By Ridge Mahoney
MLS hopes to get good mileage out of its designation of the third weekend of the season as “Rivalry Week,” during which teams will square off with traditional and/or regional rivals, but “Jersey Week” will be a harder sell, pun intended.
Starting later this month, teams will roll out either new versions of their current jerseys -- home, away, or third -- or unveil the latter if it has no such garb already in its repertoire. The league has also mandated that each team will tweak, or change outright, one of its uniform designs every third year.
Third kits, as they are known, have become quite the marketing rage in the past decade or so. The proliferation of third, and for some teams even fourth or fifth, versions of their uniforms are common practice, and routinely decried by critics as a shameless ploy to fleece fans who can’t seem to resist buying what their teams are wearing.
Sometimes the third uniform depicts an element unique to that particular team. Portland added a rose-tinted outfit to honor its nickname as the “Rose City,” and whether or not you like the city or the soccer team the relationship and connection are obvious. When D.C. United unveiled a third uniform, one of dark blue, many years ago it initially triggered obstinate criticism from those attuned to seeing their “Boys in Black” or in the alternate white strip wearing something else.
The objections faded rather quickly, since the uniforms looked sharp and fell in line with the team’s original resistance to multi-colored monstrosities foisted upon the league in its early years. (Remember the garish green jersey adorned with a black bat once worn by the Tampa Bay Mutiny, or the Life-Saver inspired shirt of the Kansas City Wiz?)
Kevin Payne, D.C. United's first GM who recently resigned as president to take up the helm of Toronto FC, proclaimed proudly at every opportunity that his team’s uniforms stood out in MLS because they looked like soccer uniforms, and not something culled from a shuttered surf shop or low-rent skate park.
In its 18th year of existence, one can question the designs or color choices -- see Vancouver’s brown unis or Seattle’s “Rave Green” as classic cases of acquired taste -- but most of the time in MLS two teams take the field attired reasonably close to what’s accepted as a soccer uniform. United wore an orange-ish jersey as its third kit last year, and for some teams, like San Jose, they’re not much different than either the home or away jersey.
Tolerance of such marketing money-grabs has its limits. Designs and colors and crests are embedded for many decades, and with some teams for more than a century. Manchester United a few years back introduced a green-and-yellow jersey similar to that one worn in its formative years when it was known as Newton Heath, and since it didn’t affect the team’s ability to win it gained some acceptance
But another United uniform, of anthracite gray -- similar color to that worn by the USA some years back -- is regarded as cursed. During the 1995-96 season, United failed to win any of five matches it played wearing the gray jersey. The last straw came against Southampton near the end of the season when United went down three goals at halftime. Manager Alex Ferguson ordered the players to wear the club’s third kit (at the time, blue-and-white) for the second half. United scored a goal yet still lost, 3-1, and after the match Ferguson decreed the players couldn’t see each other clearly in the gray uniforms. They haven’t been worn since.
Fans, especially those with children who clamor to wear the newest jersey, had already questioned why a team with a third kit needed another one. Fair point.
Commemorative or throwback jerseys for special occasions have been worn a few times by MLS teams. As the early days recede further into history, they will take on more of a nostalgic sheen. That doesn’t mean newer fans will rush out to buy up MetroStars ’97 replicas but viewing such relics on display will deeper their appreciation of the league’s past.
What has all this to do with “Jersey Week?” Only that uniforms are very vivid elements of a team’s identity, and they shouldn’t be tampered with excessively.
And since soccer fans are very superstitious animals, there’s always the chance that if the idea gets planted that a uniform, along with the referees and league officials and everybody else conspiring against the team’s success, is causing the team problems, it won’t be flying off the shelves.
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