This weekend in Brazil, 32 of the world’s best national soccer teams will be taking the field in their iconic jerseys: the hosts in their famous yellow tops and blue shorts; the Italian Azzurri in their eponymous azure; Argentina, as ever, in light blue and white. Ivory Coast will be resplendent in orange, Mexico in green, Japan in cobalt blue.
When the American players compete, they’ll be wearing a plain white uniform with a bit of red trim. If you don’t quite recognize the outfit, it’s not your fault. At the last World Cup, in 2010, the US shirt had a wide diagonal stripe. In 2006, it was vertical stripes, one red, one blue. More devoted fans will miss the dark blue shorts and sleeves from last year’s qualifying matches. And don’t look for the classic red-and-white stripes of the flag—that was 2012.
Alone among nations, the US completely alters the look of its team almost every year. These aren’t minor adjustments in trim or detailing; the uniforms are wholly unrecognizable from one competition to the next. They are not, in a word, uniform.
We’ve used stripes of all stripes, going in every direction: vertical, diagonal, and horizontal, from super thick to pin-thin, in every possible combination and number. We’ve even used wavy stripes. Not that we always have stripes. Sometimes we have stars; sometimes we have plain. Even within the trusty red-white-and-blue color scheme, we continuously switch among the three colors, and between royal and navy shades of blue. In 1994—with a jersey that regularly features on “ugliest of all time” lists—we went so far as to employ faux denim. More recently, the design managed to feature the color gray. Gray!
For most countries, the fixity of a soccer uniform links a sense of national identity and meaning to what transpires on the field. The Dutch team, for example, is called the Oranje, and, for aficionados, that royal hue immediately evokes its unique history—from the coordinated “total football” of the 1970s to the decades of high-profile infighting that has plagued the team since. Likewise, the starkness of Germany’s perennial white shirts/black shorts combination has come to signal the incisive, no-fuss approach you’d expect from whoever wears it.
On rare occasions, a significant political shift will trigger a shift in national uniform, notably with Russia, which used post-Soviet blue-and-white themes for two World Cups before going back to predominantly red uniforms in 2006. The United States obviously has no such excuse. So why the constant change?
A reasonable first guess is that America, as a newcomer to serious global soccer, is still establishing its identity in that realm. And yes, fans tend to see the team as a plucky squad just finding its feet in a recently imported game. But this isn’t exactly right: Though we didn’t qualify for several decades in a row, the United States has now participated in 10 World Cups, starting with the first one, in Uruguay in 1930, where we made it to the semifinals. That 2010 gray stripe? It was supposed to hark back to 1950, when the Yanks upset England 1-0, wearing a handsome red diagonal band on their shirts.
A more romantic account would tie our consistent inconsistency to a tradition of American individualism and invention. This would be more convincing if we actually excelled at soccer, which we emphatically do not.
Maintained over eight decades, through successive regimes of the US Soccer Federation, and in collaboration with sundry manufacturers, this tradition of change has risen to the level of a de facto policy. It seems, if anything, slightly evasive—the sign of a team that doesn’t particularly want to be identified.
And why would we? We already know what will happen this summer in Brazil: The world’s most dominant nation will once again fail to dominate the world’s most beloved sport. American underachievement has become one of the most dependable, and dependably charming, aspects of global soccer. For the rest of the world, the World Cup is that rare gathering when the United States can effectively be forgotten.
If our protean uniforms tell us anything, it’s that we tacitly accede to this quadrennial oblivion. Whoever that was in the nondescript outfits slipping out of the competition in the round of 16—well, the American fan can think, it surely wasn’t us. I don’t think I’ve seen them before.
Dushko Petrovich is an artist and writer who teaches at Yale and RISD.