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What's in the Shirt: An informal history of Nike and U.S. Soccer

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Nike has been the official equipment provider of United States national soccer teams since 1995. But with so much money and brand competition swirling around the modern game, what actually goes into the kit design of a USA uniform?

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I woke up on Monday to find my Twitter feed confirming what most of us had already known for months now, seeing the USSF account retweet pictures of packages and scarves adorned with the U.S. Soccer crest rebranding. And I,  like many other U.S. Soccer fans, think the new crest is just fine (and positively love it in light of its predecessor), but continue to worry that the Copa America Away kit leak was for real. For the uninitiated:

This kit, which I will now refer to as the "Copa Noir," is awful. I think contrasting sleeves can work, but not like this. I'm sick and tired of gradients and color fades. A change of pace would've been nice after watching the U.S. play in golf polos and bottles of antifreeze for over a year now, but this feels like a 90s Barca kit that started listening to too much Killswitch Engage. I can already hear fans crying for clean design and something that reflects "national identity."

Of course, every kit Nike releases for the U.S. gets these soundbite critiques from the social media-enabled masses. It's inevitable, and a bad kit generates just as much interest (if not more) than a good one. Everyone has their favorites, the kits they like and do not like, and I'm sure Nike laps up the attention. For the record, here are the kits Nike has produced for the U.S. that I think are truly great:

Credit: Stu Forster, Getty

Credit: Stu Forster, Getty

Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty

Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty

That's it. The rest, in my opinion, range from perfectly competent to pretty not-good. Even the Centennial kit, seemingly universally loved, is just a white shirt with navy trimming and a crest that doesn't look like ClipArt. It's not like you needed to have a show at New York Fashion Week to figure out that would look good.

Nike and U.S. Soccer have had various contract agreements since 1995, a year after the Adidas World Cup denim kit, simultaneously the ugliest and best kit the United States has ever worn. The latest one extends their partnership through 2022, ensuring the Nike logo will be emblazoned on U.S. shirts for at least two more World Cup cycles. The original contract agreement was a big jump that would help define a major marketing shift for Nike, which was only majorly involved in basketball and running at that point in time. Attaching themselves to as many national teams it could (including the U.S. in the soccer fervor that followed the 1994 World Cup), it invaded a market that Adidas had dominated since seemingly the beginning of time and didn't look back. Now, the two brands are locked in a stalemate. Adidas boasts Lionel Messi and the German National team, while Nike has Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Barcelona under contract.

When even small battles count in a fiercely competitive marketing world, every contract matters, and so the United States (and by extension, the shirts, shorts, and socks that they wear) is a huge market to keep locked down. Even with a middling Men's side, the Women's National Team is one of the only lucrative professional women's team in the world in any sport, and Nike markets Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux more aggressively than the majority of players in the men's 2014 World Cup. Simply put: this is a big deal. The contract extension Nike signed with USSF in 1997 was evaluated to be worth about $120 million. That figure is sure to have doubled or tripled in size by now, and with so much money involved, one has to ask: "What role does Nike actually play in U.S. Soccer?"

Credit: Chris Graythen, Getty

Credit: Chris Graythen, Getty

Nike has become nearly synonymous with soccer in the U.S. to many young people following the United States national team today. While my soccer coach hung endless Adidas posters on lockers and classrooms, almost all adorned with David Beckham yelling at a crowd, I watched Ronaldinho and Robinho effortlessly make a soccer ball do magical things in Nike's Joga Bonito video series. Adidas claimed "Impossible is nothing." Nike actually showed it to me. Between their contracts with soccer powerhouses around the world and their deal with USSF, it was always difficult for me to see Adidas as anything but a close second to Nike's design and presence on the bodies of the players I most rooted for. My Mother was born and raised outside of São Paulo, and my Father is as Pennsylvania Dutch as they come. Whether the cheering in my house came in English or Portuguese, that swoosh remained on the chests, legs, and boots on the television screen.

This brand recognition has come at a price, and a steep one at that. For every $120 million contract with USSF (in the 90s! not even adjusted to think about inflation and the growth in soccer's visibility in the States since then!), there were contracts with Brazil, France, and England to be had. All of this money buys brand visibility, yes. But other perks seem to pop up here and there as well. As United States authorities began digging into the corruption and bribery allegations FIFA perpetually wears like a crown of golden thorns, Nike itself was examined for its dealings with the Brazilian national team and contracts with the CBF to be their equipment provider, with allegations of bribery bubbling under the surface.

Then, there was the case of the disappearing kit man, fired from the USWNT set-up after being a "disloyal" brand partner for helping Morgan Brian secure an equipment sponsorship with Adidas. There are plenty of questionable decisions in that particular instance, but most worrying is the allegation that a Nike Marketing boss could phone up major power brokers in U.S. Soccer and essentially get his way. A lobby group is a special interest political group that usually lends its money to political candidates in exchange for support of their own special interests. Yeah, it's kind of hard to tell the difference between lobbyists and Nike. After years of throwing money at the federation, its difficult to miss how the partnership between USSF and Nike might be a little more than brunch and 2:00 tee times.

Credit: Jim Rogash, Getty

Credit: Jim Rogash, Getty

According to its own designers, Nike creates soccer kits with an eye for tradition mixed with technical revolutions in its design. But from team to team, one can clearly see themes and templates Nike returns to within the confines of national colors in order to expand its brand and continue to hold a place in the collective soccer mind of the world. And while it has been one of U.S. Soccer's most important allies in the fight to make soccer visible in the States, the company's objectives can't be misunderstood as philanthropic. Nike cares about Nike, and will continue to care about Nike when it releases the USMNT Copa America Centenario kits later this year.

The relationship between Nike and USSF isn't big, jet fuel-conspiracy level, but it's not exactly innocent, either. Every new kit that Nike releases with a fancy new USA crest on it wins the company more time on top, more space in the soccer market, and more control over the American soccer consciousness. Whether that jersey is clean white with a blue trim that U.S. fans love, or a black, red, and blue number that looks like it might have been costuming from one of The Purge movies, it's still another jersey with a Nike logo on it, one that people will still buy. Because when it comes to a matter of national pride and identity, soccer kits are not a question of design, but a question of money.