There is no greater illustration of a soccer team’s identity than its badge. More than anything else — more than the name, the manager, even the players on the pitch — it represents the principles and values of the club as a whole. And in Major League Soccer, the subject of badge design is discussed more than is generally common in other leagues around the soccer world.
This, of course, is down to the still fledgling nature of North America’s top flight. While other divisions, such as England’s Premier League or Germany’s Bundesliga, have their roots in decades, centuries even, of history, leaving room for evolution, but not revolution, MLS is still growing at a grassroots level, with new franchises being added almost every season. And with every new franchise comes a new badge.
Just in the last year alone, Austin FC, Inter Miami and Nashville released crests. Going a little further back, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, Los Angeles FC and FC Cincinnati, as expansion teams, also all carried new designs into MLS with varying degrees of success.
Some have been better than others. While LAFC’s badge has become an instant icon, potentially as recognizable in MLS circles as the New York Yankees’ world famous logo in baseball, Nashville’s badge, released last month, has been widely panned. So what makes a good soccer badge?
“I think a good badge design is not just a good design, it’s so much more,” said Nathen McVittie of the soccer design studio Where is Football. “It’s so nuanced compared to other types of design. You can’t just brand a football team like you would a supermarket or a clothing company. I think the best designs are the ones that have the best context and the best research.”
According to David Bruce, vice president of brand at MLS, “it’s all about the story.” It’s not just about designing a stylish badge to be stamped on the chest of a group of soccer players, it’s about conveying the character of a city, of a community, of the history of that team. But in many cases, MLS teams, especially expansion teams, don’t have a history.
So what happens then?
“It can be brilliant if you’ve got a really defined city identity or if you’ve got a rich, vibrant creative context to pull from,” McVittie said. “I think it can afford you a really nice blank slate, as long as you’re not being tone deaf to the city and the community as a whole.”
Future MLS expansion sides Austin FC and Inter Miami have used that blank slate to great effect, coming up with distinct identities before even taking to a soccer field.
“This town has a bit of a reputation for being eco-minded and being a place where the quality of life is deeply informed by the outdoors,” explained Adam Butler of The Butler Bros. agency, which designed Austin FC’s badge. “So, to have a green tree as a symbol was an interesting place to go.”
Nashville’s new badge, however, wasn’t received so positively when it was released in preparation for the franchise’s expansion season in 2020. Designed to evoke the sound and vibrations of the city’s famed music scene, it sparked widespread confusion among fans.
“I don’t understand it,” says McVittie. “I think any time you look at a badge or a crest and you don’t initially understand it, that’s a problem.”
Unlike Austin FC and Inter Miami, Nashville already has history as a second-tier USL team. FC Cincinnati, Minnesota United and Orlando City were all in the same situation when they entered MLS.
Does the league’s central office demand that existing teams rebrand before joining the top flight?
“We definitely want [expansion] teams to step up their game, so we will look under the hood and understand what’s going on,” Bruce said, before adding that rebrands are considered on a case-by-case basis. “Orlando City came in fairly recently and there was a need for them to step up their game, and they recognized that straight away. There’s also a need to distinguish when moving from one league to another, and one of the big signals of that is a rebrand.”
MLS is somewhat unique in its makeup, in its centralization and single-entity business structure. While clubs in most other worldwide leagues would have complete autonomy to design or rebrand their badge as they please, it’s a slightly different scenario for those in North America’s top flight.
“We don’t force anything on anyone, we don’t do that,” Bruce said. “But we want to make sure they are fit for purpose and ready to enter into MLS.”
New badges undergo a series of tests before being signed off by the league. One of those tests is with adidas, which evaluates its suitability on jerseys and merchandise. Another test concerns digital suitability.
“Something we thought about was, ‘Could this fit in the ESPN mobile app where your badge gets reduced to the size of a pea?’” Butler said. “And then how would it look on the side on a building?”
So if these are the parameters, which are the good badges in MLS?
“I think LAFC’s badge design felt like a bit of a watershed moment,” McVittie said. “It’s quite minimal, but they’ve owned that identity as a whole, . . . not just the logo, but the black and gold, the wings, the art deco. It’s really captured that city and offers a point of difference to the Galaxy, which is a big thing in a multi-team market.”
McVittie picked out the Portland Timbers’ badge as another shining example of strong design in the division.
“I don’t think it gets brought enough because it’s part of the older guard,” he said, drawing a comparison with Cascadia rival the Seattle Sounders, whose badge he labeled “quite generic.” The Timbers’, in contrast, is “just iconic. Portland don’t even have their name on their logo.”
And which are the bad badges in MLS?
The New England Revolution’s, left unchanged since the division’s establishment 24 years ago, is painfully dated, evoking the spirit of the first phase of MLS and not the modern, progressive nature of the league today.
“I would never say Atlanta United’s logo is bad, but I still feel underwhelmed by it a couple years later,” McVittie said. “It serves a purpose, but to me Atlanta is more about the black and red than they are about the logo.”
In many cases, MLS, as a case study in badge design, suffers from what is known as skeuomorphism. This is where an object in design mimics its real world counterpart. See how the Chicago Fire’s badge imitates that of a fire department? There is also a certain Clip Art quality to many of the badges designed during the second phase of MLS history, between David Beckham’s arrival and the expansion of New York City FC and Orlando. The Houston Dynamo, the Montreal Impact and Sporting KC all fall into this category.
Of course, MLS itself has gone through a rebrand in recent years, ditching the soccer ball-dominated logo of 20 years ago for a much bolder, abstract crest. There is no soccer ball in sight.
“You look at modern brands, you don’t literally need to say what you do because they’re never really seen out of context,” Bruce said. “A great example of this is Apple. If you looked at their logo and didn’t know anything about that company, you would literally take that logo to be a fruit monger’s.”
A culture of creativity, when it comes to badge design, is also being harnessed below MLS level. Look at third-tier USL League One side Forward Madison FC’s audacious design around a pink, plastic lawn flamingo, playfully named the “Official Bird of Madison.” Or the colorful tree design, which has the distinct look of a lifestyle brand, of the Oakland Roots in the National Premier Soccer League. It’s not just in MLS where ideas are being pushed.
Some may denounce such creativity as little more than just superficiality. After all, a badge does nothing to help a team win games. However, a badge says a lot about a team, a league and a community. And as North American soccer continues to find its identity, it’s encouraging that this is being reflected in the crests and shields on the chests of players and fans alike. It’s about much more than just green trees and pink flamingos.