When a U.S. National Soccer Team takes the field for a match, they always look good. Damn good. From the cleats to the jerseys to the warm-up gear to the coach’s polo shirts, the U.S. teams are among the best outfitted in the world. Give most of the credit to Nike and their team of über-talented, ultra-dedicated designers, but without two men who work far behind the scenes, the U.S. teams would have nothing to wear, for travel, practice or games.
Jesse Bignami and Thomas Staevski are U.S. Soccer's Equipment Manager and Coordinator, respectively, and boy do they manage and coordinate equipment. The two are based at the expansive Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., where they are the caretakers of U.S. Soccer’s massive collection of gear.
“When I first started working here, I was amazed at the amount of equipment that we store and ship,” said Staevski, who speaks Finnish and Bulgarian and is known for his ability to eat prodigious amounts of food as well as his passion for Bulgarian soccer when he's not rooting for the U.S. team. “We did a lot of reorganizing and I think we have a great system to keep track of all the shoes and gear. If we didn’t, we’d be overwhelmed pretty quickly.”
U.S. Soccer provides programming (games and training) for 13 national teams, seven men’s and boy’s and six women’s and girl’s. That makes for quite a few pairs of shoes. Throw in the U-14 Boys and Girls Identification Camps, which are one-week-a-year equipment smorgasbords, as well as Futsal and the occasional Paralympic events, and the boys in the U.S. Soccer Equipment Room have bags and bags of equipment coming and going all year long.
On a large board in the equipment room, every national team event is charted up to six months in advance and staffed about two months in advance with a legion of traveling equipment coordinators. For Bignami and Staevski, it’s a job that takes a lot of organization, patience and elbow grease.
“It’s definitely a massive job,” said Bignami, known for his easy-going manner and dedication to the Dave Mathews Band. “For the most part, after we put the events on the board, we sit down and plan out which equipment is going where according to what inventory we have in at the time. It gets a bit creative with the timing of certain events.”
An average youth national team camp will take about 1,200 pounds of equipment, which includes everything a team will need on the road. And we mean everything. Game uniforms, training gear, game sweats, presentation sweats, soccer balls, cones, bibs, flags, rain gear, parkas for cold weather, casual gear, loads of medical supplies and snacks for the players. Lots of snacks. For a world championship event, the poundage certainly increases.
The Men’s National Team may travel with 60-70 bags, weighing up to 10,000 total pounds. That five tons of equipment is expertly handled by U.S. Men’s National Team Equipment Coordinator Ryan Maxfield, known for his bubbly personality, never ending energy and superior ball collecting skills.
Packing for the numerous training camps held at the HDC also needs to be done, but the only difference is that gear isn’t shipped.
“We pack exactly the same for a camp at the HDC, we just put the equipment in the locker room or take it over to the team hotel,” said Bignami. “Team coordinators and equipment managers love doing camps here at the HDC because any equipment needed is easily met, in case someone needs a different size cleat or a different style. One of the best parts of the job is seeing the young kids walking into the locker room for the first time, with the walls covered with pictures of their favorite players, with their name on the locker, their gear laid out and the locker filled with Nike casual gear. They go nuts.”
In addition to all that packing and shipping for team trips, Bignami and Staevski are responsible for sending cleats out to players called into the camps so they can break them in before arriving. The process can lead to some humorous voicemails, especially from the youngsters who are new to the national team environment.
Bignami’s all-time favorite:
“Hi, can you call me back? I need cleats. Thanks.” Click.
Often, Bignami has some interesting conversations on the phone.
“If the kid doesn’t leave his or her size, I call them back and I can hear them taking off their shoe to see what size they are,” said Bignami. “Sometimes I hear ‘Moooommmm! What size shoe do I wear?’ One time, a kid tried to order stuff for him and his friend and he didn’t even have a camp coming up. I had to tell him no.”
Bignami and Staevski both played college soccer, and Bignami worked as an equipment manager in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings, but both admit that it’s fun working in what is basically the world’s largest Nike soccer store. They work closely with the Nike reps as well as the team coordinators at all levels to make sure every equipment need is covered.
“We usually talk to them and get a general idea of what they would need or like for each trip and then it’s up to the Nike rep and I to get as close as possible,” said Bignami. “Nike has been coming out with such great casual gear that the teams have been really happy. We’ve heard a lot of good feedback from the youth and full national teams, so it’s nice to know they like the stuff we’ve been ordering.”
But life is not all fun and games for the U.S. equipment gurus. They must keep close tabs on all the shoes given or sent out to make sure everyone is getting what they need, but not depleting the program’s overall supply of gear. With that in mind, they track what each athlete gets throughout the whole year. If you need a pair of flip-flops, call them. If you just got two new pairs of cleats? Call them in a few months.
They'll be in the equipment room. Packing for another trip.