I’ll be honest, I’m still besotted by the new Seattle Sounders shirt. The purple, orange and luminous yellow concoction broke the mould of ‘yet another white MLS shirt’ by channelling the late, great Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix, and despite the unusual colour combination the buzz around the release was palpable.
MLS has been starved of kits on the flamboyant end of the spectrum for a number of seasons now, but with efforts like Seattle’s and other releases this year (most notably Philadelphia Union’s fantastic new away shirt) there are signs of life.
In fact, despite the high concentration of forgettable designs we’ve seen over recent years I’ve been quite high on MLS shirts as a whole. The branding of the league is top drawer, with elements like the league logo (which is applied as a colour-matched patch on the shirts) and the bespoke league-wide typeface standing out in particular. Many of the expansion teams from the ‘second growth phase’ have been masterclasses in football club marketing (Atlanta United, Minnesota United, LAFC etc.) and there’s a lot to appreciate despite the often reserved nature of the shirts.
When I looked at picking up the new Seattle shirt last week though, I was bitterly disappointed. The flickering light of optimism I had about the league’s shirts began to dwindle when I weighed up the options in front of me as a consumer.
I’m sorry to report that you shouldn’t buy a replica MLS shirt in 2021, even one as good as the Seattle Sounders away.
Basic in all but name
Though player issue shirts have been around in some shape or form for a while, the standard replica shirt has been the go-to for football fans for a long time.
Replicas offer that pleasing blend of affordability and authenticity, with many shirts being largely indistinguishable from the shirts a player wears on the pitch. Most of the differences over the years have majored on things like material quality and fit, and even when there have been differences in things like the pattern on a shirt, these differences have rarely been significant.
However, replica MLS shirts in 2021 are becoming worryingly dumbed down compared to their player issue counterparts to the point where I would question whether they should really carry the ‘replica’ tag at all.
Despite being priced the same as a typical replica shirt in 2021, the replica MLS kits are more like lower tier ‘basic’ kits at best. Basic kits have been a small but notable part of the shirt industry for as long as player issues, and if anything I would argue we need to see more of them going forward (more on that later), but by definition a basic shirt lacks many of the details you’d expect to see on a replica or player issue shirt.
Let’s use the aforementioned Seattle shirt as an example.
The player issue version of the shirt (RRP $139.99) is the one we fell in love with last week. The mesmeric purple body is offset wonderfully by contrasting orange and yellow cuffs, a bespoke sleeve patch flanks the kit on one side, joined by the brilliant MLS logo (in a black and yellow colourway) on the other side, and the tasteful addition of some Hendrix lyrics on the inside neck helps tell the story of the design.
By contrast, the replica (RRP $89.99) features no orange and yellow sleeve cuffs. Both sleeves are devoid of any patches, and even the inside neck is completely blank. There’s also the bizarre absence of any stars above the Seattle crest. Quite simply, if you look at pictures of the replica and player issue versions side by side, you’d be forgiven for thinking the replica was actually a fake.
Though many people enjoy the added level of pizzazz you get with an ‘authentic’ kit, replicas offer an important avenue for those who want to save money and still possess a shirt they can be proud of.
With replica MLS kits in 2021, you don’t have that option. The replicas are such poor imitations of the shirts that they simply don’t offer good value for money in my opinion. Only making matters worse is the fact that the majority of shirts are only available as replicas in the UK. You’ll find a smattering of select player issue kits (with an unfortunate, though unsurprising, focus on Inter Miami kits with “Beckham 23” on the back…), but UK shirt fans are forced to weigh up extortionate shipping costs for authentic MLS jerseys.
Replica MLS kits have been on the weaker end of things compared to other leagues for a while now, but things are only getting worse. With replica MLS shirts a couple of seasons ago you’d still expect to get the league patch on at least one sleeve (stitched as a patch instead of a plastic application), but the absence of any patch in 2021 is a big shame. The fact that you’ll often see missing details, or things like completely different collar types or jarring crest versions is a kick in the teeth for collectors.
One of the driving forces behind these frustrating differences is the American model for sports jerseys. As discussed by ex-adidas designer Marcus Dilley on Twitter, other American sports take a different approach to replica sports jerseys, and this has directly impacted MLS.
For example in the NHL, replicas are made by Fanatics instead of the manufacturer of the player jerseys, adidas. The differences between these cheaper replicas and the authentic jerseys are more pronounced than what you typically see in football, and indeed as Marcus mentions the more obvious visual differences are there, in part, to make the authentic versions of the kits more appealing to buyers.
Whilst many U.S. sports fans are used to this model, and more used to forking out a bit extra for a player issue, the situation is a strange one for fans and collectors living elsewhere. If anything, I know I personally took for granted the comparative value that most replicas offered compared to the extremely trimmed down U.S. ‘replicas’.
Back to basics
In an ideal world, manufacturers would produce kits like the replica MLS shirts and market them as ‘basic’ shirts. These third tier shirts could cost around £30-£40 new, tackling the growing fake market which is undermining much of the industry.
Replicas, priced like they are now (at least before the inevitable price hike) would retain the general look of the player shirt, without the fancy construction and material options and potentially minus one or two minor details (not key features like the collar type or the presence of contrasting cuffs), and player shirts could continue to exist for those who want the full experience.
A 3-tier model is nothing new, and in fact many clubs still operate a similar structure in 2021, but a more widespread adoption of the approach is increasingly needed.
Even if this wasn’t on the table, brands need to do better than what we’re seeing with adidas and MLS. I’m aiming most of the blame at MLS rather than adidas, as adidas shirts across other leagues don’t tend to fall into the same depth of pitfalls as discussed in this piece (rant), but whoever is responsible must do better.