Capos in Cowtown

Ca·po - /käpō/ n. from Italian for ‘head’. 1. An important person in a criminal organization, i.e. the Mafia.  2. A soccer cheerleader.

Crew Twitter/Facebook/Reddit/Big Soccer is always a fun, positive place to spend your time online. If you’re wondering what the argument du jour is, it’s capos.

There have been a lot of mixed feelings in Columbus with #CapoDebate2017 and it’s worthwhile to get some backstory. Columbus is a soccer town with a lot of history but while there have always been supporter groups, the Nordecke is a relatively modern feature. It’s actually about the same age as the Sounders (built in 2008). This was the first true supporters section that featured multiple SGs (Supporters Groups) in one section of the field. This was seen as a huge step forward in channeling the energy of the supporters, but also led to pushback from the front office for the profanity and a famous brawl in the section between West Ham Fans and Crew Supporters. The club almost lost their sponsorship deal over it and they are constantly fined by the league when cursing by supporters is picked up by broadcast mics.

Since the start there has always been a more egalitarian streak to the section. Anybody can start a chant. The drums support whatever song is being sung the loudest. Decisions are made by committee. While the support has always been passionate, it also can be rather disorganized. There are periods of time when there’s no singing.

The arrival of Cascadia-style support to the league and American Outlaws to the national scene changed things. Crew fans have always looked down on new teams, being proud of their history in the league and seeing these upstarts claim greater soccer bona fides, but seeing such impressive support is something that has caused a lot of people in Columbus to be jealous. In 2013, things came to a head when the USA played Mexico in what turned out to be the last Dos a Cero. Usually it’s up to each city to run the supporters groups when the USMNT comes to town, but according to multiple reports at the time, the groups in Columbus were told that capos were going to brought in from out of town to run the show. A city with a history of great support without capos would be forced to have capos from Seattle, effectively AO saying, “You don’t know how to support, let us bring in some experienced pros.” Cue (justified) freakout. Despite these concerns from fans in Columbus, many consider that change to be successful. 

The second big event that is used as evidence for a capo system is the MLS Cup Final in 2015. According to multiple people there, the Timbers Army outsung the entirety of the rest of Crew Stadium while using a capo system. I was there for this and agree that the away end seemed louder and more coordinated than the Nordecke.

A week ago, a petition (aka survey) was conducted to get the general mood of the denizens of the Nordecke. Despite the name implying that one should fill it out only if change is wanted, the survey went out including its flawed required question logic, lack of verification of respondents, and use of other disincentivizing questions like asking for SG affiliation (not every Nordeckian has one) and season ticket number (again, not everyone who cares is a season ticket holder). Based on this the SGs and FO have decided to use a capo for the match against Portland (the symmetry is nice).

I think this is a poor decision not only because it ignores Crew culture, but also because of its apparent motivations. While a two week turnaround on moving to a capo system is hasty considering there was the entire off-season to implement it, the decision seems to have been made for one advertised reason and another reason that is only hinted at. The open one is that louder support will positively affect the team. We often hear that article with its logical parallel: we lose because we don’t support well enough or it will provide a decisive edge.

I think it’s a very tough argument (and I’ve heard a lot of people make it) that what happens in the stands has a major impact on what happens on the field. That is the essential frustration of being a sports fan. You devote all this time and emotional energy to something that you cannot really affect. Because of this, it is comforting to think that if you are louder, more coordinated, and more passionate as fans, then it will help the team win. It won’t.

You often have to read between the lines to get the second reason people think a capo is necessary, but it boils down to a popularity contest. There are countless twitter polls, Big Soccer and Reddit threads, and blog posts comparing soccer fanbases. They are all so silly. According to the most recent poll by American Soccer United, Providence City FC have the best fans in the country. Holy clickbait, Batman. Who has even heard of them? But some soccer fans care very deeply about the opinions of fans of teams they hate.

This tweet by the guy behind the petition sums it up for me. Stop trying to win online soccer prom king.

For me the most important thing about soccer IS having that "let's have fun" by watching a sport I love while hanging out with my friends bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, tifo, drums, smoke, and chanting are all very fun and I appreciate and have taken part in the amount of work it takes to pull all that off. I think having a capo has worked out well for Cascadia and the newer clubs around the league and could work well in Columbus. But if you’re going to go against the culture that you've developed, I think you should be very clear about why you’re doing it, have a plan to be successful, and take an honest poll of the people it affects. Since it is happening, I hope it's successful.