/ 9 July 2012

What Makes a USA Kit?

I got to thinking about the state of US Soccer over the weekend. In short, good things seem to be happening. More people than ever are taking an interest in the USMNT – interest which inevitably boils down to two things: how well the team’s doing, and how good they look doing it. The quality of the squad seems to be increasing, incrementally, and tactically they’re in the experienced (if not fully sensible) hands of Juergen Klinsmann. The team is playing a hybrid style – some possession when they can, some counter-attack when they can’t – and the truly “American” qualities that give them an advantage in international competition (hustle, self-belief, the inability to be intimidated) are serving them as well as ever. (Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to add “stellar first touch” and “finesse in the final third” to that list, but you work with what you have.)

So, heading into World Cup qualification, the squad is playing fairly good-looking soccer and getting fairly good results. But we’re just starting the 2014 cycle, and the next matches are little more than scribbles on a distant calendar. We’re in that one two-week window during the year when there isn’t really any on-field soccer news to be had. There’s simply not much to discuss right now. It’s the right time, to me, to ask that somewhat superficial, but essential question: how are the US jerseys looking? And what makes a USA kit, anyway?

That’s how I’m going to spend this week.

I’m going to take a look at the lineup of USMNT jerseys and make a few suggestions. Because how you look is just as important as how you play. Well, maybe not quite. But it’s close.

Where We Are

US Soccer’s visual identity has always been pretty complicated. Well, it started simply enough, with the same woolen dress whites that everybody else used. We’re still holding on to that tradition, in many ways – but when we’re not wearing white, it’s been complicated. Instead of breaking down every jersey the USMNT’s ever worn (but if you’d like to read that, it’s been done quite deftly), let’s review some major trends, factors and traditions that have defined the US soccer kit over the years.

Author’s note: This is part of a series on US Soccer’s visual identity. When you’re done here, feel free to read on.
Intro: What Makes a USA Kit?
Part I: Colors & Combinations
Part II: Third Kits & Special Occasions
Final Thoughts: American Expression

Thanks for reading!

White. As stated above, the US holds persistently to the idea that a white kit is a foundational concept. But unlike England, New Zealand, and a few others, the US doesn’t seem to wear white as if it was an identity unto itself; there’s no emotional equity built up around US all-white look. Instead, the US’s white kit seems to be based on the bedrock of US sporting tradition. In the oldest American sports, the home team’s traditional first-choice uniform is white with colored trim – no matter the club’s colors. To take a very broad view, US sports have tended to have “home”, “road” and “special” outfits; soccer instead has “first choice”, “change” and “third” outfits that aren’t quite as tied to location. This conflagration has led to the US designating white kits as their “first choice” kit color, I believe, because it’s always been seen as a traditional American first-choice (“home”) uniform color. This isn’t good or bad, per se, but it means that the US kind of backed into wearing lots of white, when others did it with more intent. The US has never really “owned” white as a color – just as a default kit background color. That’s something (in my opinion) that could stand to change.

The shield. It started as something simple, and then got a bit cartoony. Eventually it settled into the familiar pseudo-classical shield we know today. But no matter the format, US Soccer has always had some kind of unified logo, and (almost always) placed a traditional “shield” on the jerseys as per international custom. With every World Cup, the US Soccer logo seems to gain a bit more meaning and tradition – and even those clamoring for a redesign must admit that the shield has a certain sentimental pull.

Nike. The behemoth is here, it seems, to stay. Nike’s kit designers are behind each two-year refresh of the US on-field identity, and have done solid work during their 15-plus years at the helm. For a while, things were plain; then they got a bit template-y; then there were callbacks to tradition and ambitious alternative identities. All the while, Nike’s mercurial corporate partners at Umbro were doing amazing stylistic work in the jersey space, some of which bled over to and informed Nike’s own direction for the better. Nike’s a major player in world soccer, they’re based in the US, and they’re good at what they do. It just seems right that they’re watching out for the team’s visual identity.

The sash. US Soccer’s flirtation with the sash goes back, famously, to the good mojo generated by their 1950 shock defeat of England. It’s been on and off since then; some wonder if it should become an identifiable staple of the team’s identity. Nike seems to be moving in that direction, but it’s hard to tell if the sash is truly a foundational element of the jersey – yet.

Mimicking the flag. Old Glory means a ton to most Americans, but as a nation we can be a bit literal in the application of our national identity to wearable items. Even when we’re not using actual elements of the flag for the jersey itself, we’re steadfastly employing some combination of red, white and blue. This is completely fine, but slightly unimaginative in a world where some of the most renowned, most exciting international soccer identities aren’t based on flags. The US could get a bit more creative here.

Supporters. For a long time, US Soccer supporters were a tribal, nomadic people. Supporting soccer in the US through the lean years (ok, decades) took a certain spirit and solidarity; during those years, a defined group – Sam’s Army – was birthed to organize supporter culture. For a long time, Sam’s Army was the official voice of the US soccer fan, and Sam’s Army had a few rock-solid rules. One was that US fans should wear red. During cycles when the US team sported red jerseys, this worked quite well; during cycles when the main kit was white or blue, it seemed a bit confused. US soccer support has grown to a level where a single organization doesn’t set the agenda as much as it once did, but the idea that supporters should unify around a certain color – ideally, one that the team is wearing on the field – is ingrained. But what to unify around? We’ve never quite had…

A specific “thing”. We’ve lacked one. Red shirts. All-white. A red, white and blue combo platter. A sash. Contrasting sleeves. Hoops. Vertical stripes. Diagonal stripes. Wavy stripes. Vertical sashes. Horizontal bands. Actual stars. Denim. US Soccer has tried it all, visually, and yet nothing’s ever quite stuck as the one core tennet the US visual identity is defined by. In a sense, that’s poetic, because we’re a melting pot culture in the stands, we play all over the country (there is no “national US Soccer stadium”, a la Wembley or Azteca), and we play with a mix of styles on the field. But all that mixing doesn’t exclude the idea that some particular visual language could define the US Soccer identity now and in perpetuity.

But what should that thing be? I have some ideas. I’ve worked up a few mockups, and I’ll be explaining them in turn this week. First up: What should the first-choice (ok, “home”) US kit look like? What kind of change kit should it pair with? Check back tomorrow for a look. Update: here’s part II.

Mark Willis writes about art, design, soccer and web stuff here on mwillis.com, and on Twitter. If you like soccer, read about rebooting the Revs, or how the Revs work in the age of mutual love. If you like tech and Apple stuff, read “A Couple Things I Wish Apple Did Better”, or “Being a Commodity”. And if you like sweet t-shirts, check out some stuff to buy. Drop him a line about anything at mark@mwillis.com.