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It only took a few minutes, then it all came flooding back to Stephen Robinson. The president of Nashville SC supporters group, The Roadies, stood amongst his fellow supporters, at the start of Nashville’s home opener last Saturday against FC Cincinnati, and as they belted out their customary opener, “Come On You Boys in Gold” it hit him.
“Hearing everybody together, you forget a little bit what the feeling is like. You forget about what that does to you, and why you put in all of this work. You do it for that moment,” Robinson said.
In 2021, Nashville supporters are trying to make up for what was essentially a lost rookie season in MLS. But for a fan base, and a city that has endured league switches, stadium changes, multiple natural disasters, and a pandemic, coping with uncertainty has been the norm, and they are still focused on growing supporter culture in Nashville, and bringing energy and excitement to every match.
For members of the Backline, the overall supporters collective for Nashville’s six official supporters groups: The Assembly, Eastern Front, La Brigada de Oro, Music City Heaters, Music City Supporters and The Roadies, the past few years can be defined by resilience and adaptability.
Nashville SC entered Major League Soccer in 2020. They hosted one home game at Nissan Field, a 60,000 person party on February 29th, that showed flashes of what Nashville supporter culture could offer. Two days later, tornadoes ripped through the state. A few weeks later, the pandemic shut down the league. The Backline was able to have limited supporters at the end of the season, and for Nashville’s playoff match, but the process of growing Nashville’s supporter culture, in the ambitious way they had envisioned, essentially paused on February 29th, 2020.
So Nashville’s 2021 home opener represented another opportunity to start fresh.
“The interest is there and then people were ready, as you can imagine, to get back out and try to return to normalcy, but in a responsible way,” said Chip Wilkins, president of Eastern Front.
But the uncertainty around stadium capacities and protocols hung heavy over any potential plans that Nashville supporters hoped to get off the ground. The Backline was unable to host its trademark tailgate outside of Nissan Stadium, so groups opted to plan safe gatherings at locals bars before the match.
“It was getting the understanding of like, okay, where should we be ready?” said Robinson. “What should we be ready with? What should we not be ready with?”
“There was anxiety, in a way, trying to get everyone back together, after really not getting together as a group for basically a year.” said Abel Acosta, founder of La Brigada de Oro.
Supporters prepared for a muted affair, similar to last year’s playoff match, where just under 3,800 fans were in attendance.
“Then the vaccine started to really roll in around that time, and we thought, ‘Hey, we actually might be able to get some people in the stadium and actually put on a really good show,’” said Robinson.
“The good thing about it is that we’re in a 70,000 seat stadium, probably the only time an MLS club will be happy to be at an NFL stadium,” said Clay Trainum, vice president of the Roadies. “So we knew that our ability to be active support was probably better than a lot of other clubs, because we were going to have numbers. We knew that it was going to be five figures pretty much the whole time.”
In the week leading up to the match, the capacity restrictions for Nissan Stadium loosened, bring the capacity up from 33% to 40%.
“I don’t know if the past year has trained us to work through situations, where it’s just like, ‘OK, we have to worry about this? OK. We can’t do this in person? Ok, let’s do this instead. This is the rule? Oh, ok,” said Robinson.
The supporters section, which normally spans sections 122 through 126, was extended to span 116 to 132, which posed the challenge of creating a unified sound across such a large area. The Backline also had to strategically place drummers and chant leaders, making sure that all those participating knew that the seat they selected in this new setup would be their seat for the year.
“A lot of it was just last minute discussion,” said Robinson. “How do we get drummers and chant leaders to practice and get together before the match, which we didn’t actually have the time to do. So, it was just kind of on a whim, and it sounded absolutely epic.”
By kickoff, the stadium was loud, the energy was high, and it was a step closer to normalcy.
“It was great, it was fantastic,” said Wilkins. “Despite the fact we had a low percentage capacity, the energy was good and supporters did a great job of creating a level of intensity. Obviously the game was pretty compelling. We got out early and, and fought our way back and played a fun game”
“Even though people were spaced out for social distancing, the atmosphere was great,” said Ken Hirt, president of Music City Supporters. “The game being wide open and most people not having been to a live soccer match in over a year likely contributed.”
The Backline kept things simple, sticking to the basic chants that most supporters would already know, or could pick up easily. That approach plus an exciting, back and forth game that saw Nashville put up 31 shots created a rollicking atmosphere.
“It was a relief!” said Daniel Ryan, president of Music City Heaters. “I think The Backline is doing a great job bringing energy to the stadium.”
“It was good to just get back in there and feel the atmosphere again,” said Jason Petty, co-founder of the Assembly. “I was going to the games at the end of last year where we had 2,000 people and it just felt so empty. With this game, it started to feel closer to normal.”
The match also served as a way to revisit the vision that Nashville supporters had at the start of 2020.
“Last year, the first match was our first match as a supporters collective where we really put something on together,” said Robinson. “We put this tailgate on together, we worked on a tifo together. Some of it was messy, but it turned out to be something beautiful, and we were also able to talk about it like, ‘Hey some of it was messy but here’s how we can fix it.’ Then it all stopped. So anything we talked about implementing, we didn’t have the ability to do. So this season it was just like, ‘Let’s start over again, let’s get back to why we’re here to support this club.”
A key objective for Trainum this season is to continue to foster growth among all supporter groups.
“In order for us to have a fully inclusive, fully comprehensive supporters environment, it has to be everyone, there has to be all these groups,” said Trainum. “There has to be not only the ability for groups to grow, but the ability for new groups to form. It creates a better supporter culture in the stands, and we’ve got a long way to go in our supporter culture in the stands because we’re starting from so far behind.”
For Acosta, bringing dynamic perspectives to the Backline is essential this season, and something he hopes to accomplish with La Brigada de Oro, Nashville SC’s first Latin American supporters group.
“We have a lot of work cut out for us, as we are trying to reach and help welcome what I would call a different dynamic in the fan base experience into the mix,” he said. “Our mission is to help bridge that gap between the team and the Latin community.”
Supporters were treated to another thriller this past Saturday, with a 2-2 draw against Montreal, after being down 2-0. With two more home games left in this season-opening stretch, the Backline is looking to make up for the time lost, work out the kinks as they go, and try to channel the magic they achieved back at the start of 2020, while moving forward with new ideas.
“We’re looking forward to seeing those wins on the field, hopefully all the way to an MLS Cup victory, as well as seeing the supporter culture and helping it grow as a whole,” said Acosta.
“We don’t know as a community, as a league, as a team, how things are really going to develop. Our hope is that at some point the capacity will increase, and we’ll get back to tailgating, and creating that pre-game build up, which is something that we’re really engaged in. We’re still creating traditions,” said Wilkins.
“As long as we continue to work together and just make sure that we're looking out for our own, we're going to do some great things,” said Robinson.