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MLS 2011 Jerseys Unveiled: 'Cleanliness' and Conformity Reign

Feb 22, 2011 – 8:03 PM
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Brian Straus

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Major League Soccer remains haunted by the ghosts of horrible uniforms past.

The men in the photo to the right, which includes World Cup veterans like Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Roy Wegerle, are wearing the clown costumes designed for the league's inaugural campaign in 1996.

The uniforms (except Harkes') looked like the result of a tragic Spin Art accident or the creations of overly eager, soccer ignorant marketers trying to be outrageous. It was totally xtreme.

They were inspired by branding profiles such as these:

Tampa Bay Mutiny: "The...logo system doesn't have any rebellious sailors. No three-masted galleons. No rolling oceans. Just little green winged cyber-mutants from the dark blue depths of space."

San Jose Clash: "The driving spirit of the San Jose Clash is the scorpion. Quick, lethal and mean ... With shapes and colors that reflect the diverse ethnic makeup and heritage of the Bay Area, the logo system is derived from the soil it represents."

Kansas City Wiz: "Breakaways, bicycle kicks and sprawling headers will be the magic potion of the soccer wizards of Kansas City."

Dallas Burn: "The ... logo system starts with the cowboy of the asphalt West: the loners, outsiders and rebels found on cycle jackets and gas tanks."

Only two logos unveiled that day -- the New England Revolution's and Columbus Crew's -- remain untouched. That's progress.

But while the bad nicknames, garish color schemes and other artifacts of '90s design have been consigned to a hilarious chapter of American soccer history, the overreaction to those original kits continues.

The vast majority of today's MLS uniforms appear to be the work of clubs and a manufacturer (adidas) so desperate to avoid those early pitfalls that they that wind up sacrificing almost all originality, flourish and color. They claim to be going after a "clean and classic" look. But what we're left with is, largely, a collection of plain, monochrome jerseys and uniforms that render many clubs nearly indistinguishable from each other.

The league's 2011 jersey catalog features 11 white shirts, and three more with white stripes/hoops (Here are the 2010 uniforms). At least five clubs will have a game uniform with red jerseys, red shorts and red socks, and there's plenty of blue/blue/blue and black/black/black as well. Only a handful of teams have the courage to deviate.

If the point of branding is to differentiate your clubs, so that it's instantly apparent who's playing when you turn on the TV, MLS and adidas have failed. Odds are you'll see one team wearing all-white, even when there's no clash of colors (how come the rest of the world can manage?), and another wearing red or blue.

As ugly as those 1996 uniforms were, at least you could tell the clubs apart. MLS has a few free thinkers of course (including the newcomers from Portland), and they deserve some credit. But for the most part, the 2011 uniforms are an exercise in frustrating banality.

Thanks to adidas, MLS and some improvisation, FanHouse has been able to compile photos or drawings of the home and away shirts for all 18 teams, plus the three confirmed third jerseys. We'll unveil those below (with some critiques, of course).
But first, we took our concerns straight to the top, in a long conversation with adidas Director of Soccer Antonio Zea. The man who runs the sportswear giant's American soccer division handled the inquisition like a very good sport, and shed some light on how branding happens, what motivates individual clubs, how individuality is all in the details, and how we're still trying to get over 1996.

Here are some excerpts:

FANHOUSE: How much say does a club have in its own branding? How much say does adidas have?

ZEA: It's mainly the team, and we try to play the role that, "Here's what we can do. Here's what we can look like." The Timbers are a great example ... We do a lot of research on the city. If it's a team that has a long history, we do research on the history of the team itself. Really try to find a lot of the authentic flavor, all those little details. We have the history of the team, the city, the culture, then we can start to build from that.

Teams always have a vision. They look at their team as a brand, and they treat their brand as their baby. We try to take that stuff and do our due diligence to make that come alive. There are definitely times we say, "We like this." With Portland, we liked the green. How do you make green come alive? Using three different shades of green to say, "You're going to own green," and the three greens reflect the diversity you'd find in any forest around Portland.

FANHOUSE: There's a lot of uniformity in the uniforms though. We've got all these teams with plain white jerseys -- it's hard to tell them apart. How are you taking this research you're doing and putting it into the individual uniforms?

ZEA: One piece is the rebranding we just did with Kansas City ... One particular design detail is a very little key line, a stich line, that runs from the top left shoulder, down through the crest, down the length of the jersey. That represents the two states, the border (between Missouri and Kansas). It's a very subtle detail, something that a lot of people may not notice, but a very important piece that meant a lot to the club.

A lot of other jerseys will have those details. We'll put small phrases in the neck taping. The Portland away jersey has the rose and thorns graphic. It's a red jersey. It's the rose city. We'll do a lot of little details.

FANHOUSE: But you can't see those little details from more than a few feet away. Shouldn't there be more to differentiate the different clubs?

ZEA: It's definitely a challenge to work with teams to develop their brand identities. We have long conversations and we continue to have long conversations with teams. Some change, like FC Dallas, which made a real commitment to the hoops. Another great example is New England. They continue to try to cement their identity and don't want to change their jerseys. There are certain iconic pieces.

It's team by team. Within those white jerseys there are certain details ... We want to work with what the teams' wishes are. We try to talk to them, influence them into "Let's try this. Let's try that." Teams are trying to really take care of their identity, and they don't want to be too different.

Teams definitely want to be conservative with their looks. They want to be classic. They want to be clean. They don't want to take chances on some of these colors.

FANHOUSE: Which brands do you consider the most authentic?

ZEA: D.C. is the first one that comes to mind, with their identity from the very beginning. I had very close ties to them also and worked there for two years, but the way that organization was run, the people they had within it, the way they approached the game, the league, the players. That was really authentic.

Seattle as well, being a new team, but really looking at everything from a highly professional standpoint ... Seattle really grabbed a hold of that cultural piece that is Seattle, really embracing the fans and creating the fan walk and the scarves – those pieces that allow those people to belong to something. That's where the league is trying to get.

FANHOUSE: A huge part of D.C. United's identity was the three stripes across the front of the jersey. That was really unique. But now they're gone. Wasn't there a place for them up toward the top, even with the VW logo?

ZEA: It was just to freshen things up. I loved the stripes. It was iconic for D.C. But it was just knowing it was time to change something up. It wasn't anything about a sponsor, but really trying to figure out, "What's next? What do we want our look to be?" In this business, we encounter that a lot ... It's really knowing when to change something, when to have an evolution vs. a revolution.

FANHOUSE: But removing the stripes feeds into my main issue with this, which is that too many of the uniforms are plain and look too much alike. You had a unique look with the three stripes, and now you have just another solid-color shirt. Why don't teams make more of an effort to find a look that makes them immediately identifiable?

ZEA: The clubs sign off on their identity. In those white jerseys, we do our best to build in those details. The piping has a story around it, the details on the neck, on the sides, we try to build that in as much as possible ... We also want to make sure that at retail, the fan knows they're buying something that has value to it, that there's a story behind those pieces ... It's very much, first and foremost, making sure the message is getting across. "Hey, this is our brand and what we want it to look like is being filled with this specific jersey." We ware definitely driving that point with the team, so we can say "These pieces add value. This gives it rack appeal. This adds detail."

You'll throw 20, 30, 50 designs at them, then narrow it down, all the while balancing what teams want in the end. We've gone to teams to say, "You're L.A. Here's a purple jersey." We have gone to all these teams with options we like ... There are many teams that say, "I want to be classic. I want to be traditional. I want to be clean. I want to have a white jersey."

FANHOUSE: So speaking of traditional, which tradition makes more sense to you? Clubs like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, which have adopted plural nicknames with roots in their cities, or names like Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and the FCs, which co-opt European traditions?

ZEA: I would love to see us copy Real, Sporting, all that stuff, less. To me, that's not American soccer. It may be to some degree, but if you think about who we are as a soccer market – we have this Hispanic part, we have this European part that is latching onto Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and then we have this third, an amalgamation of all that pulling from each one of those. I'd love to see us blaze our own path ... I'd love to see us come up with something new and different. We don't have to go as far as Tampa Bay Mutiny, but we don't have to go as far as some teams have either.

And now, the 2011 MLS jerseys:

Chicago Fire: Best Buy is gone as a sponsor, so Chicago has returned to the 'Fire' wordmark on its classic home jersey. We wish the stripe was straight. The away shirt has been left blank. Why they can't go back to this, we have no idea. Guess they don't want to mess up that "clean and classic" white shirt.

Chivas USA: The home shirt remains the ultimate expression of adidas' 'Frankenjersey' fixation on piping and what looks like stray bits of fabric sewn together. We like the red-and-white stripes. We can't stand the fact that a team playing in Los Angeles sports the coat of arms of the city of Guadalajara.

Colorado Rapids: The MLS Cup champs (formerly green-and-white, formerly blue-and-black) are rocking the burgundy for a fifth straight year. Hopefully they stick with it. The new away jersey is -- wait for it -- white. What was wrong with the sky blue road kit used in the past few seasons?

Columbus Crew: The jerseys are the same, but the sponsor (Glidden) is gone. The bright all-yellow home uniform certainly passes the "you know who you're watching when you turn on the TV" test, and the black pinstriped away shirt is nice, albeit rarely worn. The logo has stood the test of time since 1996, which we still don't quite understand. Columbus doesn't seem like a construction worker-type of town.

FC Dallas: The hoops are distinctive, but the shirts still just seem somewhat clunky. Perhaps it's the 'FC DALLAS' across the chest, or perhaps its because the hoops don't go all the way around (there's a side panel that isn't visible in the photo). We think Dallas should go with something like this.

D.C. United: The four-time champs own the all-black look, but we miss the three stripes, and we wish there was some more black in the away shirt. When D.C. United caught wind of Zea's comments regarding the three stripes, it wanted to respond. Club President Kevin Payne had this to say:

"There really wasn't an easy way to figure out how to juxtapose the logos (the stripes and the VW), and we actually spent a lot of time looking at different ways of incorporating the stripes motif into the fabric. But at the end of the day, neither we nor adidas was particularly happy with that look so we ended up just leaving it with the stripes on the shoulders, running down the arms.

"We don't necessarily think what makes the uniform iconic is the stripes. What we think makes it iconic is that there are very few uniforms in the world, very few teams, that have black on black on black.

"We probably will, at some point, go back to stripes within the body of the shirt, but we kind of like the cleanliness of the look right now. Volkswagen is part of our identity right now."

Houston Dynamo: We'll always love the Dynamo for having the juevos to go with orange, and the new swirly starburst on the home jersey is pretty cool (it reminds of this famous shirt), as is the lack of sky blue. The away jersey is just lazy, but thanks to the bright orange primary kit, we shouldn't ever see the alternate on the field. Right?

Sporting Kansas City: The rebranded club, set to move into a stunning new stadium in June, hopes to make its "sporting blue" home jersey (left) as recognizable as D.C.'s black and Houston's orange. But we fear yet another monochrome uniform, and think they missed an opportunity to do something truly distinctive. (Sorry, but that symbolic stitching just doesn't do the trick). How about this?

Los Angeles Galaxy: Standing on their own, these jerseys are fine. But they're just too dull for a club boasting such presence and ambition. They break no molds and don't have any real connection to the history of the team or the city. The away jersey is new this year and is a lighter shade of blue than its predecessor. We wish the Galaxy would wear a modernized version of something like this.

New England Revolution: While all-blue and all-white may not work for a team like L.A., they're somehow appropriate for New England, a moribund franchise that seems to be running in place. Nothing innovative here. The home jersey evokes that of the real kings of Foxborough, the Patriots. The away jersey has an exciting red stripe above the team name.

New York Red Bulls: A dark navy blue away jersey is the change this year, and it looks sharp (at least in the drawing). Here's hoping the Red Bulls stick with the white-red-white home uniform of 2010 and don't revert to the all-white home kit from '09. Still wonder why the club abandoned the original 2006 red-white-red unis.

Philadelphia Union: We don't debate the need for sponsorships, and understand the value a company like Bimbo brings to MLS. But there must have been a better way to integrate the logo. It's the first and second thing we see when looking at Philly's jerseys. Good for Bimbo, bad for those who appreciate a truly distinctive uniform that fulfills Zea's goal of tying a look into a club and its city.

Portland Timbers: The best uniforms in MLS. Colorful yet classy, unique but not clichéd or ostentatious, and they fit perfectly with the club and city. The white sleeves and subtle two-tone fronts are brilliant, and thankfully, the Timbers are extending the creative composition to the rest of the uniform.

Real Salt Lake:
The 2009 champs ditched their unique red-blue-red uniform for an all-red kit that would look just fine in Chicago, Toronto, etc. So disappointing, as is an away uni that would really stand out with a bit more red or yellow (or think Colombia). Although if one team can be given the all-white pass, we suppose it's the one named for Real Madrid. We hear RSL will go a bit more colorful in 2012.

San Jose Earthquakes: This set remains a colossal branding failure. You win two titles during the days of the sharp blue shirts and black shorts. Another team in MLS already is synonymous with all-black (above). Yet the 'Quakes have opted to turn their back on their own history in a misguided attempt to look like someone else. The flashes of blue on the sides don't cut it. These are anonymous.

Seattle Sounders: We lauded the bright green and blue the Sounders wore during their first two seasons of MLS play. But their new jerseys are a mess. The underarm blotches look like sewing mistakes, and the silver support Formotion bands resemble spare duct tape. A sash, a hoop, a stripe like the one the U.S. national team wore in 2006 -- these are classy design elements that lend color and individuality to a jersey. Seattle's shirts are a mess.

Toronto FC: New uniforms for the original Canadian club. We like the gray sleeves and sublimated maple leaf on the home red, but lament the fact that TFC and BMO haven't figured out how to arrange the sponsor's logo so it doesn't collide with the club badge. Toronto should've kept the gray away jersey. Sticking with red and gray would be one way to separate from all the other red clubs in MLS.

Vancouver Whitecaps: The monochrome scourge strikes again. Plain white at home, all-blue away. With infinite possibilities before them, the Whitecaps chose to copy the kits of two existing MLS teams (the thin stripes on the home shirt are too small to matter much). Vancouver's trademark NASL uniforms featured a single hoop across the chest and matching shorts. Perhaps sticking with that tradition, or upgrading to a sash, would have been in order. Oh, wait. That's not traditional. Sorry. Instead, we're blessed with another set of white pajamas.

Third Jerseys: Adidas confirmed these third jerseys in its 2011 catalog. United's is part of an all-red uniform that keeps with Payne's preferred monochrome look. We would have loved to see a return to the 1998 "Cat in the Hat" shirts. RSL's "victory gold" should immediately become their away kit, and the Earthquakes' blue really is the club's home jersey, whether they realize it or not.
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