Revisiting the Backline

Sometimes it’s useful to retrace one’s steps to discover what made the journey so compelling.

Over the years, each of us at Speedway Soccer has, in our own way and at our own pace, moved further away from the supporters’ section and closer to midfield. At midfield, we tell others that we can see the full game better, get a better sense of how plays are unfolding. Moreover, we are less likely to get lost in a particular cheer or chant. And while we have always espoused a great respect to the entire Backline section for what it brings to the game, it is simply no longer where we sit.

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Sunday night, two of us (John Sloop and Andy Simmons) decided to spend an entire game with the Backline.  Afterall, it was supporters sections—places like the American Outlaw sections, the Timbers’ Army—that first made the spectacle of soccer, rather than the game itself, so compelling for us. Given how much we think about soccer now, and how much we talk about it, it seemed wise to shake up our echo chamber a bit by actually spending time where the loudest and most boisterous support takes place.

Again, this is not a matter of quality of fandom; some of the strongest fans are very quiet. But it is a matter of the visible and aural love a city shows for its team.

With the rain, the threat of more rain, the work night start time… well, we began to think this might not be the best night for the Backline to shine. We almost dropped out. We can both say that we are glad we didn’t.

A few thoughts about what we saw and heard.

1. Full

Given the context and weather just described, we were absolutely surprised, not only by the number of people who showed up to Nissan Stadium in general, but to the size of the crowd in the Backline. These people turn out regardless of circumstances, regardless of weather, regardless of our recent run of form. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fair-weather fans here.

2. Loud

One of the critiques often made of stadium crowds is that they become quiet in the moments the team needs them (e.g., right after they have been scored on). But not here, not with this crowd. When DC United scored an early opening goal after just three minutes, we were interested in how the Backline would respond. If anything, the section got louder.

3. Organic

Two of the critiques that are routinely made of capo-led supporter’s groups are a) that the chants and cheers do not reflect what’s happening on the pitch (in short, that the supporters’ group is more about chanting and cheering than actually supporting the action) and b) that there is no room for the crowd to initiate cheers on their own. While we grant that this is always going to be something of the case with large sections, what we witnessed did not reflect those critiques. 

The capos had a good sense of what was happening on the pitch, stopped cheers when a switch needed to occur, were careful to urge the team during set pieces, etc.  More, we witnessed several times when members of the Backline “suggested” (i.e., “shouted out”) cheers to the capos. In short, the Backline was part of the game and the individual members of the Backline were influential of the chants themselves. This was no way one street.

4. Diverse

We’ve sat in numerous sections of the stadium.  This was hands down—in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, the most diverse section of the crowd.  If this is a sign of where soccer fandom is headed (or at least Nashville SC fandom), we are here for it. Completely. 

And we think it bodes well for the future. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your upbringing is. Like the slogan goes, “all are welcome.”

5. Festive

The sense of carnival: One of the aspects of the supporters section that I think some people get wrong is just how fun and light-hearted it is. Yes, there are a bevy of hard core fans in this group, people who lose sleep over losses, who rewatch highlights of wins endlessly. And yet, there is a powerful spirit of carnival. 

The capos laugh at their own mistakes, the crowd laughs and celebrates together. As we walked through the section, Denzell and Travis made sure to let us know that they were (or WERE NOT) wearing Crocs. We heard the joyful shouts of AJ Boyd. We watched a lot of laughter, a lot of family. This was fun. Unqualified fun.

6. The way in

Ultimately, our take is that there are not many better ways into soccer, especially for those who don’t know the game well, than through the Backline. It’s fun, it’s welcoming, it’s a way to stay energized and learn the game. It’s a ready-made community, a family. If you want to bring someone in, this is the way. They may ultimately, like us, eventually move elsewhere. Or they may not. This may be where they sit for life.

As we mentioned at the start, we’re more comfortable sitting in our respective season ticket spots near midfield, where we can dissect the game and converse amongst our friends. However, a new supporter might want to learn about the game when they attend one. The best spot is in the Backline. Questions about players and tactics can be asked there, and chances are you’ll get a friendly response from a neighboring supporter.

In the end, while there will always be people who critique supporters groups for some of the common “faults” (too many chants from other clubs, too little spontaneity, etc), we think that misses the point entirely.

The Backline exists to support the team during the game by bringing a certain energy to the Backline itself and to the stadium as a whole. 

They do that before they even get to third gear.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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