OUTDOOR SOCCER SHOES (“CLEATS”)
Soccer shoes are the soccer player’s single-most important piece of equipment. They protect the feet, provide traction, facilitate running, and cause a plant-foot to stick to the surface when kicking. Also referred to as “cleats” and sometimes as “boots,” there is a wide variety of soccer shoes commercially available for sale, both in stores and on the internet. Purchasing shoes on the internet is not recommended unless they are an exact replacement for shoes which have been tried on in a store or used before. For youth, it is often just the excitement of getting their first pair of shoes that determines selection. For advanced players, selection often comes down to personal preference after some experimentation, usually resulting in brand loyalty. Under either circumstance, due diligence and a proper amount of time must be applied to get the right shoes, properly fitted for the individual.
Up until approximately age 11, the shoe should be fitted correctly to the width and length of the foot with just enough extra length to last at most only one year (a fall and spring season). The shoe does not need to be expensive. For youth, it is better to purchase inexpensive, properly fitted, shoes more often than it is to purchase expensive shoes that are too big. An oversized shoe defeats the purpose of teaching the instep drive properly because the child is going to stub the toe in the ground or develop blisters because the foot moves around inside the shoe. Conversely, shoes that are too small must not be used at all. Parents need to be reminded to check to see if they need to get new shoes for their child at least a few weeks in advance of each new season. Children’s feet grow at unexpected rates and the shoes need to be broken in before the season starts. (More than a few parents have found that the cleats are too small on the first day of practice after the child’s foot has grown over the summer or winter break!) After approximately age 11, the shoe should be fitted exactly and new ones purchased as the foot continues to grow.
Soccer shoes come with a variety of uppers which are usually glued and stitched to a variety of soles containing cleats. The upper part of the shoe may be made of real leather or synthetic leather. Real leather is a favored material because it tends to be more flexible and less chafing. Synthetic leathers, however, are more durable and won’t stretch out as much in wet conditions. Synthetic uppers are generally appropriate for younger or recreational players. They tend to be less expensive, better suited for rain and mud, and easier to clean. Real kangaroo leather is preferred by the older, most serious players, however, synthetic leathers are getting closer and closer to the real thing. The unique nature of kangaroo leather allows it to be cut very thin but still retain its strength, providing lightness and a better feel for the ball. (The kangaroo used for this purpose is farmed.) Soles of the shoes are generally made of pliable plastic, synthetic rubber, or proprietary mixtures that provide for both stability and flexibility. These are also known as the “sole plate.”
There are generally two types of cleats, molded and detachable. Detachable cleats are also known as “screw-ins” or “replaceable.” The molded-type of cleats is the most common among American soccer players, where the studs are formed as part of the actual sole. The studs of molded cleats tend to be of two different designs, either conical or blades, usually with twelve per sole. The pattern of the cleats is designed to perform under certain field conditions. Cleats come in three basic types, firm ground (FG), hard ground (HG), and soft ground (SG). It’s important to know which type of field one is most likely to be playing on and purchase the shoes accordingly. There are also cleats specifically designed for women (W) and juniors (JR). Firm ground shoes tend to be the most common, appropriate for most surfaces and artificial turf. There are also artificial grass (AG) shoes often utilizing dozens of small molded cleats. Hard ground cleats tend to be for surfaces that are routinely dry and compacted. Replaceable cleats tend to be used for soft grounds.
Replaceable cleats allow players to change between metal, metal tipped, hard rubber, and plastic studs, appropriate for different types of field conditions, due to a screw-into-socket design. The studs are conical. Screw-in-type studs generally come in three different types, all-aluminum, “safety” which has plastic surrounding the screw, and “aluminum-tipped” which have ends with metal where the shank of the screw is surrounded by plastic. If one selects screw-in type studs, one must match them with a “stud key” (“stud wrench” or “stud tool”) specifically designed for the type of screw-in studs being used. Screw-in cleats usually come in sets of six studs per sole, four in the front and two in the heel. When the studs wear down or break, a player can purchase replacements, extending the life of the shoe. Players need to ensure that the replaceable studs are specifically designed to fit the shoe. One should not assume that there are standardized replaceable studs or stud keys among manufacturers.
Hybrid shoes also exist which include both replaceable studs and molded cleats.
Next generation shoes, with “sock-like” features, have been recently introduced with advanced materials that provide “compression-fit,” “adaptive-compression,” “agility-shoe,” or “knit-shoe” uppers designed to be extremely light-weight and to uniquely mold to the foot of the wearer. They may contain a “collar” feature that looks like the top of a short sock and goes around the ankle, designed to help pull the shoe on properly. These shoes tend to be directed toward advanced players and can be very expensive.
One must research soccer shoes before setting out to purchase them. In many leagues, there are specific rules regarding the type of cleats that may be worn, usually restricted to the molded variety. Soccer shoes with replaceable studs may not be permitted or shoes with replaceable studs that have worn down may not be allowed, especially if any part of the screw shaft is showing. Similarly, no old-style baseball shoes which contain metal blades, or shoes with large replaceable studs like American football shoes, will be allowed.
Check out soccer suppliers on the internet and look for advertisements in the newspaper. There is a wide range of prices and different manufacturers provide different features. Large chain shoe stores and discounters often sell soccer shoes appropriate for beginners and youth for low prices. Sporting goods stores tend to have a better selection. A soccer-specific store is usually best for the serious player. Parents of young players can also check out combination packages that include cleats, a ball, and shinguards, but it is still extremely important to understand that the shoes must fit properly and that the shinguards must be comfortable.
Visit a soccer-specialty store. The personnel there will be more than happy to teach about the different types of shoes and recommend a design. Be sure to be able to tell them of any league rules and the type of playing surface involved. Determine a desired cleat style and pattern. In addition, female players tend to have narrower feet than men and soccer-specialty stores are more likely to carry soccer shoes designed specifically for women.
When trying on a new pair of soccer shoes, always wear the soccer socks and shinguards that will be worn while playing. This also includes wearing any type of undersock or ankle brace. Remember that fitting is always different from regular shoes. No two manufacturers are alike and no sizes are truly standard. Try on both shoes. Make sure that they are the proper size because one foot may be larger than the other. Ensure that no one has mixed up the sizes in the box. It has been recommended that players shop for shoes in the afternoon when their feet are at their largest. It has been said that soccer shoes should “fit like a glove,” or “feel like another layer of skin.”
Regarding length, soccer shoes are labeled for size like regular shoes, but soccer shoes require a tighter fit. The toes should come as close to the front of the shoe as possible without touching or cramping. Most soccer shoes have a more-narrow upper to help with the feel of the ball however this may cramp the instep or reduce the size of the toe box. If you experience this problem, try multiple brands or this may require a trade-off between the length and the width.
Regarding width, for years there was a disparity between the “European” styles that often came only in one narrow width and the “American” need for wider shoes. A number of manufacturers now provide soccer shoes with identified widths. Similar to a specified length, this is relative. The foot must not be cramped within the shoe however the material of the uppers, especially natural leathers like kangaroo, can stretch. Accordingly, the width must be comfortable but tight enough not to allow slippage.
Also, consider tongue padding, tongue holder loops (that the laces go through to hold the tongue in place), tongue flaps, and the availability of choices in the top eyelets. (See the article on “Tying Soccer Shoe Laces.”)
To confirm a proper fit, lace up the shoes as tightly as one would for a game. Take time to ensure that the laces are properly tightened all the way up the instep from the toes to the ankle. The shoes should fit snugly all around with no discomfort or pressure points. While standing, the toes should come close to the front of the shoe without actually touching and the toes should be able to be wiggled and curled. Walk around to ensure ongoing comfort and no slippage. For youth, make sure that an extra pair of socks will make up the extra length allowed for growing into a second season.
BREAKING THEM IN
Take the shoes out of the box. Remove any stuffing, cardboard or paper that comes inside the shoes. Put on the under socks (if used), ankle brace (if used), soccer socks, and shinguards to be worn for games. Insert any supplemental padding or replace the inner sole, if used. Put the shoes on and lace the shoes up game-tight. Walk around in the shoes to ensure that they still fit as well as they did in the store. If they are not comfortable under these conditions, immediately consider taking them back and exchanging them before there’s any evidence of wear.
If the shoes are acceptable, wear them outdoors for 15 minutes on the first day. Add 15 minutes each day thereafter, until reaching two hours. Always wear the shoes with the full complement of socks and equipment that one would for games.
CARE AND FEEDING
Ideally, outdoor soccer shoes should be put on at the field and removed at the field. Walking on any surface other than turf, such as concrete or asphalt, will quickly wear down the cleats. Wearing a general athletic shoe or soccer sandals is recommended for going to and from the field. If it is necessary to walk on concrete or wet surfaces, be sure to walk extremely slowly. Concrete and wet surfaces can act like ice. The same is true for any indoor surfaces. Remove cleats before going indoors.
Soccer shoes should be treated with decency in order to maintain their functionality and extend their life. After each wearing, clean the outside of the shoes with a damp cloth. A brush may be needed if the shoe is especially muddy. Brushes need to be stiff enough to clean off mud and debris but not so stiff as to mar the surface of the uppers. Remove any loose padding or insoles and let the shoes air dry. If necessary, wash the outside of the shoes with warm soapy water to clean off any remaining mud or chemicals. Rinse with clean water. Use as little water as possible. Do not soak the shoes and do not immerse them in water.
Dry the outside of the shoes with a cotton towel or paper towels. Loosen the laces and open up the tongue. Place wadded newspaper inside the shoes to absorb any moisture and to maintain the shoe size. This is especially true of soccer shoes that have gotten significantly wet while playing on wet surfaces or in the rain. If the shoes have been soaked, replace the newspaper every hour until it comes out dry. Do not stuff the shoes with newspaper and forget about removing it because this completely defeats the purpose, actually causing the shoes to stay wet. Once the newspaper is finally removed, let the shoes air dry. If absolutely necessary, use a hair dryer on low-heat setting.
Once the shoes have dried, rub shoe oil or shoe wax into the leather uppers to keep them supple. Oils and waxes appropriate for soccer shoes are available over the internet and in soccer-specialty stores. Do not over-apply oils or waxes. Use them sparingly because they can cause the surface of the uppers to become slippery. If possible, place shoe trees into the shoes. Shoe trees must be of the absorbent-wood variety, not plastic. Shoe trees must either fit the shoe exactly or be slightly small. Shoe trees that are too large will inappropriately stretch the leather.
Never throw wet or sweaty shoes in a gym bag and leave the bag closed until the next use. At least loosen the laces, open up the tongue, and let them air dry. One may choose to place a commercial absorbent product like a “stink ball” in the shoes.
In addition to all of the considerations mentioned above, advanced players evaluate shoes based on flexibility or stiffness, comfort, traction, ball sensing, stability, overall weight, durability, protection, lace placement, construction including tongue thickness, room for supplemental padding, and upper friction for ball control. Advanced players also have multiple pairs of shoes for all kinds of playing conditions.
Also, some advanced players have a technique for getting soccer shoes to conform to their feet. This involves thoroughly soaking the shoes with them on, either in a shower or from a hose, and walking around with the wet shoes on. The shoes are then dried using the process above, with the leather taking on the shape of the feet.
With soccer shoes, uppers will eventually crack, holes can form, seams will split, cleats can break off or wear down and be ineffective, soles can break, and soles can separate from the uppers. Players must have a backup pair of shoes. In addition, laces can break. Players must have a backup pair of laces.
Coaches must warn both parents and players of the dangers of wet surfaces, other than turf, while wearing soccer shoes because it’s like walking on ice. Small children, especially, tend to run to cars. They do not understand this possible danger and can slip and hit their head.
Shoes must be looked at regularly for stud wear. This is especially true for replaceable studs to ensure that they are not broken and that no part of the screw is exposed.
Referees are taught to look at the soles of each player’s soccer shoes in order to ensure that they conform to local rules and are safe. Players will not be allowed to participate if their shoes do not conform. Players need to be taught to perform their own inspections and to have their backup pair of shoes available.
Lacing the shoes properly is important. Parents and players need to be taught to always tighten laces all the way up the instep from the toes to the ankle. Parents of youth tend to just say “go put on your soccer shoes,” while the children only pull hard on the top end of the laces before tying them.
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