Already into its second weekend, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is in full flow with the 2021 Challenge Cup, and at FSC, we are excited about the new season of top flight women’s football restarting in the US.
And that is not just because we get to see Ashlyn Harris back between the sticks, or Julie Ertz bossing the Red Stars’ midfield.
As ever, our excitement is all about the football shirts on show, and from stunning designs that simply did not get enough gametime in 2020, to entirely rebranded teams, there is a lot to get excited about this season!
Here’s why everyone is talking about NWSL jerseys.
Kits carried over from 2020
After a limited 2020 season, three clubs have carried over their shirts into the new season, and while it does mean a few less new designs, it also means that we get to see the Portland Thorns’ stunning set of shirts all over again. Their 2020 efforts were two of last year’s best jerseys, taking the club’s name as a key influence with roses and thorns imposed throughout the shirts. The main difference this season is that we will see Crystal Dunn donning these beautiful shirts for the Thorns.
Another trend-setting team in last season’s NWSL were the Chicago Red Stars. Julie Ertz’s team launched their ‘neighbourhood’ away jersey last year, with its iconic four red stars instantly allowing it to stand-out from the crowd, and took its name from the fact that it used the names of Chicago neighbourhoods to create its blue features. This was truly ahead of its time, as NWSL jerseys and MLS shirts this season have been full of nods to their hometowns. As for their home jersey, it looks like we might be getting a new one of those very soon, if this tweet from their owner is anything to go by.
The last carry-over NWSL jersey comes from Washington Spirit. Their striped blue home jersey and plain white away does fall closely into the trap of the usual light/dark trend of American jerseys of yesteryear, but I guess it just means we can expect even more when we do get a new shirt from the Spirit in 2022!
While some clubs chose not to update their jerseys, several found time in the off-season to invest in a club rebrand. As we have covered in the past, there are different levels of club rebrands, ranging from a new colourway on their shirt, to an entirely new name and identity.
NJ/NY Gotham have opted for the latter, using the off-season to complete a full club rebrand just in time for the start of the 2021 season. The team formerly known as Sky Blue FC have a new name, crest, and of course shirt. The New Jersey-based team stay true to their previous name, utilising a bright blue sash across both their home and away jerseys. You will see more intricate NWSL jerseys this season, but in many ways the classic sash is the perfect way to start a new chapter for the club. Meanwhile, their new crest, courtesy of Matthew Wolf, is yet another great creation from football’s go-to crest designer.
The rebranded team have also earned plaudits for the listing of their new shirts on their website, using ‘regular fit’ and ‘narrow fit’ instead of the usual gender distinctions. While it may seem inconsequential, this small step in blurring gender lines is a progressive step towards greater inclusion in football shirt culture, and the game as a whole.
Next we are travelling down from New Jersey to Texas, the home of the Houston Dash. The team from the South may not have gone as far as Gotham, but alongside their brother-team, Houston Dynamo, they will begin this season with a redesigned club crest. The new hexagonal design is a modern update for both clubs, and the fact that both the men’s and women’s teams are approaching this rebrand as a joint venture is an important step on the way to parity between the MLS and NWSL, and with it hopefully greater exposure.
While the teams of New Jersey and Houston used the off-season to update their look, two other clubs had to use that time to create a team from scratch.
The first, Kansas City NWSL, obtained their league rights from the Utah Royals, which means their owners are currently trying to set-up a new team over 800 miles from their predecessors. As a result, the owners have chosen to use a temporary club name, crest and jersey while they build their new identity.
So that means that, unusually, this season will see Kansas use only one shirt for the Challenge Cup. The white jersey they have chosen seems quite unspectacular, but the teal socks and temporary club crest are definite highlights while Kansas are in the process of creating their new identity.
Racing Louisville, meanwhile, were announced as a new expansion team for the 2021 season in 2019. That means they have had more time to set up their new team, and they have certainly used that time to good effect. Their crest is another classy design courtesy of Matthew Wolf (look out for his latest crest design when Angels FC join the league next season), but the real beauty comes from their stunning set of shirts.
One of the best parts about building a team from scratch is the ability to pick a fresh colourway, and take advantage of being able to stand-out from the crowd. Louisville have done just that, opting for a lavender look that is instantly original in not just the NWSL, but throughout the game as a whole. And let’s also take a moment to appreciate how well that GE shirt sponsor fits into the whole design.
But Louisville was not finished there. Their home jersey features lillies scattered across a black background, and in amongst this floral arrangement we see a mix of bees and butterflies. This is a touching tribute to the boxing great and Louisville rasied, Muhammad Ali, who coined the famous phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Such patterns, along with the Portland Thorns’ jerseys, break the mold of what we expect from football shirt design, and will hopefully be taken as inspiration not just for future NWSL jerseys, but shirts throughout the game.
Breaking the dark/light shirt cliche
The new looks of Kansas and Louisville are not the only examples of change in the NWSL kit game. A common criticism of past MLS and NWSL jerseys has centred around their go-to designs of light and dark alternatives. Recent MLS releases have started to counter this stigma, and we are also seeing similar moves in the Women’s game.
OL Reign are one club who last season fell into this category, and with a plain white home jersey and dark blue alternative. For this season, both shirts do continue this dark/light colour scheme, but there are some vital additions.
The away jersey now features a claw-mark effect to add some differentiation in design, and both shirts are now sponsored by Black Future Co-op Fund, a philanthropic venture based in Washington which aims to help bolster the prosperity, health and well-being of the black community. Such partnerships show the social value present within the NWSL right now.
North Carolina Courage were also guilty of this dark/light shirt faux-pas last season, with a simple blue home jersey and plain white away alternative.
This season, while keeping the same colour scheme, they have added to the much-derided away kit of last season with the inclusion of mountain graphics, similar to those Slovenia shirts that we all love. As for the home jersey, Naomi Osaka – the Tennis player and Courage co-owner – was on a one-woman marketing campaign when she repped the shirt at the Australian Open this year, once again adding to the hype and profile of the league and its teams.
The Orlando Pride, on the other hand, have foregone stars wearing their shirts for stars on their shirts. The Pride have chosen a space theme for this season’s jerseys, with the home shirt using their signature purple fading into a deep black, star speckled design, and a white-out ‘Moon’ jersey for their travels.
With Orlando being the home of NASA’s launches via the Kennedy Space Centre, this is another hometown callout in the NWSL, and this space theme even escalated into a full blown space race between Orlando and Houston Dash – whose hometown hosts the Johnson Space Centre – to see who could ‘launch’ their moon jersey first.
This was a smart marketing move between the two clubs, and perhaps the future of kit launches will involve partnerships between clubs sharing kit manufacturers. A Manchester United and Leeds United take on the War of the Roses? Make it happen adidas.
And yet while these Pride jerseys and their accompanying marketing campaign might be unique, you might still make the argument that they are an example of one light shirt, and one dark, and the same could be said of NC Courage’s output. All of a sudden we are back to that old USA kit cliché.
But it is worth remembering that by their very definition, home and away shirts are meant to be opposites. The next step, then, is to make these opposing jerseys unique in some way, and that is what the clubs in the NWSL have done this season. Whether it is references to their community, engaging redesigns, or well orchestrated marketing campaigns, the NWSL and its members are breaking the mold when it comes to shirt design and releases this season.
The benefits of these moves could be huge to the league. We have spoken before about the importance of new designs for gathering new fan bases, and that is what we could see with this roster of kits. It could be a young boy or girl looking for a new team support as they get into soccer who are drawn in by the beauty of Racing Louisville’s shirts, an established MLS fan looking for a route into the NWSL who cannot resist the new look NJ/NY Gotham FC, or a fan in Europe who is simply looking for a new league to enjoy and starts supporting Houston Dash because they look just like his beloved Dundee United.
That is why everyone is talking about the NWSL jerseys: they are innovative, with strong marketing approaches, and, most importantly, they just look great!