If you’ve been watching Manchester United games lately, you’ve no doubt seen the sleek new black headgear that Wayne Rooney is wearing. It’s a response to the nasty gash Rooney received in his forehead during a recent training session, and there’s a dynamite story behind it involving a startup company that began in a Jersey City apartment, later moved to Chelsea and now has a lab and office in Brooklyn.
Claudio Storelli is the co-founder of Storelli, a new line of products that focuses on the protection of soccer players. Last week the Italian-born Storelli was reading Gazzetta dello Sport when he saw the news of Rooney’s forehead injury. He then contacted Manchester United by e-mail offering to send samples of Storelli’s ExoShield head-guard to the team.
“You’re either going to bandage his head, which is sub-optimal, or you’re going to give him a Petr Cech helmet,” says Storelli, who played goalkeeper at Santa Clara. “With all due respect to Petr, who’s one of my idols, that’s not the best solution for a player like Rooney. This was the best solution.”
Storelli figured Rooney wouldn’t be playing the following Saturday against Crystal Palace, but soon after the United game started he got a call from one of his investors. Not only was Rooney starting the game, but he was wearing the Storelli headgear.
For a U.S. soccer company that’s just emerging onto the scene, you couldn’t ask for a better celebrity endorsement than Rooney, who has scored three goals in the two games he has worn the headgear. “It’s given us a lot of attention and credibility,” says Storelli, who says the global response has been immense. “Now we’re suddenly in talks with distributors all over the place.”
Rooney’s headgear is one of several products made by Storelli, which include everything from protective shirts and shorts to leg guards and gloves. Unlike other soccer headgear that has been on the market longer, Storelli’s head-guard uses military-grade foam employed in combat helmets that disperses G-forces experienced on the soccer field.
As Jing Liang, Storelli’s other co-founder, explained to me, the back of the headgear is a bit bulkier than the front because their studies showed the most G-forces in head collisions involved the back of the head hitting the ground. The back is also shaped to allow for the ponytails of female players, who are some of their biggest consumers. (Storelli is careful to note that as of yet there are no tests that prove the headgear prevents concussions.)
Storelli and Liang worked together as consultants at McKinsey & Company and are both regular goalkeepers in indoor games at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Their company started in 2009 with a question: Since they always left after games limping and bleeding, why couldn’t they produce something that would help prevent those issues? After registering at the start in Jersey City, they later spent two-and-half-years in a Chelsea apartment getting together at night after working their day jobs.
“We decided we were going to make protection cool,” says Storelli, who enlisted designers from the worlds of snowboarding and motorcycling. “Rooney’s headband is probably the hardest piece to make cool, but if you look at the rest of what we do, it’s pretty bad-ass. It’s basically something that looks like it belongs to Batman’s closet.” Not long ago, Storelli persuaded the people at Soccer.com to add a new tab called “Protection” under apparel. And with Rooney now modeling their gear after the most unlikely of connections, you’d have to say they’re on a roll. “I really hope one day I run into Rooney and tell him, ‘Wayne, you owe me a beer,’” Storelli says with a laugh. The way Rooney is scoring with his new headgear, maybe even two.