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Tread Away

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The World Cup is days away and that means it is time to start blogging again. You know when a guy is coming out of Mopey/Loser-of-Blog-Contest Semi-Retirement it has to be for something pretty important. A topic in sports so large that it revitalized a will to write. Something that is on everyone's mind, discussed in every living room right now... The NBA Finals? No. The NHL Finals? No. Jim Joyce squashing Armando Galarraga's perfecto? No. Team USA's choice of athletic fashion! 

Okay, an interesting way to get back in the groove but I was bored and ran with it.

I love soccer jerseys; they are like billboards that run and kick. Not so much in international competition, though. When you take away the sponsors that club teams wear, it is perhaps the most minimal authentic merchandise in sports. People will pay upwards of $100 for what boils down to being a fancy collared, solid colored silk t-shirt with someone else’s last name on the back. It is similar to its "football" cousin in the lack of oversized words across the chest. The largest item on the whole thing seems to be a Nike, Puma, or Adidas logo. It is a high price to show your allegiance.

This contradicts the beauty of soccer--a sport that transcends economics. It takes so very little infrastructure to hold a highly competitive match, down to the very clothing worn. All soccer asks for is two dissimilar colors assigned to each team. From there, the goalkeepers and referees pick out contrasting solid colors to make themselves known as unique and let the games begin. In essence, they should hardly be uniforms that fans would pay big bucks to own themselves. Then again, NFL jerseys sell like hotcakes and are just as bland. It seems like 80% of a football jersey is covered by numbers, 15% by a player's name, and a measly 5% devoted to team-specific flair. That 5% is important, however, and where the similarities with soccer garb continue.

Fans put their money where their heart is...literally. Forget the "heart on the sleeve" references, soccer fans wear theirs in a more anatomically accurate location. Like football, soccer leaves only 5% of its fabric space for a personalized touch. But this is the most treasured part of a soccer uniform. Lose the names, lose the numbers; they are insignificant in the grand scheme of wins and losses. Only people that care about "how" and not simply "how many"--in terms of goals scored--require players to identify themselves.

If you want a Nike t-shirt in solid orange, I could buy you one tomorrow for a reasonable price. Throw in an artistic rendering of a 2 inch tall lion wearing a crown, and suddenly the price of that shirt triples. One small icon is all it takes for the simple shirt to turn into a pledge of allegiance to the Dutch. Without any words, it can be read as such by every soccer fan the world over. It is why people will give up their earnings so freely to own a piece of tradition, dress like their idols, and show the rest of the world which country makes them tick. The crest is all it takes.

That instant brand identification is what the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is missing. Well, they have it but are going about it in the wrong way.

In many cases, a person's eyes must come within inches of a soccer jersey to read the words inside the badges and shields adhered to the chest. Not so for the United States of America. It a classic American tale, going with the boldest sans serif letters that can be seen from outer space. 

It is the same as I remember it, two decades ago on my first pair of shin guards. And that is where the target audience of that shield lies; the USSF has a near monopoly on youth sports. Every kid in this country plays soccer as a small child. Then somewhere along the lines, the majority stop. The fun and approachable shield of U.S. soccer has not matured into a distinguishable product, and subsequently neither has that youthful interest or talent. The time for change is upon us...on both accounts.

Mexico and Spain have intricate pieces of artwork--suitable for a canvas--that each player proudly wears over their heart. The United States has a piece of signage--suitable for Interstate highway identification. I am sure some have mistakenly read the composition as "UOS" if you see the ball as a letter--a common, yet even more childish, play of some graphic designers. You are free to call it pure, but I will stick with boring and childish. We might as well put a "Hello My Name Is" sticker on every player and let them fill in the "U" and "S" with bold Sharpie.

That is the point of my rant: the great teams do not need a large range of recognition for others to know who they are. Is there an "N" and a "D" on the Notre Dame football helmets? Forget what the current state of that program is in; the elite teams that transcend sport have subtler ways of being known. The reigning champion Italian national team is known as "The Azzurri," literally the plural form of the light blue colors they wear. One of Spain’s nicknames is "La Roja," or The Reds, while the French are called The Blues. Argentina’s known simply as "La Albiceleste," or "The White and Sky Blue." Now I know that it seems like the Americans were late to the party on selecting a representative color scheme to be called by, but among the top soccer powers in the world, we still have navy all to ourselves. And guess what? For the last 250 years we have had the best navy in the world. Call yourself "The Navy" and go crazy with a nautical theme. I don't care. Anything would be an improvement from the "Yanks."

If you think that rallying around a militant nickname is coming on too strong, think again. I know that international soccer competitions are some of the most peaceful times in modern history. It is a time when warring nations will cease the fighting to share a common stadium. However, the emblems worn by the players could not be any more military and politically based. The imagery does not display guns or swords, yet the jersey stands as the ensign being carried into battle. The symbolism is there to win in the name of the ruling political powers, for the good of the entire nation; just like a war and just like a soccer match. And similar to a battlefield, the capturing of the other side's colors is continued in a more friendly tradition--the swapping of jerseys after the full-time whistle blows.

Is this current flag something that Americans should be proud to hoist in victory, and even more important, willing to go down in defeat defending? We still have a passé stance on soccer here in America, and that is why we seem content with Clip Art. We must begin to take ourselves seriously before the rest of the world will ever do the same. It is time for the U.S. to show its teeth, or maybe some talons.

England has its Three Lions, while Cameroon and the Netherlands each have one. South Korea has the entire Tigers of Asia on their side. The Ivory Coast has The Elephants. France has a rooster. The Aussies have a kangaroo and an emu. The U.S. has a soccer ball. C'mon. We have so much animal representation in our nation's history and that is the best we can do?

I will do something I rarely do, and that is give credit to Nike for bettering a sport. Their people have desperately tried to push the historically-based Gadsden Flag logo (a.k.a. the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake) and it has stuck with the American soccer fan. That is because for years we have been crying out for something tangible to rally around. We are Americans after all; we like our sports teams to have fierce nicknames (except in Utah) so we can make fools out of ourselves in the stands making animal noises. Nike finally gave us that venue.

I know the Nigerian national team has an eagle on its crest (as does Mexico) and a “Super Eagle” nickname, but there is room to share. We need to implement that bird of prey for an image overhaul to have meaning. It has only been everywhere in our governmental iconography from the very beginning. Now, Nike could keep peddling its independently-licensed snake on extrinsic merchandise and the USSF can adopt the eagle for its jersey: a two-prong attack, with the snake playing the role of Robin to the Batman we need to create.

I propose an eagle with wings that look like red and white stripes of a waving American flag. Bring back that navy and white soccer ball from the old logo, place it at the feet of the eagle, and voila! Now you have an American flag personified.

Then add an "A" to the "U" and "S"--everyone (ourselves included) calls us Americans, not United Statesians. The acronym USASF is crying out for a better organization to represent it. Unless you run with a circle of junior high cheerleaders as friends, you have never heard of the United States All-Star Federation. Yes, a cheerleading organization. When I think of U.S. All-Stars, I think of Michael Jordan or Brett Hull, not cheerleaders. And for a national cheerleading association, shouldn't the letter "C" find its way in there somewhere? Five letters long, not a single one that stands for (or explains) what it is that you do. Nicely done, cheerleaders. So, United States Soccer Federation, I challenge you to take that acronym and make it something we can all be proud of.

Assuming that the federation will become USASF, it is time to showcase all the letters. Thin out the font and change it to something intertwined with serifs to make it look more eminent. Then add words, the smaller the better. These are only to be read and appreciated for those that get the privilege to put on a jersey. The words should be always be vernacular; we call it soccer so say soccer. The best part about every single national team logo is there use of local terminology. Using the Dutch as an example again, they proudly display "KNVB" on their chest. That is the way all international competitions should work. Do not cater to those who are intolerant and uneducated. I am a little surprised that we, Americans, have not forced the Dutch to change it to "RNSA" (Royal National Soccer Association) so we don’t have to think too hard or (God forbid) learn something.

The next thing is to flip the color scheme of the old logo to make the stripes red and white like they should be. I am not sure why reversing the colors of the American flag was ever a good idea. Then, activate the entire composition. It reads too static in its boundaries. Give it an appearance of movement (and not the type where you use lines to make it look like the soccer ball is in flight). This isn't elementary art class. It is a badge of honor to be placed on something slightly more visible than the shin guards of a four year-old.

With all the credit to what Puma is doing with their 2010 World Cup jerseys, I say that low-opacity watermarks are in. But not the kind that look like Aztec inscriptions on the backs of the Nike college basketball uni's (i.e. Duke and Michigan State). Those are atrocious and make absolutely no sense. This would be different--a subtle way to have an expressive animal logo. Finish the whole thing off with some gold laurels and there you have it. Critique it if you would like. It is not a perfect solution, but it is definitively better than what we have on principle alone. It finally has a story to tell. We may not have the game yet to back it up, but at least we would begin to look like we belonged anywhere near the FIFA World Cup trophy.

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