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The denim kit: U.S. Soccer’s beloved abomination that defined the 1994 World Cup – The Athletic – The latest soccer highlights and football news

Former U.S. men’s national team goalie Tony Meola remembers the moment he first laid eyes on the denim kit like it was yesterday.

Actually, everybody associated with the 1994 U.S. men’s national team remembers it like it was yesterday. The players. The staff. The administrators. The executives. The equipment manager. The massage therapist. The list goes on and on.

Meola was sitting in a hotel ballroom in Mission Viejo, California in March of 1994, flanked by Mike Burns, a defender on the U.S. squad, and Eric Wynalda, the team’s star forward. Adidas had come to California to present the team with the kits they’d be wearing at the 1994 World Cup, the first edition of the tournament to be hosted by the United States.

With the tournament just months away, the excitement in the air was palpable. This would be the U.S.’s chance to shed their image as a soccer backwater and claim their place on the global stage. Meola, Wynalda and the rest of the team had waited for this moment for months, and they watched as a pair of Adidas executives began their presentation.

Adidas said all the right things. They wanted the uniforms to be representative of American culture, of the American flag, of the country’s ideals. The players, who had long grown accustomed to the tame design ideals that the German manufacturer had always preached, were hoping for something classic, something elegant to wear as they stepped out onto the stage in front of the entire world.

Slowly, though, the design language got a little stranger. This uniform would be emblematic of the American west, the executives said. It would be emblematic of the fabric of this country.

As it turned out, Adidas was being more literal than the players could ever dream.

And with that, they unveiled the U.S.’s away kit. There it was, in all its glory. The denim kit. A red, white and blue shirt unlike any the soccer world had ever seen. White, stretched-out stars over a sea of faux-denim. It felt less like the American west and more like an early-’90s extreme sports fever dream come to life. Matching denim shorts were an option, too.

“You could hear a pin drop in the room,” says Meola, thinking back on that time.

“The players were simply aghast,” remembers Aaron Heifetz, then the USMNT’s press officer.

The silence was broken by Burns, Meola remembers, who let out a snorting noise that eventually led to laughter. Wynalda turned to Meola and began speculating. “Is this our training gear?” Surely they wouldn’t be wearing these things in a World Cup. Others chimed in, as well.

“The guys were just like, ‘Come on man, are you kidding me?’” recalls Desmond Armstrong, a pacey midfielder who played in the denim kit ahead of the World Cup. “Am I supposed to wear my Lee Jeans with these, playing in a game?’”

Meola eventually moved on from his shock when he saw what he’d be wearing — a somewhat run-of-the-mill goalkeeper jersey. No denim in sight. “Hell yeah!” he bellowed out.

“I remember Meola,” says Wynalda, bursting into laughter. “He turned to me and he just said, ‘Well hell, I’m happy I don’t have to wear that thing!’ I swear to god a few of us said, ‘I hope we all get hurt and you have to play in the field and wear that thing, you son of a bitch.’”

Widely derided and mocked at the time, the USMNT’s denim kit has, over the years, gained an almost cult-like following and appreciation. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is the most iconic piece of design in the history of U.S. Soccer, and arguably the most outlandish kit ever worn by any team at a World Cup. It is loud, brash and a little ridiculous — just like the country it represented.

For many U.S. fans, it is a sign of a bygone era, a time when designers pushed themselves into uncomfortable territory, endeavoring to outfit the U.S. national team in something more than a bland white T-shirt. And for an entire generation, the denim kit is emblematic of the magic of that summer, when soccer finally arrived in America for good. Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola celebrating on the pitch at the Rose Bowl after shocking Colombia, covered in stonewashed faux-denim and draped in the American flag.

“For a lot of people, and even for a generation, (the denim kit) has grown and matured,” says Lalas. “With time, a lot of people have come to appreciate what the designer of that thing was going for. It makes me incredibly proud to see it now. I am always linked to that jersey, and I love that they had the incredible foresight and the confidence to lean into what it was that they were going for.”

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Peter Moore. (Photo: Steve Bonini)

It seems like everybody who worked with Peter Moore, the man who designed the denim kit, has some variation of the same story.

Kevin Payne, the founder and former president of D.C. United, will tell you about partnering with Moore to craft the club’s initial brand identity. Payne sat with Moore in a small Portland office and watched him sketch out the club’s first logo right there in front of him, in a matter of minutes. The club’s inaugural uniforms didn’t take much longer than that. In mere days, Moore had created one of MLS’ only enduring brand identities, a classic design that remains relatively unchanged 27 years later.

Shelley Franks, who worked with Moore for years, will tell a similar story, about sitting next to him on a plane. The two had just left a meeting with Lamar Hunt, the owner of the then-newborn Kansas City Wiz. With his sketchbook sitting between a drink and bag of pretzels, Moore cranked out a few concepts for Kansas City’s crest and colors in a matter of minutes. One of those would go on to become the club’s first logo.

Talk to enough people about Moore’s design process and illustrative abilities and you’ll feel like you’re talking about Picasso, or any other savant who could seemingly create a masterwork on a bar napkin. Mary McGoldrick, who worked with Moore for decades, probably knows it better than anyone.

“The thing that was so extraordinary about Peter were his illustration skills,” says McGoldrick. “He would just have a vision and he could just put it on a piece of paper very quickly.”

Moore, who passed away in April of this year, already had a legendary body of work by the time he was tapped to design the denim kit. It was Moore, along with friend and business partner Rob Strasser, who had helped transform Nike from a quaint, Portland-based shoe company into a global titan. Moore was the creative muscle behind the first Air Jordan sneaker, behind the Jumpman logo, Nike Air and an entire decade of elegant, understated Nike advertisements and posters that solidified the brand as a market leader.

Moore and Strasser left Nike in 1987, forming their own marketing and design agency, Sports Incorporated. In 1989, Sports, Inc. was approached by Adidas, who badly needed Moore’s help.

It feels hard to imagine now, but in the late 1980s, Adidas was floundering. The Dassler family, who had owned the company since its inception in 1949, sold it in 1987 to French politician and Olympique Marseille owner Bernard Tapie. He became embroiled in financial issues during his time with the company and, not long after purchasing it, he lost it. For years, the fate of Adidas was in limbo.

In the meantime, the company had lost much of its market share. It remained relevant in global football, outfitting most of the world’s top-flight teams, but it had faded from view to the everyday consumer, particularly in the United States. In the 10 years or so before Moore began collaborating with Adidas, the company had fallen from first to sixth in athletic shoe sales in America.

Moore and Strasser’s first act at Adidas was one that would change the direction of the company forever. In April of 1990, not long before the U.S. men’s team played in their first World Cup in 50 years, the two launched Adidas’ “Equipment” line. The logo for that line — the three ascending stripes above Adidas’ wordmark — is Peter Moore’s work, and it is the logo you see on the lion’s share of professional football kits to this day. Under Tapie, Adidas had taken a fashion-first direction, sometimes sacrificing quality for notoriety. The Equipment line eschewed those ideals in favor of a return to the basic principles that had made Adidas a global giant to begin with. Moore envisioned the brand as “all you need as an athlete and nothing more.”

The kits the U.S. men’s national team wore from 1991 to 1993 — those classic, understated shirts featuring the Adidas stripes on the right shoulder? They were Moore’s first contribution to U.S. soccer, in a way of speaking.

“The uniform that the denim kit replaced, it was this absolutely beautiful “Equipment A” uniform,” says Renato Capobianco, the team administrator for the U.S. at the 1994 World Cup. “They are beautiful. Maybe the best kits the U.S. has ever had. When we would go abroad, the other team’s equipment manager would always ask me, ‘How much stuff are you willing to trade?’ Everybody wanted one of those jerseys. Everybody loved it.”

Right around the time Moore was trying to push Adidas back into relevance, Hank Steinbrecher, who became U.S. Soccer’s secretary general in late 1990, was trying to make the federation relevant.

“I had played and coached the game all my life,” says Steinbrecher. “I knew a lot about the sport and the infrastructure. And I also, at the time, was working as the director of sports marketing for Gatorade. So I could compare what soccer was doing with the NBA, the NFL, Major League baseball and everything else. At the time, the (U.S. Soccer Federation) was an army of volunteer people who spent countless hours doing their work to get kids to play the game or help launch professional leagues that came and went. My belief was that the organization could be professionalized in terms of its branding, which was the first thing I tried to undertake. Part of that, of course, was the 1994 uniforms.”

The U.S. had earned the right to host the 1994 World Cup years earlier, after an unsuccessful attempt to host the 1986 edition of the tournament. For the federation, the stakes were enormous. There was no top-flight soccer in the United States at the time, and the World Cup seemed like the only thing that might ignite significant public interest in the sport after years of apathy. It was essential, then, that the U.S.— who would qualify automatically as hosts — make a decent showing. Not doing so, many at the federation thought, might do more harm than good.

And they needed to make a statement, as well.

“Soccer, in particular, can be a very traditional sport,” says Ken Chartier, at the time Adidas’ manager of national soccer promotions. “Heck, for a long, long time if you didn’t wear black-and-white shoes on your feet, you were looked at a little weird. At the time we wanted to have a couple of staple, more traditional-looking uniforms — but we also wanted to have something that would cause some controversy.”

“In general, we weren’t being very subtle, right?” says Alan Rothenberg, then the president of U.S. Soccer and also the chairman of the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. “You look at what we did with the (federation’s) logo — red, white, blue, with the american flag and the soccer ball going through it, rather than something abstract. We were kind of hitting people right between the eyes, and that was the idea pretty much in terms of the uniforms.”

The design process for the denim kit — and the U.S.’s other jersey at the ‘94 World Cup, a top with wavy, vertical, red and white stripes which were meant to emulate the American flag — began in 1991. Moore’s involvement at the time was limited, and those tasked with ideating the early concepts of the U.S.’s World Cup kits were sometimes more traditional in their thinking. Some at the company felt that anything more progressive or daring would be a risk. The thinking was that the U.S. team shouldn’t stick out, as they’d likely fail in the group stage.

There were financial factors, as well. Adidas had paid nearly $8million for the licensing rights to the U.S. team. The jerseys, and the gear around them, might need to blend in to be wearable items for everyday fans and consumers.

That thinking went out the window when Moore and Strasser joined Adidas full-time in 1993. Their Equipment line had been an absolute smash, and Adidas purchased Sports, Inc., tapping Moore and Strasser to completely restructure their operations in the United States. They moved the company’s U.S. headquarters from Spartanburg, South Carolina to Portland, birthing Adidas America. Moore and Strasser’s success at revitalizing the brand was staggering — by the end of the year, sales had jumped 75 percent.

Moore, whose responsibilities at that point extended well beyond the scope of designing a single jersey, took the denim kit on as a personal project. His design process, developed during his education at Chouinard Art Institute in the ‘60s and refined over the ensuing decades, was simple.

“I start with the most logical, simple solution first and move from there to see if there’s something better, or more interesting,” Moore wrote in his 1995 memoir. “Quite frankly, I think the more you think about a problem the more convoluted the solution (becomes.) … You know the famous saying that the first idea is the best idea — I think in a lot of cases that’s true.”

“Peter was the coolest dude,” says Uli Becker, a former marketing executive at Adidas America. “He didn’t give a s*** about what any retailer would say, but wanted to create meaningful design that was about function. It was about looks, too, but in a way that it actually became meaningful. He would start with function and then make it look great, at the end of the day.”

Moore and his design team took minimal input from U.S. Soccer, according to Steinbrecher.

“I wish I could say that we had a lot of direction,” says Steinbrecher. “My basis was that I wanted uniforms that were emblematic of American culture. Young, enthusiastic, vibrant. The designers at Adidas took that information and ran with it.”

“If Peter Moore is involved, though,” adds Steinbrecher, “it’s going to be successful.”

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John Harkes in the U.S.’s 1992 Olympic home kit (left), Adidas Equipment ads (center) and Moore’s denim tennis shorts (right). (Harkes photo: Tony Quinn)

The denim kit would not be Moore’s first attempt at turning blue jeans into sportswear. Years earlier, while working at Nike, Moore had been tapped to work with John McEnroe, then the biggest name in tennis. McEnroe was brash, competitive and cocky. At one point, Moore asked McEnroe a simple question — ”If you could wear anything to play tennis in, what would it be?”

McEnroe’s answer was surprising: “A pair of cut-offs.”

Moore and his team went to work and designed a pair of actual jean shorts for him. McEnroe retired not long afterwards, and Andre Agassi went on to wear them, to great effect.

The USMNT had its own McEnroe. Alexi Lalas had already become the poster boy of the team. Tall, lanky, goateed and sporting a mane of untamed red hair, Lalas did not look like a soccer player. He played the guitar, he spoke his mind. He was unapologetic.

“Peter has always designed for a certain person in mind,” says McGoldrick. “Every product that he ever created was really to define or cater to a certain individual. Alexi Lalas was pretty dominant around that time — he was sort of representative of the whole brashness of the team. It was that kind of mentality, that attitude, that we weren’t going to do something traditional, we’d do something different. Peter just said ‘well, let’s make it American.’”

What followed was not months or years of development, or round after round of prototypes and mock-ups. The process was largely devoid of the back-and-forth you see between soccer clubs and manufacturers nowadays during what can sometimes be a two-year design process. There were few thought clouds and even fewer elaborate explainers. That’s not to say the denim kit was thoughtless — Adidas put a tremendous amount of effort into the U.S.’s ‘94 kits. Under Moore, though, things felt more streamlined.

“The design process was much more like, ‘Hey I have an idea, let’s be American, let’s not try to be European, or whatever we think real football looks like, let’s just be American’,” Moore told Alan Siegel in a 2014 Slate interview, the transcript of which Siegel shared with The Athletic. “Then what does that mean? What’s an American fabric? Denim. Great, let’s do denim — but really you can’t do real cotton denim, it will be too heavy and not very functional, which would be against the Adidas brand.”

“The denim idea was maybe the first idea that Peter had,” says Bernd Wahler, then marketing director for Adidas America. Wahler remembers the first time he saw an early mock-up of the kit, while Moore was still playing around with the layout of it.

“I thought ‘holy s***, what is he doing now!’”

Wahler was probably one of the only people at the company, during the early stages of design, to have any idea what was going on. Franks, and others, say that Moore kept his circle small on purpose.

“Peter and Mary McGoldrick, who at that time was the director of product development, they were pretty quiet about design,” remembers Franks. “They knew that once you open up a design concept to anybody within the company, everyone is going to have an opinion. The design of that uniform, It was honestly pretty much just Peter.”

That’s not to say that other people didn’t offer their own opinions. Strasser, whose efforts were almost solely focused on the marketing end of things, had his own ideas.

“Strasser wanted to make sure that whatever was done got a lot of attention; whether it was right, wrong, or indifferent,” Adidas employee Drew Peterson told the now-defunct and aptly-named Denim Kit blog in 2012. “I remember one time he kept pushing and pushing tie-dye. They were just playing with a tie-dye look when you twist the T-shirt before you dye it and rubber band it up; the stars were going to open up like that.”

McGoldrick and others close to Moore don’t remember the tie-dye idea getting very far, and others don’t remember it at all, though McGoldrick says she sometimes experimented with the technique while working on tennis designs alongside Moore at Nike.

But it’s good that it didn’t progress. Today, nearly every member of the ‘94 U.S. team spoken to for this story — 17 in total — offered up some mix of amusement and horror when faced with the prospect of taking the field in tie-dye kits.

“Thank god that whoever was thinking about doing tie-dye had a change of heart,” says Marcelo Balboa, a defender on the ‘94 World Cup squad. “I’m gonna tell you something, if they would’ve used tie-dye, none of us would’ve taken the field in that uniform. I’m not even kidding. That could’ve been a protest and a half.”

“That team would have boycotted games, no doubt,” adds Steve Sampson, an assistant on the U.S.’s ‘94 coaching staff. “There were a lot of strong personalities on that team and they would’ve felt completely unified and within their rights, frankly, to make that kind of statement.”

Eventually, Moore got to enact the physical process of his denim vision. Part of the goal here was to extract all of the elements of the American flag. The home jersey, which Moore and others at Adidas assumed would be the one worn more frequently at the tournament, would employ the red-and-white bars of the flag as the primary design element. That left the stars, on a field of blue, for the away kit.

He set out a denim print and then laid some cut-out paper stars over it. Then he turned to one of his favorite tools.

“Remember,” said Moore, “in 1993, computer graphics were not really in existence, at least not in Portland, Oregon. In other words, we got our hands dirty.”

“Peter was a genius with copy machines,” says McGoldrick. “He used to have a painting technique that was part photocopy, part watercolor; he was notorious for manipulating things on a Xerox machine. He obviously had, in his mind, how he could create this effect for the jerseys.”

Moore laid the denim-and-stars getup on the glass of the copy machine, pressed the copy button and then dragged the whole thing downwards as the machine scanned. That gave the band of stars on the jersey their elongated, warped look. Moore said the idea was for that distortion to offer the illusion that the stars were warping due to the speed of the player wearing the jersey.

“Or was that a play on the American Flag?” asked Moore. “That’s up to the viewer, I merely designed the thing.”

Moore and his team were not done with the denim. The shirt was just part of the whole package. There were warm-up jackets for the team — denim in the center with long, billowy sleeves made from the red-and-white flag print. And there was a whole line of supporting gear, as well as merchandise sold at venues. Adidas worked with U.S. Soccer on the uniforms for stadium staff, even, right down to the vests worn by parking attendants and ushers. The denim kit is the standout, but Adidas’ lift at the ‘94 World Cup was exhaustive.

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Four Seasons Apparel in North Carolina. (Photo: Steve Bombart)

Moore’s vision became a reality at a now-defunct Greensboro, North Carolina-based manufacturer, Four Seasons Apparel. At two tiny factories in nearby Stokesdale and Sanford, NC, the company used a technique known as sublistatic printing to bring them to life. Moore’s design was first enlarged and printed onto paper. That paper was then transferred to the kits with intense heat and pressure, which embedded the design in the fabric of the kit.

Gary Peck, the man Adidas tasked with overseeing the manufacturing process, remembers other details. The shirts themselves were made of DuPont “Coolmax” polyester, sourced from Milliken, a Spartanburg, South Carolina-based chemical and manufacturing company. The paper used in the transfer process came from a mill in North Carolina. The entire process of manufacturing the denim kit — from design through the final product — was done in America, a fitting execution of Moore’s all-American vision.

All in all, Four Seasons made just 600 official kits — 300 denim kits and 300 of the red-and-white variety. They produced around 50,000 replica kits for general sale.

But there is an oft-forgotten piece of the denim kit. One the U.S. never wore in the World Cup itself.

Moore and company also designed a pair of shorts  out of faux denim. No detail was overlooked: the stitching on the player-issued shorts, along with the stitching on their warm-ups, was the type of yellow thread typically found on actual blue jeans. The jersey does a decent enough job of simulating denim but the shorts, which are a rare find these days, look shockingly real.

“I remember those,” says Chris Henderson, who played with the U.S. during those games leading up to the tournament. “It was strange. Once you start playing in them you don’t think of them. But every once in a while you’d look down, or you’d look at yourself in them in the locker room, and you’d swear you were wearing cut-off jean shorts. I had to actually touch the material to make sure it wasn’t denim.”

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Thomas Dooley (left), Alexi Lalas (center) and Claudio Reyna (right), all in denim. (Photos: Tony Quinn)

The bit at the top of this story about the reveal in the hotel ballroom being the USMNT’s first taste of the denim kit isn’t exactly true. A few members of the team, according to Franks, were inadvertently exposed to Adidas’ concept of the jerseys months earlier. In late 1993, all of Adidas — Europe and the U.S. — came together in Los Angeles for a sales meeting. Franks and a few of her associates were busy outfitting a small conference room with some prototypes and design briefs. A handful of players were at the conference, as many on the team were signed to personal deals with Adidas.

“In walks Alexi Lalas, Bora Milutinovic, John Harkes, Cobi Jones,” Franks recalls. “They casually just kind of happened to walk in. It wasn’t planned. They sat down and they just started asking questions. This wasn’t the official ‘this is what you’re going to be wearing’ — these were prototypes. We looked at each other like, ‘Oh my god, we have to talk about this now’. I was a nervous wreck.”

Others saw the uniforms before the rest of the players, as well. Early in March of 1994, Brian Fleming, the equipment manager for the ‘94 squad, unpacked an entire box of the kits before any of the players laid eyes on them.

“Back then they didn’t really do the kind of pre-World-Cup reveal to the public,” says Fleming. “They pretty much just printed them and shipped them and let me know they were on the way. They came in as blanks, so I had to do the lettering and the numbers on them. We first saw them and were amazed. Amazed and shocked.”

Heifetz was standing next to Fleming.

“I remember thinking — and I was just a young kid, I had no idea how these things worked with sponsorships and Adidas, and all of that — I remember thinking, ‘These guys ain’t wearing this. There’s no way our guys are going to wear this,’” he says. “Not knowing, of course, that they had no other choice.”

Renato Capobianco, the team administrator, remembers showing the kit to Henderson, who was the good-looking, all-American blonde kid of the bunch. He’d been tapped to do some promotional photos in the uniform. After seeing the kit for the first time, Henderson balked at the idea. But he couldn’t escape it.

“I had a bunch of endorsements,” Henderson remembers. “Budweiser was one of the endorsements. They did 150,000 cardboard cutouts of me juggling a ball in that denim jersey. Those things went to stores all over the country. I remember being in a supermarket and seeing that cutout of myself and thinking, ‘Oh man, they’re really doing this. This looks very different.’ You just didn’t look like a soccer player in it.”

The look of the jersey wasn’t the only issue for Henderson and others. Many who played in the denim kit remember, almost 30 years later, the way it felt.

“It was heavy and it was thick and when you started to sweat, it was glued to you,” says John Harkes.

“When you were wearing them,” adds Mike Sorber, a midfielder at the ‘94 World Cup. “It was like you were wearing a weighted vest or something.”

“A lot of that stuff was done on polyester because it was the only fabric you could print on very easily,” says Peck, “and you could get the best registration on. It had a lot of flexibility as far as decoration was concerned. In today’s day and age you can print on any substrate out there. That wasn’t the case back then — take a look at an Adidas kit nowadays. In terms of breathability and stretch, it’s literally night and day in terms of the strip we had back then.”

The USMNT, of course, weren’t the only ones trotting around under the summer sun in polyester. Every one of Adidas’ kits that summer had the same construction. “There was no special fabrication or anything that was going on in soccer apparel that was innovative at the time,” says Franks. “Polyester was all anyone was wearing.”

The players weren’t the only people concerned about the kits. Within Adidas — particularly at home base, in Germany — many thought Moore’s design would make the company a laughing stock.

“Initially, we were worried,” remembers Franks. “We have to sell these things at the end of the day. That was my role — my role was not only presenting to the federation, but presenting to the World Cup organization, it was selling it to all of Adidas across the world at sales meetings before it was actually launched. When you’re presenting it to a bunch of Europeans… Well, they hated it. They thought we were nuts and they thought Peter was nuts.”

“There was a lot of internal controversy,” says McGoldrick. “Many of the guys working in the soccer division were college athletes, they were serious. There was a certain segment of people who just thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna laugh at us.’ And people did sometimes. There were writers at the time who just hated the kit, just trashed them.”

Amidst all the mockery, there was one player, at least, who liked the denim kit. Thomas Dooley was a German-born defender, the son of an American serviceman. Growing up in Europe, Dooley formed a fascination with almost anything American — cars, the flag, the anthem. The image he formed in his head of the United States, whether accurate or not, is kind of perfectly represented by Moore’s bold, in-your-face look. Dooley finally came to the United States at age 31 and was quickly deputized as a member of the USMNT.

“When I was a kid in Germany I was just watching the Olympics, or the Super Bowl, the movies, when I saw something about America I just loved the country,” says Dooley. “My dream was even just to visit America. Americans were so proud of their athletes, their national athletes. I always admired that. They were laughing. My teammates laughed at the jerseys. But I was thinking, ‘Why do these guys not like this?’ It was so different. I love it — I’ve always been a little different I guess.”

Wynalda, who played stretches of his career in Germany, understood what Moore was going for.

“If you talk to a German, or someone from France, or wherever else, the first thing that they’ll say is ‘America, cowboy.’ I had been playing in Germany at the time, and I had to go back to Germany after wearing that jersey in the World Cup. And my teammates, when I first came back from the World Cup and went to (VfL Bochum) they would go, ‘Oh there he is,’ and they’d pretend like they were shooting cowboy guns.”

Most players, though, were concerned. The overarching sentiment amongst almost all of them was that the World Cup had presented them with an opportunity to join the global football community, if you will. None of them were quite sure that showing up to that party in a pair of blue jeans would be appropriate.

“At the time, I think we had worked so hard in the late ‘80s to finally get to a World Cup,” says Ramos. “And then in the ‘90s to finally earn some respect from the rest of the world. And I think the last thing we needed was a uniform that didn’t fit what the soccer culture was. We wanted to be in the soccer world. For me, personally, that was a big, big disappointment because I felt we worked so hard to earn respect. We wanted to arrive to the soccer world at this World Cup, we wanted the world to see us as a soccer nation. And here we come with these uniforms that were just ridiculous.”

Most fans remember the U.S. wearing the denim kits at the World Cup, but they first donned the uniforms in a March 1994 friendly against Bolivia. Prior to that game, and only days after seeing the kits for the first time, the players — still reeling from Adidas’ reveal of the shirts — were marched out onto the field for an impromptu photo shoot. None of the players were given much instruction during the shoot, and the resulting photo, which Adidas used in a poster, is a work of art. There they are, the U.S. national team, decked out in their denim duds with matching mom jeans. Some look bemused. Others look too cool to be there. And others look almost angry.

“I remember thinking, ‘We took a team photo in front of the Colosseum in Rome (before the) 1990 World Cup,’” says Armstrong. “And now here we are in some stadium wearing jeans.”

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The 1994 U.S. team, in all their glory. (Photo via Roger Bennett)

Months later, at the Rose Bowl, the team gathered to take its official team photos. Alan Rothenberg was there, and he gathered the team for a pep talk with the tournament just weeks away. Rothenberg was interrupted almost immediately by Ramos.

Ramos had walked to the back of the group and grabbed John Harkes by the arm, marching him to the front of the group. Harkes, who a month earlier had been voted one of People Magazine’s “50 most beautiful people,” now found himself face to face with U.S. Soccer’s president.

“If this guy can’t make this uniform look good,” Ramos told Rothenberg while pointing at Harkes, “Nobody can.”

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Members of the USMNT during the 1994 World Cup. (Photos: Steve Bonini and Tony Quinn)

At the 1994 World Cup, the USMNT almost exclusively wore their denim duds. It wasn’t supposed to be that way — the federation, and Adidas, imagined that the team would primarily wear their home jersey, the red-and-white number, Moore’s attempt to “dress them up in the flag,” as he wrote.

But scheduling, and FIFA, worked against them. They designated the darker-colored denim kit as the team’s primary strip, as they would face Switzerland (in white) Colombia (in yellow) and Romania (also in yellow) in the group stage. Steinbrecher went as far as to visit FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, in an attempt to sway opinions, arguing that the host nation should get first choice of which kit they want to wear. But FIFA declined, and the U.S.’s fate was sealed.

What the team did at the 1994 World Cup is well-worn territory. Wynalda scored one of the greatest goals in U.S. history against Switzerland, doing so awash in denim. The U.S. then shocked Colombia in their second match, cementing the kit’s place in lore.

By the time they reached the round of 16, a funny thing had happened: Many of the same players who had derided Adidas for the design had come around to it. In just 270 minutes, the denim kit had won the group over.

With a match-up against Brazil ahead, the U.S. assumed they’d once again wear the denim kit, which seemed to contrast enough with Brazil’s traditional yellow shirts. But FIFA had the U.S. wear the flag kit instead.

“At this point, we were fighting for the denim kits,” says Wynalda. “We had done so well in them, and a couple of us, the senior guys on the team, said, ‘Hey, it’s the fourth of July, man, let’s wear these stars.’ They came back and said, ‘Well, it’s not like you guys get a vote, and it’s FIFA telling us that these are the color schemes that need to match up.’ It was weird how fast those jerseys grew on us. At first we were like, ‘Holy s***, we have to wear this thing?’. And then we got to the biggest game of our lives and we were like, ‘Hey, can we wear the blue uniforms please?’”

The players weren’t the only people who came around to the jerseys. The crowd that day at the Rose Bowl was awash in denim. Denim jerseys, denim T-shirts. Adidas’ gear was everywhere. Franks, who remembers getting laughed at by retailers as she pitched the gear ahead of the tournament, was shocked.

“We sold every single replica jersey that we made,” she says. “It was crazy. We sold (50,000) and we could’ve sold 100,000 or a million. We could’ve. Even after the event, they were in high demand. I did not see that coming. I don’t feel like we bought enough. I thought the design might be a little too polarizing, and just the feedback we received going into the Cup, it wasn’t nice.”

It took some time, but Peter Moore’s vision for the denim kit eventually bore fruit amongst modern fans, as well. Decades after its debut, it is now beloved. It pops up every World Cup cycle on a few “worst World Cup kits of all time” lists, but it also appears on just as many “best ever” lists. EA Sports put the denim kit in its recent FIFA 23 World Cup update, so fans of the U.S. can now dress present-day players like Christian Pulisic in Moore’s garish vision.

Years ago, denim kits were a scarce item online — nowadays, there are a half-dozen or so independent kitmakers that produce homages to the denim kit, and there are even bootleg Adidas denim shirts all over eBay, maybe the truest mark of popularity.

Shockingly, even Strasser’s “tie-dye” idea may have had legs. The U.S.’s away kit at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are “ice-dyed” blue-and-black shirts. Not really the red, white and blue explosion of stars that Strasser had imagined, but still.

Moore was keenly aware of the stakes of the ‘94 World Cup. On the eve of the tournament, he penned a letter to the team, on behalf of Adidas. Today, it sits in the company’s archives, in Germany.

“You know when this whole World Cup is done and the circus leaves town there will still be three things left,” wrote Moore. “The sport of soccer, the players like yourselves who really play and love the game, and the brand Adidas… for Adidas soccer is first and always will be first. The soccer fever you guys have started in this country is exactly what was needed. Now it’s up to us to take that and do something with it.”

Moore’s adoration of the kit had only grown when he last spoke about it in 2014.

“My opinion about the shirt today is even more positive than it was then,” said Moore. “My reasons are simple, and they are the same reasons why we did it in the first place: it’s American. Who else could, or would do a shirt that looked like it was a pair of 501 jeans?”

It probably comes as no surprise that nearly all of the players spoken to for this story still have their denim kit. Harkes has it stowed away in a cedar closet for now, though he plans on framing it. Dooley, who now lives in the Philippines, is happy to throw his denim kit on for a photograph when asked to do so. The same for Lalas, the poster boy of the 1994 World Cup.

Wynalda, who scored the stunner against Switzerland, still laughs about it. He says he’s reminded of the kit sometimes while shopping for clothes for his children, when he’ll see a pair of kids pajamas emblazoned with a few shooting stars.

“There it is again,” says Wynalda. “That’s when I think about it. But, you know, I scored the greatest goal of my life in that jersey. I cherish that day, the pictures, the memories, the fact that I still every once in a while will see somebody in one of those kits. I stopped a long time ago trying to figure out ‘Who did this? Who was responsible for it?’ Over the years I’ve tried to learn to love that jersey. And I do love it now.”

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Harkes (L), Lalas (C) and Dooley (R) in their denim tops today.

(Top photo: Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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