Sports | August 11, 2022 6:30 am

Chants, Cheers and Beers With the Most Powerful Fans in Sports

We embedded with the Columbus Crew superfans known as The Nordecke for one wild weekend.

Chants, Cheers and Beers With the Most Powerful Fans in Sports
Courtesy of Columbus Crew

…And on this particular seventh day, in mid-July 2022, over Columbus, Ohio, God did not rest. Instead, he punished, tearing open the heavens to pour an inch of rain on the city and spoil some hotly anticipated afternoon revelry. 

The Nordecke, a fan group among the die-hardiest of diehards across U.S. team sports, having sworn allegiance over blood and beer to Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, did not merely have a pregame tailgate planned. No, to manifest a Crew rallying cry, The Nordecke, which during matches fills the stands in Lower.com Field’s north end with 3,500 screaming maniacs, always strives to “Be Massive.” So, after Saturday night’s Crew-themed thrash metal concert, Sunday, July 17, would bring a block party blowout to Battelle Plaza in Downtown Columbus. 

Hundreds, maybe thousands would flock to the stretch of open-air real estate. There’d be drink specials in three different bars, a yard sale of Nordecke merch, as well as games, music and cheer. Then the horde would make its customary 20-minute march to Lower.com Field as match time approached.

But God wouldn’t allow all that. The Nordecke was in the midst of a weekend-long anticipatory celebration of Sunday evening’s contest between the Crew and its biggest rival, FC Cincinnati, a yearly clash with bragging rights so biblically proportioned its stakeholders call it “the Hell Is Real Derby.” 

Perhaps the man upstairs was upset over the promotion of something so sinister and decided to temper the proceedings with poor weather. There would be no games at the block party and little merch would be sold. 

However, a few hundred folks have defied the Almighty and taken refuge inside Battelle Plaza’s Whistle & Keg bar. Nothing was going to stand in their way of a devilishly good time. So under black-and-gold Crew flags and banners hanging from wooden cross beams, these Nordecke faithful — young and old, men and women, decorated with Crew bandanas, scarves and construction helmets — down cups of suds on discount for hours. They’ll outlast the Lord’s punitive measures and when He finally takes a late-afternoon siesta and lightens the rain, the bar crowd predictably swells.

The Nordecke cheering on the Crew in Ohio
Come hell or high water, The Nordecke cheer on the Crew.
Michael Stahl

In addition to “Be Massive,” another Nordecke credo that’s been passed down from preexisting Crew supporters’ groups is “Show up, drink beer, watch soccer,” but the community has become far more than an excuse to indulge in both alcohol and the intoxicating thrill of sports. In the 14 years since The Nordecke (pronounced Nor-DECK-uh) was first forged together from five otherwise disparate Crew fan groups, the collective has matured into a nonprofit organization with a board of directors and a suite of leadership positions. The collective conducts community outreach and coordinates social awareness campaigns. 

It might also be the most powerful organization of its kind in the country. Its members have gone to war with multiple club ownership groups about critical Crew franchise decisions. And on each occasion, The Nordecke prevailed. 

* * *

The true witching hour this Sunday at Whistle & Keg starts when the clock strikes 5:40 p.m. Kickoff against FC Cincinnati is about 120 minutes away, and the ’80s synth-rock classic “Africa” fills the space. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, The Nordecke knows what’s next. 

Singing along to Toto, they fix special stickers to their freshly filled cups that allow them open-container privileges through the streets on their trek to Lower.com Field. But before they proceed to the match’s fairgrounds, there’s one more song to sing. 

Replacing “Africa” over the saloon’s sound system is Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” As is custom, before and after games, in bars and stadiums alike, The Nordecke representatives link their bodies together, slowly sway and sing to the tune: 

Wiiiiise men say… 
Only foooools rush in… 
But Iiiii can’t help 
Falling in love… wiiiiith Crew.

“We’re total nerds,” says Marjory Johnson, a 38-year-old dues-paying member of The Nordecke for four years. 

The group’s sense of humor resonates like the manifestation of a witty Twitter thread or comment section on Reddit — apparently with good reason. Many of the concepts for song-lyric customizations, chants, signs and banners originate in Discord threads connected to The Nordecke and the broader Crew fanbase.

To the tune of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” they’ll sing in the stands: “Glor-y to Colum-bus! Go! Go Colum-bus! Glor-y to Colum-bus! Here we go!” 

The whole “Be Massive” ethos started as a joke of self-deprecation. As one Crew blogger wrote, “‘Massive’ was born of a disrespected team playing a disrespected sport in a disrespected city.” In the early aughts, when the English Premier League football team in Manchester City hired a new manager, he repeatedly declared during his press conference that the club was “massive.” One influential Crew fan found the coach’s enthusiasm for Man City hilariously misguided given the team’s lack of success — at least to that point — compared to crosstown rival Manchester United. At that same time, the Crew played in the smallest market of MLS, which was not part of the “Big Four” North American pro sports leagues (the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL). Even within Columbus city limits, the Crew always served as second fiddle to Ohio State University’s uber-popular American football program. So Crew supporters sarcastically applied the term “massive” to their favorite team, chanting “We Are! Mass-ive!” in call-and-response style and splaying the phrase on banners, shirts and anywhere else words could be printed.

Columbus Crew/ players celebrate on the pitch.
When the Crew score, it is party time in Columbus.
Courtesy of Columbus Crew/Daniel Herlensky

But The Nordecke’s penchant for comedy belies the seriousness with which its members take their Crew fandom and the ostentatious ways they express their unwavering devotion to the team. The collective’s creativity is so robust they have regular meetings with Crew ownership to smooth out logistics for membership engagement at matches and pre- and postgame festivities. For example, a Nordecke tifo team constructs a, well, massive banner prior to home matches and utilizes a pulley system behind the north end goal to raise it before kickoff. This is all carried out with the okay of ownership and stadium management.  

However, The Nordecke’s appreciation for the Crew is arguably outdone by its commitment to the greater Columbus community as well as its members’ love for each other. “They’re my chosen family,” says Johnson, a Columbus resident who works in insurance and also calls The Nordecke an “incredibly special” group.

She says last year, while stuck in a hospital bed for a week after suffering a series of microstrokes, many Nordecke members reached out to her. In lieu of in-person visits during a pandemic, they sent flowers and balloons and talked with her on video calls to help her pass the time. “All my friends in The Nordecke rallied around me,” Johnson says. “They were there for me and they stood by me.”

* * *

Walking west from the Whistle & Keg to Lower.com Field through Columbus’s Arena District, which includes the home of the NHL’s Blue Jackets franchise at Nationwide Arena, hundreds empty out of bars along the route. Populating the sidewalk and ignoring the persistent drizzle that will stick around all night, they too are draped in black and gold and grip stickered cups.

A state-of-the-art soccer stadium that opened last year, Lower.com Field resembles a spaceship out of Star Wars designed to transport divisions of Empire stormtroopers. Its black rectangular outer casing sits atop black, skeletal steel support beams with a graystone base and some glassy finishes. After the FC Cincinnati match, Crew manager Caleb Porter aptly calls the place “a fortress.” 

Inside Lower.com Field, still 60 minutes shy of game time, The Nordecke’s already chanting: “Clap-Clap-Clap! Colum-bus! Clap-Clap-Clap! Colum-bus!” As the north end fills in, the intensity only heightens. 

The team’s mascot, the Crew Cat, starts running around and firing fans up. Nordecke “Capos,” clad entirely in black, shout chant instructions and general hype-inspiring sentences into bullhorns from platforms on the floor. Men and women holding padded sticks take their places across the drumline platform halfway up the section and start beating the shit out of the waist-high, Crew-stickered floor toms in front of them. Nearby, a second team of drummers, accompanied by The Nordecke Brass trumpeters, start playing songs of their own. Some wear red devil horns. Hell is real after all, according to these fans and the highway sign between Columbus and Cincinnati that is the inspiration for the rivalry match’s moniker.  

The noise of the Nordecke is relentless. Standing at the top of the section with Chris LaMacchia, The Nordecke’s communications director, we have to shout to hear each other’s words, yet I calculate the section is only 20% full with bodies. LaMacchia explains the stadium’s overhangs are protecting fans from the drizzle while also deflecting much of the crowd noise back into the stands. It’s a hot box of sound.

* * *

One reason The Nordecke is so energetic is its members’ average age. “We have a very, very young demographic in the section,” says LaMacchia, who at 40 is among the oldest people around. “The seats are bleacher-style and cheap. There are no backrests. Older members graduate to better seats in other sections, like midfield.”

The Nordecke is also fairly diverse. Similar to the city in which it is based, the group is predominantly white, but there is a particularly conspicuous contingency of Hispanic and Asian-American Crew fans present for the Hell Is Real Derby. They intermingle with ease.

Members of The Nordecke bang drums at a Crew match,
Members of The Nordecke double as musicians.
Michael Stahl

Luke Johnston, 34, is a Nordecke Brass trumpeter who recruits other musicians to play alongside him in Guardia 96, primarily a Hispanic-American supporters’ group. Johnston, however, identifies as Japanese-American and began standing with Guardia 96 in The Nordecke section after realizing playing the trumpet on the drum line platform down below wasn’t ideal if he ever wanted fans to hear him. Twitter friends at the time with Guardia 96 leader Dakota Stewart, who’s white, Johnston asked if he could perform with the group seeing as they already had a few trumpeters and drummers in their stead. Johnston has stood in their centrally located subsection of The Nordecke ever since.

“I never felt like I wasn’t welcome in the group…there are people of other ethnicities that are part of the group,” Johnston says. “Soccer’s a very diverse game. You look at the players we have on the field and I think in The Nordecke we try to do a good job of representing them with the flags of their home nations.”

He hopes to one day wave the flag of Japan high above The Nordecke, whenever the Crew signs its first Japanese or Japanese-American player.

A Columbus native, 28-year-old Stewart co-founded Guardia 96 last season with a group of about 10 Spanish-speaking friends. The goal of Guardia 96 is to build interest in the Crew and The Nordecke throughout the local Latino-American community.  Stewart says members of the growing supporters’ group, of which there are roughly 70, are from countries across Latin America. “People bring their kids, of all ages,” he says. “It’s pretty diverse. I would say it’s evenly split between men and women.”

Historically, The Nordecke has been so welcoming that when Stewart attended Crew games by himself as a teenager he never felt alone, easily befriending anyone who happened to be around him in the section.

There’s a second Hispanic-American Crew supporters’ group that sits with The Nordecke, too: La Turbina Amarilla. Formed in 2006,  they, along with the rest of their Nordecke neighbors, sing a number of Spanish-language songs that have shown up on The Nordecke Songbook, a handout that lists the lyrics of several Nordecke tunes. One Spanish-language song, “Vamos! Vamos! Columbus!,” which was adapted from another song sung at soccer games outside the U.S., has lyrics that translate to: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Columbus! Tonight we have to win!”

Every Thursday evening before a weekend home match, Lower.com Field hosts Project Jukebox, a gathering of 50 or so Nordecke members who rehearse established supporters’ group songs and work out new ones. According to Project Jukebox founder Joey DiNapoli, 36, who works for Ohio State University’s compliance department, sub-supporters’ group representatives who attend the rehearsal also hold separate meetings with their compatriots to teach them the songs. This keeps The Nordecke on the same page. Those who make it out to the Thursday rehearsals inside The Nordecke section at the Crew’s stadium are provided free beer by the team. 

“The front office definitely sees the benefit in it,” DiNapoli says of the Project Jukebox partnership. “The more organized and the better we sound and look, that’s more content for them to push out to attract not just fans for The Nordecke, but fans in general. It’s a zero-dollar investment — aside from all the beer money they spend on us.”

Blanca Rico, 40, who works with sexual assault and domestic violence victims outside of her Crew commitments but within them helps lead La Turbina Amarilla, says her Hispanic-American cooperative is also working with the Crew to build fandom among Hispanic residents in the city. In addition to community outreach, which includes promotion of the team and The Nordecke at this month’s Columbus Latino Festival, Rico says leadership in both parties are “trying to make things more inclusive within the stadium.” Like many others in the group, she likens The Nordecke to a big family, in spite of the membership’s differences in heritage. “We try to be respectful of anyone who wants to be a part of Nordecke, to make it welcoming and fun,” she says.

Though there are few Black members of The Nordecke, LaMacchia says the group is extending outreach efforts to Black communities in and around Columbus as well. But garnering interest from them is a challenge, he admits. 

The U.S. has a history of keeping Black people out of soccer leagues, which undoubtedly cut into investment levels among Black communities through the years. However, a growing number of Black Americans are finding the sport. One recent report from Statista revealed the number of Black Americans who are “very interested” in soccer — 14% — is actually double that of white Americans.

A member of The Nordecke with a painted face.
In the pre-pandemic Nordecke, a masked face was not an uncommon sight.
Michael Stahl

Aaron Joiner, a 32-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher who is Black, serves as a Nordecke Capo at the Hell Is Real Derby, his second time filling the role. He says he loves being a hype man and that he first latched onto the Columbus Crew 15 years ago. A senior in high school at the time, he attended a game and observed the behaviors of a particularly rambunctious supporters’ group that predates The Nordecke called the Hudson Street Hooligans — the aforementioned band that lived by the “Show up, drink beer, watch soccer” ideology.

“I would see those people just acting a fool and doing chants and stuff like that,” says Joiner. “I was like, ‘Man, I need to be a part of that.’” 

Joiner says the Hooligans “definitely had a hardcore edge” to them, moreso than the greater Nordecke has these days. But the Hooligan members reserved their most virulent aggression for those who sat within their section and did not contribute to the cheering of the Crew or the jeering of the opposition. 

“If you’re not chanting, you’re gonna get called out,” Joiner says. Given that approach, Joiner says his race was never an issue while a member of the Hooligans. The aggressive chanting was what drew him to the group in the first place.

“There really hasn’t been people who said some kind of off-color joke to me in the soccer community,” Joiner says. “[Among] the things I’m good at is rallying a crowd. I’m a Capo. And people see that energy.”

Still, there’s a self-conscious part of  Joiner that wonders if The Nordecke placed him atop a Capo platform for the express purpose of showing off the group’s diversity. He just can’t keep his mind from going there. He says as a Black male who likes rap but also heavy metal — giving one example of his individuality — he would not be comfortable as a “token” member of any community. But, Joiner concedes, “I know for sure a lot of that is a ‘me thing,’ based on my own experiences, so I try not to get in the way of that and think of the best intentions of people.”

Hanging from the stadium’s rafters in the north end, above The Nordecke section, are a series of banners that also highlight the group’s inclusiveness. There’s a rainbow Pride banner and another that’s colored pink, white and powder blue that says “Protect Trans Kids.” A third banner has black and gold bars below a white panel with all-caps black lettering that reads “NO HATE.” Pre-kickoff-raised tifos at past matches have also celebrated Pride Month and Juneteenth.

Ohio may be a red state, but Columbus is a blue city. However, that geographical dichotomy doesn’t tell the full story as to why The Nordecke is such an inclusive bunch. The fan group’s entire existence is built on diversity. 

Between 1999 and 2021, the Crew — named in honor of the city’s history as a manufacturing hub (hence the many black-and-gold construction helmets in the crowd) — played its home matches at Historic Crew Stadium. Five miles north of Lower.com Field, it was the first soccer-specific stadium built for an MLS team. But prior to the 2008 season, its operators demolished most of the north end stands and constructed a stage in the space to allow the arena to host revenue-generating concerts. It was in those destroyed stands that a number of Crew fan groups, including the Hudson Street Hooligans, La Turbina Amarilla, the Crew Supporters Union and others, gathered for matches. The new seating arrangement, forced upon these supporters’ groups by the injection of the stage into the stands, squeezed them into the stadium’s north corner.  

“Everyone was really bummed about that,” says Jonathan Smith, who at the time was a member of the Hudson Street Hooligans. (The origin story of his involvement in the Hooligans is virtually identical to that of Joiner’s. He got a kick out of the chaos they created.) “There were some fan divisions at the time [and] these subcultures all had to be shoved together,” Smith, the co-host of the Common Man & T-Bone regional sports talk radio show, continues. “Everyone had to put their differences aside and then join together to be loud.”

It did not take long for the groups to become better acquainted. “We were all kind of wondering how it would go,” according to Smith. But he says by the end of that first game everyone around him seemed to think, “Oh no, this is sick, this is really cool, this’ll be fun.”

In a Voltron-esque way, the cheering sections only grew more powerful once bound together. According to Smith, the players noticed immediately. After the team’s second goal they were already approaching the north corner to conduct their celebrations in front of the frenzied mass, something that became a regular occurrence. 

By the end of that season, the Crew won the MLS Cup championship and the new umbrella supporters’ group had a name. The Nordecke, which translates to the “north corner” in German, was chosen because Columbus has a large German population and Deutschland itself is home to rich soccer traditions.

* * * 

It’s 10 minutes until the Hell Is Real Derby kickoff and the drumming and chants have not stopped for a second since I arrived in the stadium almost an hour ago. When the Columbus Crew walks onto the pitch, however, the energy actually eases. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is playing again and crooning fans serenade the team. The relative calm is quickly obliterated at the song’s conclusion. The drumline slams their instruments thrice in quick succession, The Nordecke claps in unison, then throws their hands up to form individual “Ys” shouting “Colum-bus!” 

Player introductions commence with on-field fireworks and gas flares; yellow smoke stacks are set off at the base of The Nordecke as this week’s tifo is raised. The banner is inspired by the cover of a book in the Goosebumps series, The Curse of Camp Cold Lake. Rising out of a gray-colored pool on the tifo is the Crew Cat’s skull, donning a black-and-gold construction helmet. “COLUMBUS” is written in black, Goosebumps-style font across the gold tifo panel at the top. A “HELL IS REAL” sign hovers in a treeline silhouette behind the lake; in gold block letters over a black background, the base of the tifo reads: “THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER CLUBS.”

A flyer explains the rules of The Nordecke
The Nordecke is rowdy, but also organized.

There were some dark days a few years ago when it appeared as though Columbus wouldn’t have a professional soccer club at all. In October 2017, word got out that then-owner Anthony Precourt was plotting to relocate the Crew to Austin, Texas. Precourt, who’d once vowed to keep the Crew in Columbus, claimed that, in spite of increased investments in the club, the team was struggling to draw fans, sponsors and other corporate supporters that would allow it to financially compete within the expanding MLS. 

Impassioned Crew fans, including many members of The Nordecke, which was on its way to becoming the team’s signature supporters’ group, organized. The #SaveTheCrew advocacy group was formed, spreading awareness and building a coalition of local businesses, politicians, law firms and fans that would rally behind the cause of keeping the team in Columbus. Fans of rival clubs waved “Save The Crew” flags during MLS games inside their own stadiums and “Save The Crew” banners were unfurled in Europe, Asia and Australia. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger showed his support, posing for a photo with a Crew scarf in Los Angeles.

In the end, Precourt got his team in Austin. But it wasn’t the Crew. After a year of grassroots initiatives that drew the attention of the state’s attorney general and new ownership groups, Columbus’s soccer team was saved. Like the Kennedy assassination, but with inverted emotions, every Crew fan who was alive when news broke that the club would remain in Columbus remembers where they were and what they were doing on October 12, 2018.

Jeffrey Barger, 38, who works in marketing and is Chairperson of the Board of The Nordecke, says fans across the city started getting wind of a pending announcement by late morning that day. A #SaveTheCrew leader sent him a text around then, telling him to cancel whatever remaining work plans he had and head over to Endeavor Brewery, a popular Crew fan gathering space that had conspicuously opened early for business. Barger arrived at Endeavor with his wife shortly after noon and he says it was “at or over capacity.” 

“There were hundreds of people there,” Barger says. “Not just fans — front office staff, former players…There was an active player there. Everybody just kind of came together and celebrated.”

A few hours later, a community group dedicated to economic growth called The Columbus Partnership, which had worked to find a solution to the Crew crisis, released a statement saying the franchise had obtained new ownership that would keep the club in the city. “I just remember everybody cheering in a really incredible way,” Barger says. 

Extraordinarily large champagne bottles popped, Crew songs were sung, and people cried. 

“It was, like, the most cathartic moment ever — just ever,” says Project Jukebox founder Joey DiNapoli, who was also at Endeavor that day. “We hugged it out, we all did. It didn’t matter if I knew you for one second or like 10 years.”

A few months earlier, DiNapoli was so emotionally fraught over the prospective loss of the Crew that it cost him his job. In his previous office he was “the Crew fan,” and coworkers constantly asked him how he felt about the team leaving, which at the time seemed to be a foregone conclusion. (The Austin city council had approved the construction of a stadium and everything.) 

“One day I absolutely snapped because someone asked me, ‘Are you going to still cheer for the Crew when they move to Austin?’” DiNapoli recounts. But his memory gets fuzzy from there. “I can’t remember what I said, but whatever it was it led to me getting fired.”

A few days later, a human resources representative talked to DiNapoli about the incident during his exit interview. For DiNapoli, losing the Crew would have been like ripping out an integral organ of his body. He tells me he’s met 30 to 40 people through The Nordecke who are not just friends, but “people I can rely on.” When his grandparents passed away, he says a clergyman asked him what his fondest memories of them were and the first one he came up with was going to Crew games with them when he was a kid. So when the HR person asked DiNapoli why he flipped out on his coworker, he didn’t hesitate with his answer. “He asked me about the soccer team moving and I got upset,” was DiNapoli’s response. “It’s upsetting to me and I’m kind of shocked right now that nobody’s respecting that.”

Going through the #SaveTheCrew rescue mission brought the Crew fanbase closer together and turned fairweather fans into acolytes. The Nordecke membership grew and the collective became a 501c7 nonprofit with a member-elected board of directors and updated bylaws, all with the blessing of the now-unified supporters’ groups that were smushed together into Historic Crew Stadium’s northeast corner in 2008. (When the team moved to Lower.com Field, The Nordecke promptly took over the entire north end, not just the corner, expanding its section substantially.)

LaMacchia, the aforementioned communications director, says The Nordecke has 2,700 dues-paying members today. For a $30 yearly fee, members receive discounts on single-game tickets, tchotchkes, invitations to exclusive events such as player signings and more benefits. The group launches charitable initiatives, like its recent clothing drive for the Kaleidoscope Youth Center, a local LGBTQ+ support group. The Nordecke’s also not shy about taking a stand against what it perceives as social injustices. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, The Nordecke not only raised a tifo reading “WE DISSENT,” it asked its members to donate money they would have otherwise spent on beer at a match to a local abortion fund. This action not only signaled to its members that leadership would back women’s rights organizations, it also sent a message to Crew ownership that it expected the franchise to respond to the court’s decision as well. 

A few weeks ago, it did — sort of. The team partnered with The Nordecke “to ensure that soccer truly is for all,” with the development of a joint Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion outreach committee. Composed of Crew front office personnel and members of the fan community, the new DEI committee is tasked with “creating equal access and unifying engagement for [Columbus’s] diverse communities,” as well as elevating the “many voices of the Crew community.”

Fans going nuts in The Nordecke
Bringing earplugs to The Nordecke would be a wise choice.
Michael Stahl

LaMacchia says that while these initiatives were hatched during Nordecke leadership conversations that included many members of the group who identify as women, not everyone in the group is on board with them. He says in the past there have been some “squabbles” in the community, usually small, drunken conflicts over team play and personnel decisions that are quickly defused by other, perhaps more sober members. But the debate over reproductive rights has wrought stark division in The Nordecke. 

“The past month is the worst I’ve seen,” he tells me the day before the Hell Is Real Derby in mid-July. “It’s either: ‘You’re not doing enough to support women’s voices’ or ‘Keep politics out of sports’ or ‘We don’t agree with the stance The Nordecke has taken.’”

Some who are upset with The Nordecke’s actions have taken to social media to vent their frustrations. An Instagram user commented under one Nordecke post protesting the Roe v. Wade decision, “​​No matter skin color, race, or gender, we are a fan base their [sic] to support our team. Not political issues.” In another Nordecke post about the issue, a user commented: “Another reason to continue not buying your membership lol.”

“The message from Nordecke leadership is, ‘If you’re not happy with what we’re doing, we’re open to feedback,’” LaMacchia says. However, the group is not going to engage with angry Nordecke account followers on social media, he adds. Board members will instead reserve their energy for folks who want to engage in a constructive, in-person conversation. 

I ask him how he feels about some members saying they’re not going to be a part of The Nordecke anymore due to its leadership’s recent outspokenness on women’s rights. “I’m not going to say ‘sad,’ but ‘saddened,’” LaMacchia says. “But I also know, because I’ve been around so long, it’ll pass. People will get pissed off and they’ll say a whole bunch of words and then the majority of them will be right back here. Time heals all wounds and we’re lucky in that we all unite around the Crew.”

Johnson, the Nordecke member who was so touched by the outpouring of support the group gave her when she was in the hospital, says those who oppose the leadership’s stance on the issue can “get stuffed.” Still, while she says, “I will cease to engage with them on that topic,” she grants, “we can still bond over Crew.”

* * *

A lifelong sports fan from New York City who’s never been to a soccer game until my weekend in Columbus, I’m starting to understand the allure. The Nordecke’s giving me a crash course on soccer fan lunacy in a sold-out Lower.com Field during a matchup that LaMacchia tells me “lives up to the hype” of Hell Is Real. Both the Crew and FC Cincinnati are jockeying for playoff positioning and play like it. But the Columbus squad has a clear home-field edge tonight. 

While the action in soccer is almost entirely continuous, the sport lends itself to highly animated fan expression, like what The Nordecke’s bringing this evening. Fifteen minutes into the game, nobody’s taken a breath in the section and songs keep getting sung, chants keep erupting and the musicians keep playing. Fans can afford to half-focus on these elements of the stadium experience while easily observing the players kick the ball around the vast pitch, working deliberately to exploit holes in the defense until, finally, there’s a payoff. 

The Crew are awarded a free kick from near the right sideline. To the pounding soundtrack of the iconic Terminator 2 theme song being produced by The Nordecke drumline, Lucas Zelarayán, an attacking midfielder from Argentina, boots the ball close to the top of the goal box perimeter. Perfectly placed, it finds the head of a streaking Cucho Hernández, the team’s new striker from Colombia, who signed a record-breaking contract just a month ago. 

Cucho deflects the ball into the back of the net directly in front of The Nordecke and 3,500 Tazmanian devils around me absolutely lose their fucking minds. They scream, jump,  high-five and hug. They wave flags, clap their hands and pump their fists so hard I wonder how their joints remain intact. 

People I speak with about The Nordecke believe the group’s fervent dedication to the team — and despite their differences, each other — stems from the near trauma of almost losing the Crew four years ago. But it’s also rooted in the little brother syndrome Crew fans have, as the team plays in the shadow of Ohio State’s sports programs, particularly its wildly successful football team. The founding of the Crew was the first time Columbus was ever awarded a professional sports franchise — the Blue Jackets were second. And the Crew became the first MLS charter team in 1994 after the city became the first to hit a promised season-ticket holder threshold. 

“Columbus is a very passionate sports city,” says Smith, the sports-talk radio host. That disposition is coupled with a team “underdog mentality,” he continues. “Even in this town, they’ve had to fight for some conversation, respectability, notoriety from local media. You put all that together and it galvanizes people really quickly, and you see these communities pop up.”

A black-and-gold sign in The Nordecke.
Pittsburgh has the black and yellow and Columbus has the black and gold.
Courtesy of Columbus Crew/Daniel Herlensky

Emboldened by its efforts to keep the team in Columbus in 2018 and the emergence of a more formalized internal governing body, The Nordecke led the fan charge against the team’s current ownership when they suddenly decided to rebrand the club in 2021. For a week the team was dubbed “Columbus SC,” which upset many fans because it disregarded the team’s 25-year history of play as the Crew — a history that included multiple championships. In response, The Nordecke leadership, alongside members of #SaveTheCrew, sat with team ownership and gave them a piece of their mind. Once again, the powers that be listened to the fan representatives. The owners reversed course and even created a supporters’ liaison position to maintain and strengthen fan relationships. (The first person to fill that spot in the front office, Tyler Philips, was a member of The Nordecke.) Open lines of communication between The Nordecke and the team helped cultivate some of the most beautiful moments in the supporters’ group’s history. 

Every year, the night before the Crew’s home opening match, The Nordecke celebrates Crewsmas Eve, a huge party where more-than-many adult beverages are consumed. Then at dawn on Crewsmas Morning, in Ohio during the winter, they gather in front of the Crew’s home field and share a beer toast to the new season. For this year’s Sunrise Toast, Dr. Pete Edwards, part-owner of the Crew, led the ceremony with a speech. Other members of the front office were on hand as well, while the remaining owners, the Haslam and Johnson families, tuned in on video calls. 

Three years ago when Crew fanatic Phillip Bertke decided to ask for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage, he couldn’t think of a better place than on the pitch at Historic Crew Stadium. The franchise he loves and the supporters’ section he sits in, The Nordecke, happily obliged.

Soon after they first met, for their third date in 2017, Phillip convinced Ciara to let him drive her two hours from their home city of Akron to Columbus for a Crew game. Ciara wasn’t a soccer fan at all, but “the atmosphere was crazy,” she says. It was also infectious and she was hooked. “You could tell these people cared and were devoted,” she says, “and I had never really experienced that in any other sport.”

The next season, the pair, both of whom are now 27, bought season tickets in The Nordecke section. Meeting people at tailgates in the stadium section, they quickly made friends, even staying overnight at some Nordecke members’ houses so they could sober up for their drive back to Akron. 

When it came time to pop the question, Phillip asked a Nordecke leader what scenario they could cook up that would get him and Ciara on the pitch. Ultimately, some Nordecke members pretended to film a documentary on the entire group and asked Ciara if they could shadow her and her boyfriend during their Nordecke experience at a match for a day. She agreed and when the producers directed her and Phillip to make their way onto the field after being followed by video cameras during the tailgate for hours, Ciara thought it was all part of the film project.

Facing the field, Ciara and Phillip posed for a picture while Nordecke pals in the stands behind them unrolled a banner reading “Will you marry me?” Ciara turned around, read the banner and then found her boyfriend down on a knee. “It was the coolest moment of my life,” Ciara says. “I was definitely sobbing and I screamed at my friends, ‘Did you know!?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we all knew.’”

A few days later, the Crew surprised both Ciara and Phillip by producing a true-life, 87-second documentary about the proposal and posting it on Twitter to share the love far and wide. “I had no idea the length that they were going to and it really is an incredible video to have,” says Phillip. 

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In spite of their close connections with ownership and regular meetings with the front office, as much as Nordecke leadership might love to have a say in the team’s on-field personnel decisions, it doesn’t. “It is a whole lot less glamorous and more boring than people think,” LaMacchia says about the get-togethers. They talk about The Nordecke’s plans for the fan experience at upcoming games held at Lower.com Field and other MLS stadiums during Crew road contests. They also discuss community outreach and advocacy and the group’s thoughts on how the team can just generally support and work with them. “The fact that ownership takes time out of their day to meet with us, to listen to this ragtag group of fans…it’s great,” LaMacchia says. 

Combining The Nordecke’s intimidating presence in Lower.com Field’s north end with its historic and continued influence over team decisions, I ask Smith, who spends his entire professional life covering sports, if he believes there’s any supporters group quite like The Nordecke in the U.S. Though he admits to being quite partial to The Nordecke, as one of the few hundred who sat with the group on the day it was founded, he replies, “I’m going to say no.”

While he may also be quite biased, 34-year-old Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams, who’s from Akron and has been a fan of the team since its first year of play in 1996, also says The Nordecke is “unlike anything in American sports.” He observes the NFL’s Cleveland Browns have the storied Dawg Pound fan group, but even that notably exuberant bunch is not “chanting the whole game” and there aren’t “smoke bombs going off over there.” (The Nordecke really does chant the entire game, only taking a break during halftime at the Hell Is Real Derby I attend. By the way, I’m now a Crew fan for life.)

I ask Williams if a supporter section like The Nordecke has a positive impact on the pro athlete’s gameplay and the performance of the team they pull for. “One thousand percent,” he responds. “To look up and have that wall there and to feel that energy,” he continues, “it’s such a huge aspect to our home-field [advantage] and to us in general. It’s something that you can’t replace.”

Even though they’ve been at odds before, Crew team leadership recognizes The Nordecke’s importance to the team, its players and its brand. “Our supporters are the soul of the Columbus Crew,” says Columbus Crew president of business operations Kristin Bernert. “Their efforts were pivotal to keeping the club in Columbus and their presence at our home matches is a big reason why Lower.com Field has one of the best matchday atmospheres in MLS. No club can be successful without the support of its fanbase and The Nordecke, along with all of our other supporter groups that comprise The Nordecke, have been key to the continued growth of our club.”

After early season struggles, the Columbus Crew put themselves in playoff positioning and have only moved up in the standings since a 2-0 win over FC Cincinnati last month. They’ve lost just once in their last 11 matches and, with the addition of striker Cucho Hernández (who became the first player in MLS history to score four goals in his first 90 minutes of league play with his tally in front of The Nordecke during the Hell Is Real Derby), the team appears poised to make another run at a championship. 

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Celebrating on the field a few moments after the final horn sounds, the team gathers in front of The Nordecke for one last rendition of Elvis’s song. The players’ bodies interlock and sway to the tune just like the thousands-strong fan group in front of them. They too can’t help falling in love. 

Later, in the locker room, discussing The Nordecke, Cucho tells me he’s “very happy that they’re happy and that they enjoyed the game.” While he was reluctant to compare The Nordecke to other fan groups in international football stadiums abroad, he says so far he’s enjoyed his new club’s biggest supporters’ section very much.

Lucas Zelarayán, who put the match away for the Crew with a late goal on a penalty kick, says that he felt The Nordecke’s energy during the game and that the team is grateful for the section’s continued support. “Today was special, so this win is for them,” he says. 

Prior to the contest against FC Cincinnati, Crew manager Caleb Porter, in his fourth season with the club, said the match was his team’s biggest of the season to date. In his opening remarks during the post-game press conference, he sings the praises of the entire crowd, calling it “the best game, for me, in terms of energy since I’ve been here.” When I ask him about The Nordecke specifically, he says in no uncertain terms, “The Nordecke was awesome.”