identity problem

“Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn’t rush into it.” – David Quammen

Ever since Jürgen Klinsmann’s took over the reigns of the US Men’s National Team, many have questioned how the German legend’s arrival will ultimately affect the side’s identity. The team’s lack of playing style has long been a major complaint amongst the experts, and Klinsmann himself has stated that determining the team’s identity will be one of his major goals.

USAkit

Obviously, it’s far too early in Jurgen’s tenure to accurately asses any stylistic changes or their effectiveness. We’ll just have to wait to find out whether they’ll end up as a possession-oriented side, a more efficient counterattacking team, or something completely different. As the quote at the beginning of the post implies, it’s important that they don’t rush the process of determining that identity, as the consequences of adopting a style that really doesn’t fit the American persona could be disastrous.

But, there’s another element to building the team’s identity that they’re definitely taking their time making. To put it bluntly, the team had it’s own visual identity. Case in point: the new USMNT home shirt from Nike.

Looking at that new shirt, I have to ponder the USSF’s motivations. Are they trying to rebrand the national team as Celtic USA? Maybe they’re just trying to make things a little less confusing for Brek Shea, seeing as how this jersey so closely resembles his FC Dallas kit. It’s possible they thought design would make it harder for the opposition to see them on the field?!?! Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that this new hooped kit is a big departure from the USMNT’s most recent kit designs.

Normally, a massive redesign wouldn’t be that big off a deal. Plenty of national teams have had radical changes to their kits. But problem is, this happens with every single redesign of the US side’s kits. There’s no singular design reference, idea or theme. Put most simply, the national team’s uniforms have lacked… uniformity.

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the image below, which shows every home shirt the USSF has issued since 1950:

Yes, most of the kits have been predominantly white, but that’s about the only thing they hold in common. We’ve had sashes, vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, plain white, and even — the most American of designs — denim with inlayed stars.

Undoubtedly, there will be some fans out there that love that the USMNT hasn’t stuck with a single theme, and they’re probably scratching their heads, wondering why I think this is such a big deal. While it’s been said that variety is the spice of life, I personally don’t think the same holds true for national team kits.

Think about the kits of some the more “established” national sides. Even without showing you any pictures first, I bet you could easily tell me what many of them traditionally look like. Brazil have their classic canary yellow shirts, blue shorts, and white socks. England wear white shirts and blue shorts, while France and Italy wear the reverse. How could anyone forget Argentina’s famous baby blue and white stripes, Germany’s white-black-white strip, or Holland’s Oranje? Even our dreaded enemies to the South have stuck to green shirts, white shorts and red socks for as long as I can remember.

You’re probably thinking, “Great D.J., you can rattle off all of those designs off the top of your head. But what are the positives of sticking with a unified look throughout the years?” And my answer back to you would be, “I thought you’d never ask!”

First and foremost, I think having a overriding theme helps a team to identify with its fans. I clearly remember the 1994 World Cup final in Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl, and knowing exactly where Italy’s and Brazil’s fans were sitting solely based on the hue of each section of the stadium, like two merging seas of blue and yellow.

This doesn’t seem like it would be that important until you go to a US match. Most of the time it looks like the opposition side is the only team with any fans, since there isn’t a unified color that all of the US supporters tend to wear. The crowd usually ends up being a mixture of white, red, or various shades of blue. So when an American player looks up in the stands before kickoff, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him thinking, “Shit, this could be a pretty hostile crowd.” That can have a huge impact on a match. You don’t want your players more concerned about the crowd raining bags of piss on them instead of focusing on their playing responsibilities. Having one overall theme to rule all designs might make it a bit easier to unify the fan support, and eventually put the players’ minds at ease.

Secondly, a consistent design for the USMNT kits would also provide young players with something to aspire to one day wear. Not that it isn’t a worthwhile goal to don the national kit regardless of what it looks like — rather it’s an honor — but a consistently themed look would make it a much more iconic experience.

Think of how proud it would make you feel to one day pull on a shirt that looks remarkably similar to the ones you watched your heroes wear while you were growing up. Without hesitation I can easily admit that if I’d ever been privileged enough to get a call up to the national team, it would have made me choke up a little if the shirt I was given looked a lot like Cobi Jones’ denim Adidas shirt… and that thing was a monstrosity. The sentimental value alone would be enough to tug at most players’ heart strings, thus deepening the meaning and experience of representing one’s country.

And lastly, how can you really produce a complete identity for your  nation’s footballing persona without actually finalizing all aspects of that identity. Playing style is part of that, but so is visual identity. It just seems stupid to do the job half way.

Sure, in the big scheme of things, anyone that thinks I’m blowing a gasket over the lack of consistency in the jersey designs are right to say I’m overreacting… to a degree. Obviously, the Jürgs developing a playing identity is much more important task. We don’t really need him focusing his energy and efforts on working with Nike to build a more permanent visual style. But that doesn’t mean that Sunil Gulati and his gang of USSF executives shouldn’t make that a focus of theirs while they let their new manager take care of the on-field matters.

All my thoughts aside, I completely understand why Nike and the national team choose to continuously pump out new shirt designs: revenue.

It would be absurd to think that they would be able to push as many units year after year if the design always stayed remarkably insane, especially in an A.D.D.-oriented, “newer is better” market like that in the US economy. If the kids these days are flipping out that nobody will be able to tell they bought an iPhone 4S because it looks just like the iPhone 4… we sure as hell know that they’re not going to buy a USMNT shirt that looks just like last year’s. Ultimately, that lack in revenue would negatively impact the development of our national team, so I get the economics at play with such decisions.

Let’s be honest though, the odds are severely stacked in favor of the marketing machine mentality winning out over my desire for aesthetic consistency. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hope for it. I’d still love to see the US stick with the sash theme: it’s been a look that we’ve gone with more often than any of the others, and it has some history to it. But, I get that the powers that be (Nike, US Soccer and the will of the market) will likely combine to produce even more variation in the future before a final theme ever wins out… if that ever happens.

Let’s just hope the national team’s search for a playing style doesn’t take near as long to pin down.

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