Megan Cleary looks at the role of capos in North America’s soccer and how they and supporters’ groups can help bring the atmosphere to the stadiums in both the women’s and men’s game.
Looking out from the press box little dots speckled the stands, streaming in and out of the seats, carrying flags, draping painted tributes over the side of the stadium wall and setting up their Tifo, the huge banner that would broadcast a message of love and support to their team.
Among the loyal legions that make up a supporter group, there is a sub-group that acts as leaders of the band, orchestrating the set-up and take down of the unique experience that is created in the supporter sections at soccer matches all around North America.
While a common sight across the world, North America has adopted the capo and drummer as regulars in the stadiums. Spanning across the United States and Canada, you can find these men and women living the match through the eyes of their fellow supporters in the stands.
Paul Sotoudeh has been a DC United supporter since the MLS started in 1996. By 1997 he was involved with their Supporter Group, The Screaming Eagles, finding chairs to stand on in the seats to help lead the crowd in chants. “It just felt like what I was supposed to be doing,” he says.
Through the Screaming Eagles he met his wife and has spent twenty years living, what he calls, the supporters’ lifestyle, “I’ve made the choice to devote nearly all of my free time in the spring, summer, and fall to supporting the club and working to strengthen it. I’m 44 years old, so I’ve now been doing this nearly half of my life, and I don’t intend to slow down anytime soon.”
Paul, like many of his fellow capos, takes the work seriously. To him, capoing is about harnessing the stadiums energy, giving the team your full commitment and making the already loud, louder. On top of that, capos help create the home field advantage by sacrificing their view in order to organise fellow fans. “There’s nothing quite like the feeling when you’ve really done your job, when you’re one with the crowd and you can feel the wave of noise – a wave you started – coming over you,” he says. “That’s the best.”
Creating the best possible home field advantage is, in essence, exactly what every capo is trying to do. They are the fuel, coordinating the fans to be at their peak level of boisterous support in order to inspire athletes to push themselves even harder, thus returning the love.
Phil Figueiredo remembered coming to Vancouver Whitecap games when he was a kid but only began to really invest himself in the team when they entered the MLS in 2011, becoming a season ticket holder just two years later. “Sometimes I wonder if anyone else gets as emotionally invested into the Whitecaps as I do,” he said.
Phil soon became a drummer with the Southsiders, one of the Whitecap Supporter Groups and the only SG that is allowed to lead chants on the pitch. Being a drummer allowed Phil to be directly involved in starting chants and getting the crowd engaged in the game. It also allowed him to be in the middle of great moments, with athletes and fans joining in raucous celebrations.
One such celebration came after the Whitecaps made a 70th minute goal to send them into the 2014 playoffs. After Kendall Watson knocked in the header, Phil remembers the stadium’s energy hitting a new level, “That was probably the loudest I have ever heard that stadium,” he says.
“When the referee blew the final whistle, the team went around the stadium celebrating as they had just found out we made the playoffs. Their last stop in celebration was with the Southsiders.
“At that time our drum was actually pitch side with the capos (now it resides in the stands). Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez each grabbed a drum stick and joined me in drumming our rendition of ‘Victory’. While the rest of the players waved flags, and celebrated with us.”
Darcie Kerr joined the Southsiders after a friend brought her to a match and has been heavily involved for the past four years. To her the match day experience is also about bringing out the best in a fan.
“To me Canadian fans often come off seeming reserved with how they cheer,” she says.
“I appreciated that the Southsiders encouraged fans to get on their feet, engage with other people, support their players, and sing, clap, and cheer our team onto victory.”
Leading one of the loudest stadiums in the MLS are two long-standing capos of the Portland Timbers, Patch Perryman and Sunday White. Patch switched his allegiances from basketball to soccer in 2011, the same year the Timbers entered the MLS, “The friends you make in this culture are compassionate. The conversations about the latest matches are icebreaking. You cannot help but become more studious at the run-of-play and ask other folks what they think about the club’s current state.”
With capos and drummers developing a unique atmosphere in each stadium, more young fans have become involved in the ‘supporter lifestyle’ creating tight-knit communities that centre around soccer in their area.
Heading to SG bars to watch games and even participating in community outreach with fellow supporters. In fact the growth of supporter groups and the growth of soccer in North America seem to be closely linked.
Darcie agrees, “It adds something completely different to the North American sports market and is almost a sports counterculture for me. It has also served as a way to hold the MLS accountable to fans, which I think is fairly unprecedented in North America.”
Fellow Southsider Phil adds, “The league uses its supporters in mostly all their advertisements. One of the slogans the Whitecaps use is ‘The best sporting atmosphere in Vancouver’. People see us having fun and going nuts and they love it.”
Paul notes that the growth is also in part due to the changing marketing for the league, “When the league started they were focused on marketing to families and kids. Those folks are great, but they don’t always have the free time or disposable income to truly support the growth of a new league, especially with other more established leagues competing for those dollars. The real growth happened when MLS started marketing towards supporters and supporters’ culture.”
Capos not only serve as fuel for fans in the stadium but ambassadors of the game outside the stadium as well. Arenas are more likely to be filled when fans generate and develop relationships with other fans, increasing the chances that they will keep coming back each match.
Paul continues, “Compared to other North American leagues, MLS is less established, less prestigious in its sport, less well-funded, and not as readily available on TV. The atmosphere provided by supporters is the difference, the one unique thing MLS has.”
The growth of soccer in North America goes well beyond the men’s game. Capos and drums are also widely used in the NWSL. The most successful example being the Portland Thorns whose average attendance of 19,000 has been widely noted to overtake several men’s team’s averages and has dubbed them the best supported women’s team in the world. Speaking on the success of the women’s game in Oregon, Patch simply says, “Oregonians are oddballs…and women kick ass at soccer”.
Sunday White also serves as a capo for the Portland Thorns. She believes the supporters of the Thorns should be held to the same standard they hold the men’s side to: chant and actively participate or move higher in the stands. Along with her fellow capos, she has striven to create the same atmosphere for both the men’s and women’s teams.
Sunday, along with other NWSL capos, hopes to eventually draw the same marketing to the women’s side. She sees the women’s league as having high potential for even more growth, “I want the women’s league to receive the same love and attention as the men’s.
“Stop looking at women’s sports as ‘family friendly’ and start marketing it to the 20-30 somethings with disposable income and a penchant for buying beverages, food and swag. We have amazing female athletes here in PDX [Portland] and our fan base loves them, but there is so much room for growth, here and across the country.”
As the culture grows and the love of North American soccer spreads, capos find themselves needing to keep up with the physical demands of their job, as they spread their energy through jumping, screaming, clapping and flag waving. Yet, however sore they get they all agree that it’s total worth it.
As Sunday puts it, “I love that I get to do the work and it is definitely a labour of love. I will probably only retire from this when my body forces me to.”
Whether you call them counter-culture, oddballs or pure energy, capos step to the front to re-energise, encourage and create powerful pockets of fandom across North America, where attending a soccer match is the tip of a growing supporter culture.
Here, it is the fandom that drives the league, rather than a league or a club dictating what fandom will look like, making an MLS or NWSL game incredibly unique.
Follow Megan on Twitter at @mcmbegs