MLS: How Edgy Jerseys Work

The Sounders want to be an international brand. This is no secret. As Joe, Adrian et al. have proudly thumped their chests on this account. The recent decision to split business operations with the Seahawks is another step forward in establishing SSFC’s global identity. As GM Adrian Hanauer said, “we’ve have taken off the training wheels.”

Mike Gastineau, in his excellent Authentic Masterpiece, details the business decisions discussed by ownership at the advent of this iteration of the Sounders. Seattle Sounders FC very much want a unique identity. They want anyone, anywhere, to be able to recognize the Sounders when they play. That is why ownership chose an original aesthetic, so no casual fan sees a game in a crowded bar and asks, Is that Chelsea? is that Barca? Say what you will about the aesthetics of Seattle’s bright, out of the box, jersey. But Rave Green is unique among professional soccer clubs. And the Sounders have always doubled-down on bright with their third kits, that is until Pitch Black.

The unique jerseys are a marketing catalyst. They give Seattle a recruiting edge. Think of Boise’s blue field or Oregon’s space-age jerseys, the Sounders are looking for a similar recruiting edge

Quality in MLS, like college football, depends on recruiting. If you are a talented high school football player you have a multiplicity of options, 242 NCAA Division 1 football teams from Notre Dame to Northern Colorado. So many teams and such a complicated hierarchy: FBS is better than FCS, and the (former) BCS conferences are better than the mid-majors, and the SEC is, supposedly, better than the Big 10, etc. etc. College football programs are not fungible. Of course the very best recruits want to go to the big boys: USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, etc. Though all the other programs still fight for the attention of those blue chippers.

How do the smaller fish compete with the bigs? Boise State University was a mid-major laboring away in the obscurity of southern Idaho until it hired a quality coach and committed to bettering the infrastructure of the program. Then they built a blue field, and the “smurf turf” skyrocketed that team. It was an obvious marketing ploy, almost a joke. But it got the program noticed. Every West Coast recruit rejected by UW or USC, knew that blue turf got you seen on ESPN. The turf, and its exposure and memorability, gave Boise State the ability to punch above its weight and leverage to target the same recruits as WSU or Oregon State.

Oregon was a solid Pac-10 team, slowly improving. Phil Knight threw money at the school, and the team unveiled their space age uniforms. Who didn’t want to wear those jerseys with neon razor blade wings, and high-tech helmets? Eugene became a football destination and the Ducks took off. Granted they had Mike Bellotti and Autzen, then Chip Kelly, but their branding tool, the uniforms, gave Oregon their recruiting edge. Talented soccer players face a much trickier pickle.

Remember Miguel Cubero? The Panamanian player the Sounders allegedly were signing back in preseason? Rumors flew that Cubero was deciding between MLS and the Eredivisie (the Dutch league). At the time, Panamanians and Herediano fans were disappointed that he was “only signing” with MLS. Roberto Chen was another young player we liked, but he chose Liga MX (Malaga) over MLS (the Sounders). Seattle, all of MLS frankly, needs every recruiting advantage possible. If you’re a young and talented soccer player in the Western Hemisphere you want to go to Europe, maybe Mexico or Brazil. MLS is lower on the byzantine hierarchy of world soccer clubs, than Americans are used to. Our best teams still stumble in CONCACAF Champions League. We have to fight both our perception and the status quo. MLS is improving, but it is just now emerging from the bush leagues.

Make no mistake, Seattle is a mid-major. Seattle doesn’t have the beaches or metropolitan cachet like L.A. or N.Y., but we got those bright jerseys. A brand recognized on even the shakiest bootleg feed. As long as we continue to play pretty soccer, dominant soccer, they will come. The Aziras, and Fredys and Parsemains.

The Pitch Black kit is great, a complete reversal from Electricity and Super Cyan, but still eye-catching. Do I want an awesome old Sounders blue and white throwback from the NASL or A-League days? Hells yeah. But will a jersey that appeals to nostalgic Seattleites, be recognized in Martinique or Columbia? I want the Sounders to be the destination for every soccer aspirant in the Western Hemisphere (I know getting a little imperialist here). I want every kid in Bogotá or Havana who wants to be the next Fredy or Ozzie, to recognize that the Sounders are that American team who wears bright colors, and wins.

 

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