Pre-World Cup, looking back at the best

When Nike unveiled the United States men’s and women’s national team uniforms for the upcoming World Cup last week, responses ranged from muted to borderline riotous.

To recap: The 2022 Qatar home kit is a plain white shirt with a collar and sleeves, while the away kit features an abstract and messy mix of two shades of blue. That means you won’t be missing out on much.

Part of the kit backlash comes from the fact that US teams have worn some pretty memorable outfits on soccer’s biggest stages, even if they don’t have the signature look a la France. Maillots BleusArgentina’s Albiceleste or that of Brazil Canarinho.

But for whatever reason (the minimal look is still in, concern about men re-qualifying, or maybe a really sharp fit is under wraps until the 2026 tournament?), this year’s version falls far short of anything collectible.

Still, that doesn’t stop us from at least reminiscing and stepping into a time machine (or at least 1991) to rank the best USA kits ever donned.

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10. “The Fantastic Four” | 2019 World Cup

A set that took the USWNT’s fourth World Cup star to the crest. The 1999 side’s inspired version started with white home kits with understated accents around the collar and sleeves.

Honestly, it’s not much different from what we’ve seen of late, but a win (and photogenic moments) cures everything. We all remember Megan Rapinoe’s great stance with outstretched arms after scoring two goals against France in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals. It’s worth it for that alone.

9. “What Could Have Been” | 2018 World Cup selection, USWNT’s 500th win

The gradient color of the rods gives the impression of an invisible diagonal window frame, which the US has used to great effect in the past (as we will see later). Here’s the thing, though: it’s probably best remembered as the kit that would have been worn at the 2018 World Cup, and as such it’s hard to associate it with anything other than the USMNT’s extended reset period.

For the women, it was carried over to Portugal in a friendly in 2018 to claim the team’s 500th win of all time.

8. “Thread stripes” | 2007 Copa America

An example of how even a standard “stars, frames and stripes” motif can be updated. Does the combination of royal blue and pinstripes give off a “1970s casual suit meets New York Yankees” vibe? Yes, but the vintage feel and strong white collars work well, especially when worn with red-lined white shorts.

The fact that it was only worn at the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, where the USMNT was one of the visiting teams, also gives it a certain charm.

7. “Old School Red” | 2006 friendly match against Latvia

Red has occasionally emerged as the primary color for the US look, allowing kits to stand out more. In this example, it was worn once in an elimination match before the 2006 World Cup, but the old-school crest, floppy collar and two-tone belt could have been the highlight of the tournament’s early exit.

However, the whole “Don’t Tread on Me” snake sleeve patch looks like a last second addition.

6. “Bloody Sidebar” | 2006 World Championships

Had it been paired with the kit above at the 2006 tournament in Germany, things might have been different for Brian McBride and the USMNT.

In terms of design, it looks lopsided, with the off-center bars looking like a pair of overalls, or maybe a German thong. Elder pants. But as it was worn in the memorable and fierce 1-1 draw against eventual champions Italy (their only blemish on the way to the trophy), it has a place here.

5. “Retro window frame” | 2010 World Cup

It might not even be the USA’s best belted kit, but just like last World Cup cycle, Nike dived right into the country’s soccer lore and paid homage to the 1950 team that famously drew against England. That the USMNT still drew the Three Lions 60 years later in South Africa added to the mystique of that look.

A dark blue obsidian background with a central symmetrical window pane in a cool Rustenberg night? Pretty iconic.

4. “Upside Down Waldo” | Gold Cup 2017

The name will make sense later, but it’s another World Cup-worthy look that was featured elsewhere.

A few flaws in the design: the numbers seem stacked and the white letters on the shoulders look like garish epaulettes. But the updated crest with the ring-shaped look that was used successfully several years earlier is one that could easily be a signature and recognizable template for US teams.

3. “Bomb Pop” | 2014 World Cup (USMNT), 2015 World Cup Qualifier (USWNT)

There were a variety of emotions when this shirt dropped, and not just because it resembles the least purchased item in the ice cream truck.

Did Nike run out of electric red fabric when it started on the chest and shoulders? Maybe, but the bright colors and block layers were an unexpectedly welcome refresh after years of nostalgia-driven looks.

It’s impossible to miss – both visually and literally – and always stands out from the crowd at USA matches.

T-2. “Denim” and “Things to Come” | 1994 World Cup (USMNT), 1991 World Cup (USWNT)

These two Adidas classics deserve recognition not only for their design but also for what they did for the sport in the country. For the men, the stretched Starter jacket-like stars worn at the 1994 World Cup against a stonewashed denim-inspired backdrop boosted the sport’s popularity (or maybe it was all those amazing hairstyles).

Three years earlier, the women won their first of four World Cup titles, defeating Norway in the inaugural tournament in China. The trademark Adidas three stripes are the main feature here, but their diagonal, almost wing-like positioning helps the blue and red blocks stand out.

It doesn’t hurt that you have so many pioneering legends here too.

1. “Waldo” | 2013 Gold Cup (USMNT), 2012 Olympics (USWNT)

The fact that you’re probably best known for the title character of a series of books found in dentist waiting rooms—and still at the top of the list—says something.

All iconic sets from around the world have a signature palette, color or something. Why can’t it be the look of rings for the US?

As seen here, it balances white and color to work both at home and away. It plays off the national colors without being just a copy of the flag. It’s unique because there aren’t many groups moving horizontally. It just works.