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I am begging American soccer leagues to ban illegible jersey numbers

This is a problem that just gets worse.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Los Angeles FC Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend in MLS, teams wore different kits. Well, they all wore the same kits, but different than usual, the 2022 Adidas Primeblue kits to recognize ocean waste and try and save the planet.

While I’ll register my usual complaint that seeing all the teams in the league wear one of two kits for a weekend is both disorienting and hard to follow game to game on a brain processing level, MLS stepped things up this year by giving one kit, the white ones, truly illegible font for sponsors, player names and numbers.

LAFC bucked that trend with their main jersey sponsor, Flex, in black, but I’m guessing that was a mistake, as the rest of the league’s pale peach font was truly impossible to see on TV.

Here’s a random, representative view from a highlight video this weekend:

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The view is grainy for the blue kits, too, but you can see there are numbers, and they were more or less legible. For the white kits, does it even look like they have numbers on the back?

Lest you think I’m cherrypicking a particularly bad look, here’s literally the second “good” look I could find from another game:

Youtube

The player in white in the bottom right corner. Can you see his number? I tried to look at it in full screen and it still looks like no number at all. This player’s number, at this angle, should be easy to spot here with legible text.

A few of you might be reading this and saying, so what? If the ref can see the numbers on the field, good enough. What’s the problem?

There’s two main reasons there’s still a problem: Broadcasters can’t tell players apart, and neither can anyone watching on TV.

Why do broadcasters need to know players’ numbers? In order to identify players. While some players are tall, some are short, some have long hair, some have no hair at all, numbers help a great deal in telling players apart. If you’re watching a play unfold and you have to describe it in real time, numbers are often the easiest way to ensure you’ve got the right player in the moment. After this weekend in MLS, it’s easy to understand now how important jersey numbers truly are.

Bear in mind as well that some broadcasters aren’t calling games in person, instead calling them off TV remotely. When that happens, numbers are even more important, since announcers can’t look around the field freely, they are instead held captive to the camera angles provided on the broadcast.

And then, for us on TV. If you’re a fan and you can figure out the color your team in playing in for the day, maybe you don’t care that much, but as someone trying to actively follow the game and pay attention to who is doing what, it was hell. At one point I thought Cristian Arango scored the goal that ended up being Ryan Hollingshead’s and boy, those guys really don’t resemble each other, do they?

On the bright side, in MLS this is a one-off and hopefully they have gotten an earful this weekend from the font being wholly unable to read and they won’t repeat this again in future years. It was a disaster, put simply.

And yet, this isn’t just an MLS problem. This year in particular, we’re seeing American soccer leagues approve other teams’ illegible fonts on jerseys, only these are their permanent kits and that’s a big problem.

The worst offender in the USL Championship this season is definitely San Antonio FC, who have a blackout kit that looks great in well-lit publicity photos and like literal black T-shirts otherwise.

This is a close-up angle from the first game of the season and you can just barely tell the player whose back is clearly turned to the camera and wearing black is wearing a number at all.

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After playing in impossible numbers for a couple weeks this season, San Antonio has turned to a silver-contrast number that is fairly legible most of the time, but we’re grading on a curve here.

It’s not just men’s soccer doing this, or just one apparel company to blame, with MLS’s weekend issue being in Adidas kits and San Antonio FC wearing Puma kits. Nike has also called in to the mess, with their Orlando Pride away kits featuring silver names and numbers on a...white kit.

Check out their own hype video and you can see when shot from a few feet away in a studio, sometimes you can’t even see the numbers!

On the field, it’s been predictably horrible.

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Would you believe all of the players in white whose backs are to the camera are actually wearing numbers? Making the screen bigger won’t help you learn that!

At minimum, it seems like all leagues need to adopt a standard whereby numbers are actually legible from a screen. Again, this is basic stuff, and if examples like these demonstrate how bad the problem is, maybe leagues will actually step up and start enforcing basic standards for the quality of their product.

And it’s worth noting that these issues are compounded when the broadcast quality goes down. MLS local broadcasts tend to still have clear pictures most of the time, while national broadcasts vary widely. For USL and NWSL games, lack of cameras and placement in facilities is often a big hurdle, but we’ve seen NWSL games this year look like they were shot in standard definition, and a fuzzy picture combined with numbers we can’t see leads to blobs floating around the field on TV no matter what font is used on the kits. If picture quality improves, some of these complaints will go away, but fixing the color of the stuff on jerseys won’t fix all of the problems.

Still, let’s at least start with numbers we can read. We can all get behind this, and please, leagues, do your part to make the jersey numbers legible for good!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.