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A slightly different cleat shape can make the difference between winning and losing.
In their most basic sense, football and soccer cleats are just shoes with studs that protrude into the ground to keep athletes upright when cutting, faster when sprinting, and stable when pushing. But if you take a look at the footwear of today's top athletes, we're a long way from basic.
Nearly a century after the the first mass producing of soccer cleats, today's shoes use force-plate technology, computer analysis, and advanced materials to maximize an athlete's performance, whether he or she is on natural grass or an artificial surface. As Nike rolls out its newest advancements this fall—including new anti-clog technology that covers the studs with a water- and mud-repellant film—it's clear that manufacturers can tailor a player's cleats to even their specific position on the field.
Take football. Nike offers three lines of football cleats, says Marlan Harper, Nike product line manager for football footwear. There's the Vapor for speedy receivers, the Alpha for running backs and linebackers who have to quickly change direction, and the Force line for the big guys on the offensive and defensive lines. Soccer is similar: attacking forwards, dynamic midfields, and steady defenders wear specific shoes.
You probably know that shoes themselves are made of different materials depending upon their purpose and position on the field, but the same is true of the actual cleats. Thermo nylon studs are rigid but lightweight for sudden propulsion. TPU, meanwhile, offers a stable yet comfortable stud for a forgiving fit, more appropriate for a defender.
Harper says looking at both movement and weight of players also helps determine the style and size of studs placed on cleat plates.
Nike's use of a digital "Finite Element Analysis" allows designers to play with the cleat plate and test it virtually before making a 3-D-printed version for real-life testing. This process includes changing the locations of the studs and tweaking the geometry of individual studs to see how they react to the pressures of the foot. Max Blau, Nike's vice president of football (soccer) footwear, says using a virtual model speeds up the design process.
The quick-moving world of digital analysis has already produced a major shift in design for speed cleats. Nike used a bladed stud for explosive speed—the conical stud helps with multi-directional movements, while other geometries with differing sides help to either decelerate a player or move in a specific direction based on the angle of the flat surfaces—but FEA data showed that chevron shapes offer increased propulsion and multidirectional movements over the blade.
The typical soccer cleat plate will often include a mix of conical and chevron (an inverted V shape) geometry. "One of the greatest benefits of stud placement is stud disbursement, or the equalizing of pressure of the studs across the plate," Blau says.
When the Dassler brothers started offering rubber molded cleats around 1925 it was a major materials advancement. And the 1960s gave us some new placements of those studs, but still in a typical conical stud. The rubber conical stud remained a mainstay of the 1900s and it has taken a research effort—whether materials or geometry—to move the cleat beyond the conical.
Now we have designs that focus on speed—the Mercurial Superfly in soccer, for example—that place angled studs in the forefoot for propulsion and chevrons in the heel for braking. Others offer rotational traction with chevrons encircling the ball of the foot combining with half-conicals on the outside for a quicker movement. Studs have changed in size too, growing smaller over time as research show the smaller diameter of a surface area, Blau says, provides both better surface penetration and a faster release of the ground.
In a basic sense, cleats remain shoes with studs poking the ground. But engineering has given basic a fresh design.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.