A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the U.S. MNT Equipment Operations
The shoes are neon-shaded and plentiful, testing the limits of a series of large duffel bags on the floor of a meeting room littered with large metal boxes at the U.S. Men's National Team hotel in Natal. A live bootleg of Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” plays in the background.
Jesse Bignami stands over the bags of boots and pulls a few out, demonstrating the difference between a set that is fully broken in (they bend easily), and a pair that isn’t quite there yet (they don’t). Bignami, the team's equipment operations manager, stands over six feet tall and is of solid build, with tattoos on his arms and legs. About two of him could fit in side each bag.
"For the World Cup, I'm bringing all our boots everywhere we go," he says.
The bags and boxes in this room hold everything viewers will see when the team steps on the field in all of their games in Brazil. From stadium to stadium, airport to airport, hotel to hotel, they transport jerseys training tops, shorts, socks, shoes, sliding shorts, underwear, and countless other pieces of equipment. Among them are the predominantly red uniforms the U.S. will wear against Ghana on Tuesday, as well as the all-white look the team will sport against Portugal and Germany.
From the outside, those looks may seem simple to assemble. In reality, it’s anything but. Each step of the game’s presentation – down to the color of bibs substitutes must wear on the sideline – comes under close scrutiny at multiple steps.
Observers around the world took in one of the World Cup's most exciting matches wondering something that had little to do with the game itself: Why is Spain, usually clad in red, wearing white? And why is the Netherlands, famous for their Orange jerseys, wearing their blue? On the world's biggest stage, neither team was dressed in the color with which they’ve been identified for decades.
The answer lay in a FIFA meeting held months before the start of the World Cup; one the United States took part in along with all of the 32 participating teams in the tournament. Having solicited pictures of each participating nation's home and away uniforms (which themselves are agreed upon far in advance), the FIFA competitions department lays out who will wear which look for which game. The emphasis, increasingly, is on completely non-ambiguous color clashing.
"FIFA has evolved over the last few World Cups toward more contrasting colors, even if it sways teams away from their traditional uniforms," said Tom King, the U.S. Soccer Federation's Managing Director of Administration.
That, in a nutshell, could be how Netherlands vs. Spain became blue vs. white. The Netherlands, designated as “Team A” in the matchup, elected to wear orange. That forced Spain, as “Team B,” in their black away uniforms. Orange vs. black. All good, right?
“In the eyes of FIFA, that's not a big enough contrast,” King said. “They want white and then a dark color. An orange and a black on certain TVs doesn't come across as well. In certain parts of the world there aren’t always color TVs, so FIFA is looking for a broader contrast.”
However, as it is on the field, the referees have the final say. The night before each match, the match commissioner meets with the two federations as well as the match officials to go over the finer details of the game. Each federation brings the uniform it plans to wear at the game, the referee takes a look, and either gives the A-OK or points out a problem.
“To be honest, I don't ever recall that for a World Cup game, walking out of that meeting with anything other than the original plan we already had in writing,” King says. “They're really buttoned down, but they want one last visual to be sure.”
So there you have it, barring some unforeseen circumstance, the U.S. will wear red on Monday against Ghana.
The weather can create its own unforeseen circumstances. Natal experienced three consecutive days of near-constant torrential downpour in advance of the United States’ game against Ghana, and there’s a chance that the rain could make a return in the game itself.
If that happens, Bignami will be ready. Bignami and the U.S. equipment crew keep a small toolbox, one drawer of which is filled with hundreds of studs – 11, 13 and 15 millimeters long. The exact combination of studs depends on a litany of factors -- the player (Tim Howard, for example, always plays with studs.), the weather (unless it's raining, most players will play with firm ground, molded studs that don't screw in), or some other variable.
“It's going to be a little different for us, this weather, because it's wet but not cold,” he says. “Usually when you think rain you think wind and cold, and that turns in to all the undershirts which we didn't have to have.”
However, the rain does create extra considerations for training gear and halftime changing habits. Bignami estimates that just about every player who starts the match changes his jersey at halftime. But in wet conditions, players may want to change their entire kit – sometimes including socks.
Even though the uniforms are already decided, by the time things get to Bignami, his goal is to keep everything straight.
"I thought, when I first started that I'd never be able to memorize it. It's a continual process," Bignami says. "I couldn't write it all down, it was too much. But I got it down, and I don't know how."