For the first time in the history of one original MLS franchise, there were capos leading supporters in the Nordecke of MAPFRE Stadium for this past Saturday’s clash between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. (In case you missed it, Columbus managed a 3-2 win.)
In other MLS cities, this may not seem like a big deal. But in Columbus, the idea of a capo – a vocal “leader” of a supporters’ section who often stands in front to direct chants and cheers – has been a hot-button issue for years.
On Twitter, fans have often cited a preference for more “organic” chants, while others have pointed to specific concerns over the culture that may develop from appointing leaders. Morgan Hughes, a longtime Crew SC supporter who has spearheaded tifo efforts and other projects for Columbus and USMNT matches, said many simply haven’t liked what they’ve seen from the concept.
“It’s been many, many, many years in that corner with no capos, and we’ve had capos from other cities come in and try to run our events,” Hughes says of past international matches held at MAPFRE. “We didn’t take too kindly to that, and it put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths in regards to the effectiveness and also the motivation behind capos.”
But in the days before the Portland match, Crew SC supporter twitter lit up and according to one fan, a group of supporters had met with the Crew SC front office to secure a capo stand in the Nordecke, the stadium's supporters section, for the first official experiment of the concept.
Rob Kramer, a Columbus fan of 14 years and a four-year Nordecke season ticket member, was certain the idea would be a bad one. “I hate the thought of a capo,” he says. “We have always been built, not bought mentality. We didn't need one in the past and we were loud as hell.”
But newer fans seemed to have a more open mind about it. Michael Hurley, who has only been following the club for a few years but became a Nordecke regular in 2015, said the MLS Cup Final against Portland in 2015 made up his mind that capos could be a positive. He says Portland fans across the stadium – who brought their own capos on the trip – were loud and cohesive, though he admits he noticed “people in the back half not hearing anything, chants conflicting, groups fighting over song control,” and a general lack of organization.
But on Saturday, for the most part, the capo debut went smoothly – so smoothly, that many who expressed initial concerns reversed their stance. Even Hughes admitted he was surprised, though he wished communication between the capo leadership – who declined to be named or quoted for this story – and other fans would have been better beforehand.
“The desired outcome was to make us louder and more cohesive and do both of those for a longer period of time than we had consistently done in the past,” Hughes says. “Based on those metrics for success, it was a complete success.”
After seeing it in action, Kramer also said he shied away from his initial opinion. “It was much different than I had originally imagined it being,” he says. “The corner was loud and synced-up for the most part. [There were] lots of new faces in there that I haven't seen before, so I assume it really helped them get on the same page as us.”
But one week does not a tradition make. After organizing a variety of events and experiencing the waxing and waning of support for a movement, Hughes and others still have concerns about how the capo system there will evolve.
"As is true with a lot of things in supporters’ culture, it’s a concept that lends itself very well to the over-dramatization of a group of people,” he said. “It’s a scenario that lends itself to people going, ‘We are doing this very well and this other group isn’t.’"
Time will tell.