The inexorable progression toward athletes competing in weightless neon-colored exoskeletons continues unabated, as adidas announced plans last weekend in London to release the world’s first-ever sub-100-gram (3.5 ounces, or lighter than an iPhone) soccer cleat and an entire uniform kit that weighs just 630 grams (1.3 pounds). Antonio Zea, adidas’ director of soccer innovation, says the cleats are in response to high demand from speed-focused athletes, who once again get their way.
If clothing that is so insubstantial sounds strange to you, it's because it might indeed be very strange—and adidas is prepared for wearers to react accordingly when the duds hit shelves in 2015. "From an acceptance standpoint, we want to make sure we get to the level where everybody is happy with it," explains Zea, who admits that the future of light uniforms will take some getting used to. A current kit weighs about 1,300 grams (2.8 pounds), so getting one down to 630 grams requires a new method of manufacturing. While the baselayer portion of the uniform will remain polyester, adidas has developed a thinner yarn that makes it 50% lighter, but still with enough strength to hold basic elements we see from most uniforms these days: compression padding for support, cooling properties (adidas calls theirs ClimaCool) and sensors to monitor heart rate for training purposes.
Above the baselayer, the look starts to get funky: There's a vest. “The bib"—an inelegant term for a vest—"over the top is just for embellishment,” Zea says, “It holds the name and number. It is extraordinarily minimalistic, similar to the bib you wear in training.”
The new shorts will no longer be knit, but rather woven with a four-way stretch design that offers small holes for ventilation. Instead of having players wear socks and a separate sleeve to hold a shin guard, the socks will include a sleeve for a completely revamped guard. Current shin barriers use plastic with foam backing to provide a blow-protecting solid front with some padding on the body. For the next-gen shields, adidas employed bike helmet-style manufacturing techniques to inject foam into a thin foil for a guard that's 50 percent lighter, but with the same amount of protection. adidas cares about your shins.
That brings us to the cleats. Light doesn’t mean much without structure and durability, especially for elite athletes, but adidas claims that the planned 99-gram adiZero cleat is as sturdy as its current 165-gram (5.8 ounces) model, already the lightest on the market.
Instead of using actual or synthetic leather for the body of the shoe, adidas created a composite material—as yet unnamed, any suggestions?—that features a proprietary mystery woven material sandwiched between two layers of polyurethane plastic, keeping everything thin and even see-through. The entire one-piece upper adheres to a 1 millimeter-thick nylon cleat plate, with a foam insole as the third and final piece.
The whole lightweight family, including shirt, shorts, socks, shin guards and cleats, has cleared the main prototyping stages, but next comes testing and refinement, and then the most challenging step: acceptance. Former French soccer great and current Real Madrid scout Zinedine Zadine, who is sponsored by adidas, told me that the lightweight uniforms will only be effective if they can shrug off rain and sweat, ensuring that they remain light throughout a game. And that's where you'll get buy-in: if the players genuinely feel a new uniform improves on-field play. Of course, in this case, that may be the only thing they feel.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.