By Howard Liebeskind, DPM
Soccer is constantly immersed in a dynamic of strategic change and physical demand as players become stronger, faster, more agile, and fit at younger ages. Manufacturers of soccer cleats are now required to meet the needs of youth and adolescent players by integrating concepts previously reserved for the elite professional player.
During the progressions of a typical 90-minute professional or international match, a player will frequently cover 8,000 to 11,000 meters. Two-thirds of the total distance covered is generally associated with walking and jogging and one-third is associated cruising, sprinting and backing. Approximately 800 meters of each game requires bursts of 10-40 meters. Within these movements, there is a change of speed every 5-6 seconds. Such activity requires a most supportive and comfortable cleat construct.
Although youth soccer players might not come within a fraction of running as much as or as forcefully as those in the professional game, soccer shoe development teams have recently incorporated into their shoes the most important characteristics required for supportive and comfortable play.
Functional Requirements of Soccer Cleats
A quality and biodynamically sound soccer shoe must allow for complete freedom of function and movement. It must also provide total comfort and support. Unfortunately, the principles governing control and comfort will often be at odds with each other. The more control a cleat exhibits, the less flexible and more sturdy and controlling its structure will be. The opposite is true of the comfort scenario. One will find the more comfortable cleat to have a more flexible and somewhat less stable environment. Both present with advantages and disadvantages. Developing a "hybrid" cleat that provides the best combination of comfort and control is a guiding principle of manufacturers.
Basic Structural and Functional Characteristics Of Soccer Cleats
Excessive motion of the foot during play has been vigorously addressed over the past several years with numerous improvements now part of the cleat environment. Excessive motion can lead to problems such as blisters and tendonitis. Many of these components are now integrated to provide the control and comfort needed for youth, adolescent and advanced play.
The External Last
The external last is the form on which an athletic shoe or cleat is constructed. The global three dimensional shape of the shoe essentially represents the design form of the external last. Lasts are straight, curved or semi curved. External lasts are designed to target common foot shapes and contours found within the population.
Individuals with normal or flat foot types will likely find themselves most comfortable in cleats fabricated from a somewhat straight or slightly curved last. Those with in-toed and/or high-arched foot types will find slightly curved lasts more to their liking and benefit.
The Internal Last
A cleat’s internal last or footbed construction has a vital impact upon the player’s performance. The footbed construction delivers the optimal blend of stability and flexibility and lends personality to the shoe. It is the functional interface between the foot and the studs at the bottom of the shoe. The "internal last" refers to the structure of the footbed found under the arch support or sockliner of the cleat. A good quality internal last can help provide proper support for the arch and users foot type. The footbed and arch support found in many cleats may provide inadequate support for the foot and may need to be replaced by a more supportive insole. A proper insole can minimize problems such as plantar fasciitis.
The Heel Counter
The heel counter is a structure that cradles the back of the heel. It must be bonded strongly to the outsole plate as well as the remainder of the “upper” (the portion of the shoes that surrounds the foot). A well-constructed heel counter will not bend and will maintain in a parallel, vertical position when viewed from the rear of the cleat, even after long-term vigorous use. If the counter “gives” to either side and a parallelogram appears the cleat is at a functional deficit. A quality external heel counter should be rigid from the outside and accompanied by good padding on the inside to prevent blistering.
The upper portion of the cleat is that portion which you see from the top. More than just a place for advertising, it acts as a protective functional foot covering. It is firmly bonded to the outsole plate. The upper contributes significantly to side-to-side stability of the foot and is also of importance in controlling the ball during play. It has unique and distinct features as determined by the fabricator; it may be synthetic or leather. Synthetics are gaining popularity even in the most expensive shoes because of their ability to affect the player's ability to put swerve or power on the ball.
Field Conditions and Different Cleat Types
Field conditions frequently dictate the need for variation and change in one’s cleat pattern and cleat type. We generally break down field conditions and cleat types into various categories for outdoor play:
Turf Fields (TF)
Hard Ground (HG)
Firm Ground (FG)
Soft Ground (SG)
Regardless of the environmental conditions, the outsole and cleat pattern must communicate with the field and yield maximum grab and traction.
Cleat, Blade and Stud Patterns for Outdoor Play
Cleat pattern and cleat position design is both an art and a science. Research and development in conjunction with field testing have provided the playing public with a myriad of excellent choices.
• Turf Field (TF) - for play on extremely hard and/or original synthetic surfaces
These cleats have been designed for harsh and or extreme field conditions as well as older original synthetic surfaces. These finely studded shoes are most helpful where the field is balanced but natural grass may not be available or in its best form. They are grippy and can provide maneuverability
• Hard Ground (HG) - for play on hard unforgiving field conditions
These cleats generally have short studs and appear in fairly uniform patterns across the outsole plate. In this grouping of cleats studs are prepared from thermal plastic or rubber. They are very effective for grab in difficult to penetrate field surfaces and conditions. They can provide adequate traction and simultaneous comfort without significant loss of mechanical control. Studs tend to be shorter and softer than the Firm Ground (FG) variety.
• Firm Ground (FG) - for playing on the firm to moderately forgiving field.
Firm ground cleats are perhaps the most commonly used cleat type sold. With modern blade technologies frequently employed, generally 10-14 in number, pivot points, impacts points and stability needs have been addressed in a manner to provide control and comfort for the average player. A blade is often preferred over a round stud. In addition they help each player keep a low center of gravity on a field that has been fairly well manicured.
• Soft Ground (SG) - for playing on soft field
Soccer shoes for rain soaked or soft field conditions occasionally require longer, detachable studs. Replaceable studs are found in various shapes and forms, generally numbering six, and are used most frequently by the most advanced and competitive player. They are fabricated in different lengths (12mm-16mm), so one can adjust his or her soccer shoes based on condition of the field at the time of play. Soft ground studs should not be used on firm fields because they can lead to a higher injury rate.
Biomechanical design concepts once reserved for cleats worn only by professional athletes are now found in numerous models used by youth players. Choosing the proper shoe based on the athlete's foot type will lead to improved performance and will go a long way to reducing injury risk.
Dr Liebeskind is a member of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and serves as the Team Podiatrist to the US Men’s World Cup and National Teams, US Women’s World Cup and National Teams, Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, and CD Chivas USA of Major League Soccer. He has also served as the Podiatric Consultant to the Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League during the teams pre season tours of the United States in 2006 and 2007.