TUKWILA — Yes, it’s intentional. Moments before kickoff, the starting XI for the Sounders quickly line up for a group photo, right fullback Alex Roldan weaving his way toward older brother Cristian to pose in the front row.
“I like to be next to Cristian, that way we can both look at it when we’re older and look back on when we used to play with each other,” Alex said. “Especially when results go our way.”
The photo album is getting thick. There are quibbles about whether it’s “soccer” or “football”; “kits” or “jerseys,” but the starting XI photo has become synonymous with the game — regardless of gender — like chants and scarves.
The Roldans have accumulated 50 for MLS regular season matches since Alex made his pro debut as a starter in the April 2018 match against Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. The brothers also started alongside each other for the historic CONCACAF Champions League run, 2021 All-Star Game and 2020 MLS Cup final.
Widen the focus from the brothers, and soccer is overflowing with starting XI pictures. Historians aren’t sure why the photo became a global custom but suspect FIFA’s strict governance — from the walkout music to corner flags — had some influence. The evolution makes soccer the only U.S. sport to carve time before the first whistle, pitch or snap to take a starter’s photo.
“It might be fast, but we had it as part of our list of things to get done,” said Thom Meredith, a former director of communications for U.S. Soccer beginning in 1986 and its director of event operations from 1991-2000.
Meredith facilitated and oversaw the match-day structure of more than 300 U.S. men’s and women’s national team events and only recalled one where he didn’t have the sides take a starting XI picture. A torrential downpour soaked the 1992 U.S. Cup tournament and pregame ceremonies for the USMNT’s 3-1 win against Ireland were moved indoors because of the heavy rain.
“It was ugly,” Meredith said. “I had a brand-new Ireland flag and the colors — orange, white, green — bled on the flag. It was the day I decided I never want to be wet again, but we played the game.”
The first shot
Soccer originated from a Chinese military game called “Cuju,” which translates to kickball, but England’s Football Association (FA) codified the game in 1863 with the Laws of Association Football.
The English might be the trendsetters for the starting XI photo tradition, too. The first image dates to 1825 and the oldest lineup picture is believed to be the starting XI for east London’s Forest Football in 1863. The club changed its name to Wanderers Football Club in 1865.
Dressed in slacks, button-down shirts and three players with paperboy hats, the men have a large bush as a backdrop and three chairs as props for the photo. One player turned the chair backward to sit. Another has his foot on the seat with the ball. And one is in all black, either a deviation from the agreed attire or origin of the keeper wearing a different color than the rest of the team.
The National Football Museum (NFM) in Manchester, England, has a starting XI photo from 1870 where all the Harrow Public School players are wearing pinstripe knickerbockers and paperboy hats. Six are seated in a semicircle on a building’s curved bench, the others seated higher in the nooks of the building’s windows with one standing and leaning into a wall of ivy. None of the men is smiling.
“All of these teams were amateurs, ex-public-school men from an upper-class background,” NFM curator Peter Holme wrote in an email. “They were the pioneers of Association football and could afford to have proper kit and photographs taken before a match. However, there are not many examples of these early football team photos surviving.”
The inaugural FA Cup in 1872 helped popularize the starting XI photo throughout England and it spread from there. Like across the Atlantic to Central America from English railway engineers.
As a soccer prodigy in Colombia, Sounders striker Fredy Montero said he liked to look at the black-and-white starting XI photos from the 1940s.
“It’s always been a tradition,” Montero said of what is regarded as a perk for starters.
But many involved in the early days of club and semipro soccer in the U.S. said the photo wasn’t consistently taken for domestic league matches until MLS’s inaugural season in 1996 and the NWSL in 2013. The ease of cellphone cameras helped make the custom accessible.
Montero was part of a significant one for the Sounders as a starter for the club’s inaugural MLS match in 2009. When shown a copy of the starting XI photo, Montero had a flood of memories.
“It’s as if it was yesterday,” said Montero, then a 22-year-old striker. “I remember [keeper] Kasey Keller being a grumpy teammate. He was the old guy back in the day and he was always looking after us, the young players and new guys that came in the league.”
Capture this setup
There’s only one pattern to starting XI photos — the keeper stands in back because they’re typically the tallest player.
Many think the Brazilian men’s national team popularized the shift from squatting to hunching over for the front-row starters.
The Welsh men’s national team couldn’t get a symmetrical look, so around 2016, they opted for varying formations to have fun with the photo. OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock had her Welsh women’s national team pick up the trend in 2017.
Last NWSL season, Fishlock, defender Lu Barnes and forward Megan Rapinoe started the lopsided starting XI photos for Reign matches. Rapinoe once dyed a happy face on the back of her head and faced backward for the picture.
The Sounders often use the lasting image as a platform for messaging. In 2019, the starting XI joined Portland’s starters to hold banners that read, in part, “Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racism.” When social-distancing was required during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the players stood apart during the 2020 season.
“The ladies are more playful,” said Jane Gershovich, a contracted team photographer for the Sounders and Reign. “The rush that the photographers have to want to go get that photo and the competition, people nudging everybody for the one spot, so they’re centered, is probably interesting to watch. Especially for a big game.”
Where are they now?
Club marketing via social media platforms is the most popular spot for the modern-day starting XI photos. Old reprints decorate offices and homes or are covered with autographs as keepsakes.
It’s a built-in “how it started”/“how it ended” meme unique to soccer that reveals its importance over time. But photos taken globally won’t be seen again.
“I took one for the U.S. team and Trinidad and Tobago in 1989, and Adidas used that shot for a lot of their advertising,” said Jon van Woerden, a Florida-based sports photographer since 1977. “But that wasn’t why I shot it. I shot it just to have it. And I shoot all of the starting XI’s nowadays just to have them, for my record of being there.”
Van Woerden’s fleeting moment of fandom for the FIFA World Cup qualifier match is now known as the “shot heard round the world.” Paul Caliguri’s left-footed goal from distance in the 30th minute was the game-winner, earning the USMNT its first World Cup berth since 1950.
Chris Henderson, a former Sounders executive who’s currently the sporting director for Inter Miami CF, was the youngest player on the USMNT’s return to the World Cup in 1990.
“No matter what the game is, you want to be in that photo,” said Henderson, whose first memory of taking a starting XI photo was before winning the Class 3A boys state soccer title for Cascade in 1987. “You’ve prepared and worked hard to make that starting lineup, and there’s a photo. It’s a memory that lasts forever.”