This Saturday, Philadelphia Union's players will take to the field against Chicago Fire wearing custom cleats. And it may just be the nicest thing you see a group of footballers do that day.
A little context is necessary. After all, in these days of micro-sponsors appropriating every square inch of marketable terrain around sports teams, and players finding ever more creative ways to promote their own image on the field, the trend for custom cleats tends to skew closer to vanity than philanthropy.
But on this occasion, you need to suspend your cynicism. The cleats were produced by the Union's players collaborating with local pediatric cancer patients. Player and fan would meet one-on-one, armed only with an outline drawing of a boot, which they would then fill in together. The resulting sketches and wish lists were forwarded to artist Kickasso, who turned these concepts into fully realized customized cleats.
The cleats were unveiled a couple of weeks ago to players and fans alike at an event at the club, but Saturday represents the first chance to see them in action.
It's just the latest art-related initiative the club has been involved in, by the way. Earlier this year the Union drew attention by advertising for and appointing an official club tattoo artist, who has already inked several players, and the custom cleat idea has been brewing for a while. Club marketing VP Doug Vosik had been involved in producing custom cleats during last year's European Championship, in his previous job with Under Armour, and had been considering how to adapt the trend for custom cleats at the Union. When the league office identified pediatric cancer awareness as a core cause for its member clubs to focus outreach on, Vosik began to put this initiative together.
To help raise awareness for pediatric cancer, the Philadelphia Union teamed with Kickasso to bring to life the cleat designs of these players and children.
It's a heartwarming project, of course, and Vosik and the Union players I speak to are all understandably proud of this engagement with fans who exemplify the club's current stated virtues of "young, fearless, challengers." The simple act of drawing together was an icebreaker on both sides. Kids overawed by professional athletes could just enthuse about their interest in SpongeBob SquarePants, while the athletes had a point of genuine, constructive connection that went beyond reminding the kids of what they were going through.
And there's another aspect to the culture of this self-styled blue-collar team adapting to address this particular issue. These players are not superstars whose obscene wealth insulates and alienates them from some of the real medical costs and worries the families they encounter are dealing with daily. As second-year defender Keegan Rosenberry puts it, "I'm a young guy still learning the value of a dollar in my first real job, so for sure, we have some understanding of the circumstances."
Rosenberry himself worked with "a kid called Jaxon who was totally into Star Wars, so we have a star cruiser and Darth Vader on the cleat." Not far removed from his own days as a young fan, Rosenberry doesn't take much prompting to come up with a detailed description of the design he would make if he got the chance to work with "Mascherano, maybe ... or probably Toni Kroos." It illustrates some of the genuine fun players and young fans alike had with the project to hear them open up about the creative aspects.
For others, the project was particularly personal. Chris Pontius talks about his fiancée being a pediatric nurse: "I see her on the good days, and I see her on the not so good days when she couldn't help. It's not fair what these kids go through, and to be able to cheer them up, even for a few moments, is the very least we can do. As players, we maybe like to complain about certain things, but this just puts it into perspective. I've never faced anything as hard in my life like they've faced in their young lives."
Pontius worked with a young fan named Hudson on a set of cleats reflecting Hudson's interests. "There's an ocean theme ... the Simpsons' dog, Santa's Little Helper, is in there ... and each cleat is different. We had to add a list to our drawing so Kickasso knew what we were trying to do. I'm no artist!"
Chris Pontius will wear these ocean-themed cleats designed by Hudson on Saturday night against Chicago.
Of course, even philanthropic gestures such as this one are part of how a club wants to present itself to the world, and as Vosik puts it, "Some eight years into the expansion project, some of the gloss of the original identity of the club had worn off, and we'd started to think about how we wanted to present the team for the new era of MLS. And that's where the idea of the team as 'young, fearless, challengers' came in."
Naturally, given his position, Vosik speaks a great deal in terms of branding, but when talking about the current identity of the club, it's clear that a lot of the tone is set by sporting director Earnie Stewart. His disciplined Moneyball instincts are helping reshape not just the technical priorities but the culture of a club whose front-office frailties at times used to draw as much attention as anything happening on the field.
On Stewart's influence, Rosenberry talks about wanting to "stand up straighter and give your firmest handshake when you meet him. He just commands respect."
Progress on the field under Stewart has been steady rather than spectacular, but for perhaps the first time since the Sons of Ben began their high-profile agitating for a Philadelphia expansion team, a decade ago, there's a sense that everyone in the club is moving in the same direction.
Even the Sons, who like to sing of themselves, "No one likes us. We don't care," can no longer be caricatured as the studiedly provocative group who used to show up at other MLS clubs and heckle both teams as part of their strategy of demanding an MLS team for Philadelphia. Nearly a decade of life in Chester, Pennsylvania, has seen them put down genuine roots in their adopted home. The chants and tifos persist -- and Vosik is keen to praise the mural the Sons of Ben recently painted within the stadium to help decorate the River End -- but these days you're as likely to find them involved with community outreach in Chester as taunting opposition fans.
Beneath a sometimes crusty exterior, there's a lot of heart in Philly. Saturday's a good time to celebrate it.
This article originally appeared in ESPNFC.