Updated: Jan 31
When Stephen Robinson tells you that he loses sleep in order to figure how to translate the communal support from the hundreds of people currently sitting in the supporters section at NSC games to the six thousand he visualizes when we join MLS, you believe him. If only because he talks with such nervy energy that you are exhausted just talking to him.
The guy is overflowing with energy, in overdrive with ideas.
It’s hard to believe that Stephen, who has become the unofficial (we’ll get to that in a minute) capo of the Roadies, didn’t become a soccer fan at all until 2011. Growing up in Michigan, he didn’t care about soccer until a friend invited him to play FIFA (EA Sports' massively successful soccer video game series). Given that his friend was a Tottenham fan, Stephen did what a lot of us do in those situations, he wanted to go in the opposite direction. Something—he’s not sure what (but these things always have a bit of mysticism about them)--made him decide to avoid Arsenal, so he chose Chelsea.
Just after making this choice, he was playing trivia at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor and ran into a friend who, upon discovering Stephen was a soccer fan, invited him to a viewing party of a USMNT game with the local American Outlaws group. And that’s when it happened. Seduced by the chants and cheers, Stephen knew he was going to be hooked forever by the sport.
Once bitten, he went full force, seeking out local 4th tier side AFC Ann Arbor. As Stephen tells it, the audience for the club was so small at the time, given the popularity of Detroit City FC, that the owner actively invited a small group to in effect create a fan culture. Guessing as they went, the group pulled together threads of what they saw elsewhere, grabbed a drum and went at it. Stephen found himself both drumming and chanting, trying to lead the ten or so fans who attended the games.
In 2015, he and his wife, Lex (also a soccer fan and now co-chair of Soccer for the Nations) moved to Nashville for new jobs. Arriving in town, they immediately looked for a soccer fix and were directed to a Roadies organizational meeting at local sports bar, Jed’s. There were only four people at this first meeting (two have since moved away; Newton Dominey still organizes the group), but Stephen had found his home. Over the season, he and Lex fell in love with the people, purchased a load of t-shirts and began the slow process of creating chants and cheers for the (then) NFC side. Self-identifying as “naturally loud, naturally an outcast,” Stephen found the Roadies a perfect fit.
While the couple spent a year in California with new jobs and were members of the supporter group for the Orange County Football Club (the side that recently the Las Vegas Lights to move on to the fourth round of the US Open Cup), they missed Nashville and returned the next year.
Feeling he had learned a lot about supporter’s groups from each experience, Stephen took a board spot on the Roadies even before moving back to town. A few months later, on that rainy, rainy February friendly against Atlanta United here in Nashville, Stephen felt it all crystallize. There were so many more people, so much more energy, so much potential. He saw the future.
Over that season and into this one, Stephen has more and more become the face of the Roadies. While the group claims to work on a “No Capo” model, Stephen acknowledges that he has become an unofficial capo. While he is aware that some people don’t want a capo, he’s wide open to that criticism and anything else you can throw at him. He’s not a pseudo-Capo because he necessarily wants to be “that guy;” it’s more that he is wide open to anything that will help answer the question, “How do we keep 6000 supporters involved for 90 minutes in an MLS stadium?” While quite aware that mistakes are going to be made as they figure out the right way for Nashville (for example, while he questions the math that equates authenticity with painted tifos, he acknowledge that the choice to print one may have been a misstep), he is constantly asking questions. Indeed, there must have been a five minute period when he was just ratting off questions.
How do we keep everyone involved? How do we teach new songs? How do we reach everyone who wants to be more involved? How do we make this louder? Bigger? Better? How do make people who have felt unwelcome to even attend a game join us? Does it make sense to have ambassadors who move throughout the stadium?
Stephen confesses that he may be a bit too persuaded by an “Anyone can do it” attitude (e.g., he bought the stand he now uses himself as an unofficial capo and brought it to the game). Acknowledging that he was never appointed to the job, he assures me that anyone should be willing to step up. “Buy a stand, and do it yourself,” he says (while simultaneously acknowledging that some of his closest friends despise the capo model).
Stephen is traveling to see how it’s being done elsewhere, how disparate supporter groups are brought under one umbrella. He’s been to Minnesota United already and will be heading to Seattle, New York and Kansas City. The idea is not to copy but to see what works and what might be translated into the language of Nashville.
While as a proper NSC fan, he “don’t give a crap what Cincy is doing,” he’s willing to learn from anyone else and, importantly, he claims that he can’t stand still himself: “I have to be willing to change myself and what I do, because it has to translate to MLS.”
The criticisms I had heard of the group did not fall on deaf ears. When I asked Stephen about the charge that the Roadies often drown out cheers that originate with the crowd, he denies it by claiming it’s almost impossible: “The crowd only takes up what it wants to,” he says, “Hell, I’ve had to get used to them ignoring me if I start the wrong cheer.”
When I told him that it sometimes looks as if the Roadies are not responding to the game but are chanting separate from the game (and I point out that Stephen is often looking away from the pitch), he responds that the Roadies are less planned out, more responsive, than most other Supporter Groups for other teams. That is, unlike SGs that have cheers planned out for particular minutes of the game, the Roadies never plan ahead. Instead, Stephen says, he tries to encourage different chants for different situations, from set pieces to a variety of score differentials. He's open to new chants spontaneously emerging.
I’ve been critical of supporter group culture at NSC games. I’ve been critical of the Roadies in particular. Indeed, the very first column I wrote asked several questions about their motives and effectiveness. And I honestly still don’t think they get everything right (although I did spent a recent half in the section and was impressed with the improvement; I may have even jumped a little), but here’s the good news: Stephen doesn't think they do either. In fact, he knows they don’t.
But he’s damned sure going to keep asking questions until they do.