bradford and Alan Brazil added nine goals each. On July 12, Francis scored five times as the Express slaughtered the San Jose Earthquakes, 10–0, which as of 2019 is still the widest margin of victory in an American major pro soccer match (NASL or MLS). Detroit went on to win the NASL American Conference Central Division title with a 20–10 mark, and Francis had the only tally in a 1–0 defeat of the Philadelphia Fury in the first round of the playoffs. In the second round, the Express split a pair of games with Fort Lauderdale Strikers, but lost the mini-game immediately afterward, 1–0. Despite their on-field success, however, the Express were only mediocre at the box office, with an average attendance of 12,194, good enough for seventh place in the 24-team NASL but less than the league average of 13,084.


Back in England, Francis made history as the first player in the UK to command a £1 million transfer when he was purchased by Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City. Forest was not keen to allow their new asset to return to the States, but they relented and Francis returned just past the midway point of the 1979 season. He drew large crowds and contributed 14 goals and 8 assists in 14 games, tying Keith Furphy for the team lead; Ted MacDougall added nine goals and 11 assists. But the Express struggled to a 14–16 season and a third-place finish. They were then swept out of the playoffs 2–0 in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Despite the disappointment on the field, attendance improved at the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome, up to 14,058 per match, right around the NASL average of 14,201.

After 1979, though, Trevor Francis would not return to the NASL. Widely recognized as one of the finest forwards to play in the NASL, Francis notched 36 goals with 18 assists in just 33 regular-season matches—which placed him one spot ahead of Pelé on the all time NASL scoring list, despite playing 23 fewer games. (Francis also had three goals and three assists in five playoff games.) He was a first team all-star selection in 1978 and 1979 alongside Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Cruyff, Carlos Alberto and Rodney Marsh and other international greats,[2] and the only Detroit player ever to be selected to the NASL first XI. Francis planned to return to the Silverdome in 1980 in an exhibition match between Nottingham Forest and the Express, but Francis was injured and the match was cancelled. Finally, Francis returned to the Express (now in the American Soccer League) in 1981 for an exhibition game against the ASL All-Stars; the All-Stars won, 2–0, in front of 14,500 at the Silverdome.[3]


The Express headed indoors that winter to play in the 1979–80 NASL Indoor season. They had competition, as the Major Indoor Soccer League also decided to place a franchise in the Motor City: the Detroit Lightning. The Express managed a 7–5 record, third place in the Eastern Division and a playoff spot; unfortunately, the same Tampa Bay Rowdies that beat Detroit in the outdoor playoffs crushed them in the first round, 12–1, in St. Petersburg. (Tampa Bay would go on to beat Memphis to claim the championship.) Neither of Detroit's indoor soccer teams did much at the box office: The Express drew 3,937 fans per match at the Silverdome, while the Lightning could only manage 3,520 a game at Cobo Hall. (The Lightning would move to San Francisco and then Kansas City.)


Without Francis, the Express slipped to a 14–18 mark, missing the playoffs by a single point (130-129 to the Houston Hurricane) and drawing only 11,198 a game—not all that bad by NASL standards, but not enough to pay the bills, either. Argentinian Pato Margetic was signed to replace Trevor Francis at the forward spot and he led the team with 11 goals and 11 assists. Gary Bannister and Adam Oates added 10 goals each, while Bradford finished with 16 assists. Wearing the number 10 shirt, David Bradford scored 14 goals and had 38 assists in his three years with the Express.

1980-81 and transfer to WashingtonEdit

The Express' second and last indoor season produced only a 7–11 record, and they missed the playoffs; their Express' last NASL game was a 7-5 win over the Atlanta Chiefs in front of 5,598 at the Silverdome on February 15. (Their last games under the Express name came the following week, when they played a three-game money-raising tour in Guatemala.) Overall attendance improved to 4,761, a bit below league average, but it wasn't enough to save the Express. In the spring of 1981, Jimmy Hill won a court battle to move the team to RFK Stadium to become the new Washington Diplomats, replacing the old franchise of that name which had folded. The Express-turned-Diplomats lasted just one season in D.C. before going out of business.[4] Hill reportedly lost £2 million because of the failed venture, prompting his son to claim ''We've lost all the family money. All we have left is our home.''[5]

Later yearsEdit

The Detroit Express name and logo was retained by local businessman Sonny Van Arnem, who started the new Express team in the 1981 season. The ASL version of the Express won the league title in 1982, but the league folded after the 1983 season. The NASL collapsed after the 1984 season.

George Best also appeared for the Express during a tour of Europe in September 1978. Best played two games in Austria with the Express before the team headed to Switzerland.

In popular cultureEdit

In the November 2009 episode of How I Met Your Mother called "Bagpipes", Ted wears an old Detroit Express shirt when trying to complain to his neighbors about their bagpiping.

Mac also wears a Detroit Express shirt in the Season 5 (2009) episode "The Gang Gives Frank an Intervention" of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


Year League W L T Pts Reg. Season Playoffs Avg. Attend.
1978 NASL 20 10 1st, American Conference, Central Division Won 1st Round (Philadelphia)
Lost Conference Semifinal (Ft. Lauderdale)
1979 NASL 14 16 3rd, American Conference, Central Division Lost Conference Quarterfinal (Tampa Bay) 14,058
1979–80 NASL Indoor 7 5 3rd, Eastern Division Lost 1st Round (Tampa Bay) 3,937
1980 NASL 14 18 3rd, American Conference, Central Division did not qualify 11,198
1980–81 NASL Indoor 7 11 3rd, Central Division did not qualify 4,761


Division titles

  • 1978 Central Division, American Conference

All-Star First Team Selections

Indoor All-Stars

Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame[7]


  1. ^ Kapsalis, Paul "Whitey"; Gregory, Ted (2014). To Chase a Dream: A Soccer Championship, an Unlikely Hero and a Journey that Redefined Winning. Meyer & Meyer Verlag. p. 15. ISBN 9781782550198.
  2. ^ "NASL Detroit Express Rosters". Retrieved 2019-01-17.
  3. ^ Trevor can't score this time Detroit Free Press July 2, 1981 p. 1F
  4. ^ Williams, Bob (2015-12-22). "Jimmy Hill's ill-fated ownership of Detroit Express and Washington Diplomats in NASL remembered". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2019-01-17.
  5. ^ Yannis, Alex (1981-08-18). "N.A.S.L. Studying Fate of Teams". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-01-17.
  6. ^ Henderson, Jim (April 21, 1981). "For Keith Bailey, The Long Wait Is Finally Over". The Tampa Tribune. p. 5-C. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  7. ^ "Hall of Famers". September 1, 2020. Retrieved January 10, 2021.