“If I were given the chance to be on a capo stand, I think I would hold up a sign that said, ‘I don’t believe in capos. Sing what you want,’” Assembly Board member Branden Rochelle says to me jokingly. Or maybe not. It’s not easy to tell.
The Assembly have always been something of a mystery to me as far as Supporters Groups go (well, both them and the Heaters). While I know most of the members of their board and have watched games with them (they frequent my local bar, Smoking Thighs), I haven’t understood what makes them different than, say, the Roadies. At the beginning of the 2018 season, we here at Speedway ran a podcast episode in which we interviewed representatives of each of the four supporters groups. And while the purposes of the Music City Supporters and the Eastern Front clearly differed from each other and from the Roadies, I wasn’t able to get a grip on the Assembly. They hold different tailgates, but they sit in the same section with the Roadies, they appear to join at least some of the same chants, and there is no clear member identity distinction (i.e., geographic, cultural heritage).
So, for the longest time, I’ve been asking, “Just what makes the Assembly the Assembly?”
As a member of the board, Branden made it clear that while the rest of Board were aware that he was talking to me, he also wanted to be clear that he was offering his own perspective, not the full worldview of the group. While some of what he said, he assured me, was shared by most of the other members, there were some points that are simply not priorities for others.
To understand what Branden would like to see out of a supporters section, it helps to understand how he became a fan. Branden himself sees his history as intricately tied up with how he sees fanship.
Growing up in Middle Tennessee, Branden played soccer most of his life. And as he aged, he coached everything from rec leagues to high school. When his kids played, he was often coaching or assisting with those teams. Sometime in the early 90s, he decided to pay more attention to the Premier League. One of the first games he caught was a Manchester United game. The way he talks about falling in love with them would be familiar with a lot of fans of Premier League clubs. While he also watched early MLS games and caught the Metros in Nashville a few times, his true love—and hence his understanding of soccer fandom--was United.
What he saw with United fans when he watched on television and then what he experienced watching with the Manchester United Fans of Middle Tennessee is the type of support with which he is most comfortable. He sees this support as reacting directly to the games, to the players, and to the team’s tradition. Some chants and songs exist throughout generations, some arise for specific players. What matters to Branden is that they are used during games as a direct response to what is going on. With everyone looking at the game, someone will start a chant about a particular player as a reaction to something he has done on the pitch. Or someone in the section will start a chant about the team when they sense the need for a push, or a little momentum. The key point her is that nothing is planned in advance; there is no leader or capo, and everything is a conversation with and about the game itself.
And that is what Branden would like to see from the Nashville SC's supporter’s section. While he is very clear that he loves and appreciates everything the Roadies bring to the games (after all, he's sat with them and been a member of the Roadies since the beginning), he wants something a little different. Branden had gone to one of the early formation meetings before NFC existed, and remembers going to the first game and sitting next to Newton Dominey, current Roadies president, before he even knew him. Branden wanted to get more involved with the supporters and get this family more involved from early on. He joined the Roadies, and on his son’s 7th birthday, his song got to be a ballboy and the entire Roadies section sang happy birthday to him. So, I stress, Branden appreciates the Roadies and the tradition (Indeed, he is still a member of the Roadies and supportive of the Music City Heaters). He knows things would not be the same without them. But he sees an opportunity for the Assembly.
Branden happened to be at Franklin Abbey the day Jason Petty and Brad Eldridge-Smith first hatched the idea for the group. He joined immediately under the philosophy, “The more, the merrier.” He wasn’t quitting the Roadies; he was hoping to add to the texture of fanship. In short, Branden is dedicated to supporting the team in any form he can, but he has a preference for a format that looks less like American Outlaws and more like his version of Premier League fans. He would like to see a less cookie cutter approach to cheers and a much more organic approach.
“We shouldn’t be randomly doing cheers regardless of what is happening on the field. We should be directly responsive to it,” Branden notes. “If someone in the crowd starts a chant because of what they see happening on the pitch, I want to see other fans pick it up, not have it overrun by something planned out regardless of what’s happening on the pitch.”
Let’s face it, though. The Roadies have become the face of NSC support. On TV, in the newspapers, etc., the reporters mention “The Roadies” as the supporters. And while The Assembly have had some major coups (e.g., getting Fernando Fiore to wear an Assembly scarf on national television), the Roadies are the definition of support right now. Even with an umbrella group coming in, it’s hard to see that the norms the Roadies have established changing much. Indeed, the norms they follow are followed by a large number of MLS fan groups: capos, constant songs and chants. . . .
That being the case, how does Branden imagine change taking place? I’m not sure he does, but he does see an avenue for change.
As he observed, a larger number of the folks who are active in the Middle TN PL community (on Facebook and in the pubs) aren’t necessarily going to NSC games. Branden thinks that a movement to get them, a move to do outreach through other groups like the local Pancho Villa’s Army in town is likely to lead to a larger group used to, and expecting, a different kind of fan behavior.
My guess is that it is going to be very difficult to shift gears the way Branden envisions. My guess is that he’ll need to push hard to shape support in the direction he prefers while the new umbrella for the supporters groups takes form.
That said, it’s heartening knowing that so many people care enough to push for what they believe to be the best fan experience, despite the differences between them.
This is an opinion piece, and reflects the views of the individual author, not necessarily Speedway Soccer as a whole.