When a player joins a new club, decisions have to be made about their name and number. The vinyl applied to the back of a player’s jersey becomes a part of their identity with the new club. It introduces them to the fans and — in this day and age — begins to build their personal brand. And like any brand we see, there’s a story behind how it came to be and where it came from.
From your seat in the stadium or your living room, the team can look like just a bunch of names and numbers dancing in the grass. Taken as a whole, the numbers players pick form a quilt of meaning. From traditional to superstitious to quirky to meaningless, these numbers represent something exclusive to each player. It ends up being a mishmash, which is representative of what the game is. The names — whether familiar or foreign — might be easier to remember, but there’s often just as much story to the number beneath it.
At the most basic level, the numbers on the back of the shirt have inherited meanings based on tradition.
If you look back at the 2-3-5 formation developed in the United Kingdom, you can see that the numbering lines up with the oldest base structures in the game.
“A lot of players choose their numbers based on the position they play on the field,” said Equipment Manager Ryan Natusch. “There are 18 players that are eligible to play each game, so, usually 1 and 18 are goalkeeper numbers.”
Numbering positions made it easier to assign and keep track of player roles, and in the pyramid, the formation was heavily geared towards the attack. As the 2-3-5 evolved over time, the 8 and 10 drifted back towards the midfield and the 4 and 5 slipped between the 2 and 3 to create a formation more like what we’re familiar with.
Some of these numbering conventions are reflected in the MNUFC roster today.
Tyler Miller sports number 1 between the sticks.
2 & 3: Outside Backs
Noah Billingsley wears the number 2.
4 & 5: Center Backs
Jose Aja wears number 4.
6: Holding Midfielder
The Loons’ captain, Osvaldo Alonso, plays with number 6 on his back.
8: Center Midfielder
Jan Gregus lines up in the Loons’ starting XI as the 8 both positionally and numerically. However, when he’s called up for international play with the Slovakia national team, it’s a bit different. Under Pavel Hapal, Gregus takes on the holding mid position, and wears the number 6 to reflect this.
“ because it’s nice and it was free, after they wanted me to give up 6 [for Alonso],” said midfielder Jan Gregus. “When I got into national team, 6 was handed to me. When you come there as young player, you are not in position to choose number, or at least we weren't, and 6 and 8 are kind of positions I like to play on pitch as well, meaning central midfielders.”
7 & 11: Winger
Kevin Molino wears number 7 and Thomas Chacon number 11 on the flanks.
10: Attacking Center Midfielder
Luis Amarilla reps number 9.
For the players who don’t pay homage to the traditional numbering system, their choices can be anything from superstitious to random. It could connect to a personal or family history or start a new one, as when Kevin Molino changed from 18 to 7 before last season.
“Kevin Molino was wearing 18 when he got hurt,” said Natusch. “He decided, ‘I’m going to take a different number.’ I thought Molino had one of his better seasons last year. He was pretty much fully fit, he contributed to the team and he liked the number 7.
“Something interesting about the number 10,” continued Natusch. “He wears number 10 for his country, but he said, ‘I don’t want to wear the number 10 here, because to me, that’s too much pressure.'”
When Hassani Dotson was drafted 31st overall in the second round of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, he decided to turn that moment into a number he carries with him every time he touches the field.
The numbers on the players’ backs as they take the field blend tradition, innovation, luck, chance and personal significance into a greater quilt of meaning. Taken on their own, they’re each a part of a story, even if there’s really no story to it at all — Chase Gasper’s number 77 was just a spur of the moment decision. For many, their number’s greatest significance is yet to come as their play and personality win over the hearts and minds of fans both young and old who will remember them forever.