Matthew Wolff Channels Civic Pride into Designs for Soccer Teams Around the World

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Those tapped into the United States professional club soccer scene might have noticed a unique-looking newcomer within the ranks of USL League Two teams this 2022 season. A fresh face will often turn heads, but the Vermont Green FC franchise made an even bigger splash than normal during its inaugural season, due in large part to light-hearted, joyful branding from the brilliant mind of Matthew Wolff.

As a designer, art director, and one of the co-founders of Vermont Green FC, Wolff had free reign to create a look and feel for this Burlington-based club that broke the mold of the typical sports design with which he is intimately familiar through his freelance work. “Like with all of the design projects and soccer branding projects I work on, I’m trying to use design and the branding as a way to draw folks in to become fans, or support the club in other ways; to support the mission,” he told me. “But it’s the first project where I don’t really have to get approval from anyone on the design stuff. It was kind of jarring at first, actually.” 

The entire Vermont Green FC brand system is jovial and fresh, which is epitomized by the club crest created by Wolff that literally smiles back at you. “The crest is fairly reverent, with the smiling mountain with the sun peeking up over it,” he said. “I think that oftentimes, soccer clubs, particularly in the US, try to portray a really intense, machismo look and feel that’s a bit dated. It’s okay to have your club portray more of a sense of joy. Football brings so much joy to so many people around the world from different backgrounds and different cultures, so to have a smiling mountain on your crest reflects that.”

Wolff and his fellow club co-founders are thrilled with the reception the team has gotten in just their first season, and Wolff’s design work is no small part of that popularity. “One of our biggest errors going into the first season was not ordering enough kits— we sold out way too quickly,” he said. “We’ve been totally overwhelmed and so pleased with how it’s been received out here in the community in Burlington, Vermont, and also nationwide and globally. We didn’t even have international shipping activated at first, and that’s something that we quickly had to scramble to do. There was an article about the club in the BBC, so we woke up one morning to, like, 75 emails from British people who wanted a kit.” 

Wolff himself is a lifelong soccer fan and player, so it’s a dream come true for him to co-found and run point on the creative direction of a professional team. He had a transient childhood due to his father’s career as an orchestra conductor, which moved him and his family from New York City to Minneapolis to London. Living in England for five formative years from the ages of 10 to 15 imprinted an indelible love of soccer in Wolff. “That’s where I really fell in love with soccer, and really started to understand the impact a soccer club can have on its community.” 

Wolff ventured back stateside for college in New York, where he also played on the varsity men’s soccer team all four years. “I studied business at Skidmore, because that’s what all of my teammates studied, but then I realized I didn’t want to do that at all,” he said. “After my senior season, I went to the Communication Design professor and said, ‘Can I take your class?’ and she was like, ‘No. You don’t have any of the pre-recs.’” But Wolff was determined, offering to bring his own laptop and sit in the back of the classroom as a fly on the wall. She finally relented, and it was love at first .AI file for the novice. “I remember cracking open Adobe Illustrator for the first time; it was like the first hit of a drug,” Wolff confessed. “I remember being up all night and watching the sunrise because I was so into figuring out Adobe Illustrator.”

After unlocking his passion for design, Wolff continued his studies at Parsons the New School for Design. His affinity for sports design was pretty immediate, given his athletic background. “I’ve always been into it: uniforms and identities and logos, and how those can impact and influence communities,” he said. “Sports fans have an incredibly strong emotional attachment to their team logos, colors, and identities. So much so that I’ve seen countless Yankees tattoos and Red Sox tattoos. People get their team’s emblem on their bodies permanently. I found that connection really fascinating, people wanting to display so prominently where they’re from, and civic pride often runs through sports teams. You don’t see people getting ‘the City of New York’ logo— you see them getting the Yankees or Mets logos tattooed on their bodies.” He said this philosophy extends to teams’ apparel too. “I bet 99% of the people in the world who own a New York Yankees cap have no idea who the starting second baseman is, because it’s not really about the baseball.” 

Wolff boasts an impressive resume of projects from over the years, both from his time working as an apparel designer at Nike, and now as a freelancer. Chances are you’ve already seen his work on beer-battered soccer fans at bars, or bright-eyed kids playing pick-up at parks, and even on some of soccer’s biggest stars like French phenom Kylian Mbappé. He’s made his mark on the thriving NWSL (the United States women’s professional soccer league), having designed crests and jerseys for many clubs in the league including San Diego Wave FC, Racing Louisville FC, and Angel City FC

“I love working with NWSL clubs because there’s a real opportunity to not just do what the men have done,” reflected Wolff. “I love being able to push the boundaries with crests, or kits, or club names— looking to make a bit more of a statement, being more fashion-forward than some on the men’s side. Whether it’s a floral pattern or unique use of color, I think the NWSL has an opportunity to really lead the charge when it comes to creativity in the game.”

The sports landscape has become something of a playground for fashion over the years, with players flexing personal style off the playing field, while designers like Wolff propel a new trend in eye-catching apparel on it. Wolff is responsible for a kit that made significant waves in the fashion world in 2018: the Nigerian National Team World Cup full home and away kits (as well as their pre-match tops and training pieces).

“A lot of credit goes to the Nigerian Federation and the Nike leadership, who encouraged us to really push it as far as we could,” he said. “Nigeria was coming off of having a bunch of very plain green, off-the-shelf, stock jerseys. So to get the bespoke treatment top to bottom, I don’t think soccer fans, or those in the fashion industry, saw it coming. It also came at a time when Nigeria was having (and continues to be having) a real moment in the arts— in film, photography, poetry, fashion. So the jerseys came out at the right time.” 

Much of Wolff’s work is emblematic of the ways fans can support a team beyond the sport itself: through fashion, community building, and tapping into the general vibe of their cities. “Going to soccer games doesn’t always have to be about the soccer,” he said. “It can be about civic pride, or the style, or fashion. People support clubs, or go to matches, or buy merch for a number of reasons— not always because they’re completely drawn to the soccer.” 

Despite these accolades that include designing for some of the most beloved soccer clubs on the planet and co-founding his very own professional team, Wolff retains a level-headed humility about his success. “The best place to see my work is, like, on a random kid kicking a ball against a brick wall. That’s probably the coolest thing to me,” he said. “If you go to a stadium, you’re expecting to see it, though the scale of a stadium is pretty cool, seeing something 50 feet tall on the side of a Jumbotron. And I’m just like, ‘Hopefully those anchor points are in the right place.’”