From Malaysia to Minnesota United: Kitting out an MLS team

Ryan Natusch shares his adventures as an Equipment Manager.

The players’ locker room is said to be sacred ground – a private place where banter and bollockings meet. However, modern day locker rooms are the domain of more than just the players or coaches. There is a support network that isn’t often talked about as they operate behind the scenes.

Players’ custom boots get laid out by their seats, freshly pressed training kits are prepared before the day’s set piece routine – all prepared before the players step in to the room. All of these are done by the equipment manager. They oversee these operations to ensure training sessions and match day operations run smoothly for the entire team. And as you may see in documentaries like All or Nothing – Manchester City, they often are a social support outlet for the players, being their sounding boards for the players when the going gets tough.

One such equipment manager is Ryan Natusch of Major League Soccer (MLS) team, Minnesota United. Ryan was born in Malaysia, though he studied in Singapore for most of his life until his family moved to Minnesota in his late teens.

He grew up idolising Manchester United and loving the Brazilian Ronaldo. Ryan always loved football but was never sure if sports could have been a viable career path for him – until he saw the expansive sports industry in the US.

“In university, I took a sports management degree. I didn’t know if I could get a job in the US so I thought to try my hand at coaching. The youth sports setup in the US is amazing and we never had such an opportunity in Singapore or Malaysia. You can get big scholarships here for being a top player and I wanted to play a part in developing kids in soccer,” shared Ryan.

“But not just teaching them the game but also teaching them the morals and values of sportsmanship. We have the fields and demands to play soccer has never been higher in the US,” added Ryan.

Of course, the path to success is never straight forward and soon, an opportunity to intern with Minnesota United came. This was in 2013, way before they got inducted into the MLS. Minnesota United were playing in the minor league, the NASL.

“I was doing marketing at first; going to events to promote the team and our club would have been lucky to get a thousand fans watching us. Then one day the sporting department called me up needing help with some operational work with the team,” said Ryan. It was on this day that he began his role as an equipment manager.

“I loved it. Being around the team, working with the jerseys and boots and all the inventory. Several months later, the official role opened up and they encouraged me to apply for it since I’ve been with them as an intern.”

Ryan has been privileged to have grown with Minnesota United as they wen from a small league team to one of the best teams in the MLS Western Conference.

“Our entire organisation has a different mindset now. Our coaches have a very high level of expectation from our players every day. And this mindset cuts through the entire club,” he said.

Day to day at Minnesota United

Ryan manages the entire inventory of kits and boots for the players and makes sure they’re ready during training, match day and on away days. He is usually on location before everyone arrives and is the last to leave.

“I arrive about 2 hours before the first person arrives so that I can get everything ready to go. Training starts at 1030am so I’m there by 8am to get the balls pumped, scrimmage vests organised and cones neatly arranged, among other things.”

While there is a standardised way of laying out the full set of gear in the locker room, Ryan notes that some players have their own set ways and rituals on how they’d like their gear arranged.

“When it comes to player rituals, we let them do their own thing. An example would be our goalkeeper, Dayne St. Clair. We will have his locker set up but for some reason he’d need his 2 socks laid flat out on the ground in front of him. Perhaps it’s a visual thing for him and he does that every game. Our ex-player, Francisco Calvo, always has his boots in front of the locker and makes sure no one touches his boots until he’s ready to touch them,” shared Ryan.

Being in such close proximity also means he forms a bond with the players though Ryan insists he has to strike a balance between being friends and co-workers. “I’ve had a special relationship with every player I’ve interacted. You can build a great emotional bond but then next year, they get sold or traded which can be tough. I still keep in contact with many of them and we’re friends.”

One such player was ex-Arsenal and Sunderland goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, who played with Minnesota United on loan for a season.

“Vito was very professional. He came from Arsenal, one of the biggest clubs in the world and he felt that our facilities were on par with Premier League clubs. A great guy to have in the locker room. Vito was always focused on his football. Some players would have a bad day at training and would blame their boots or the ball pressure. Vito doesn’t make excuses and understood that when it’s game time, it’s all on you to perform. I think his mindset and professionalism rubbed off on our players.”

Training with the pros and Covid-19

Sometimes, if he’s lucky, Ryan gets invited to train with the first team though the gap in technical quality can often be daunting.

“I’ve been invited before to participate in warm ups or technical drills where I lay off the ball for the player. On my first day at the club, I wasn’t very good technically on the ball. I couldn’t drive the ball well. You have to deal with the pressure because if you play a bad pass, the coach and players yell at you for playing a poor pass,” he recalled.

“This year, Adrian (Heath, the head coach) invited me to a set piece training drill where I had to float in a corner kick. The first couple of balls I played in were atrocious and they took me off corners. I took some time off to practice my corners at the park and the next time he called me in, I played in this beautiful cross into the box and everyone was stunned. Adrian was like ‘Where did that come from? Where was that 2 weeks ago?,” chuckled Ryan.

Despite this fun distraction, Ryan’s schedule gets pretty hectic and he’s needed almost seven days a week. While players don’t train every day, players who are on different programs (recovery, strengthening etc.) would come in on separate days and Ryan would still need to be there to assist with any gear needed for those players.

Covid-19 hasn’t made Ryan’s job any easier too. The MLS season restarted their season and had all teams play a knockout tournament. Alongside the NBA, MLS teams were placed in sports bubble at Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports for 41 days. Minnesota United players and staff were tested regularly, given strict protocols and were not allowed to leave this bubble for the entire duration.

“We adapted our policies to take extra precaution every time we learnt something new about Covid, which was almost every few days. Back then, if a player wears one of those big winter jackets for about 10 minutes, we could just put it back on the rack if they didn’t sweat in them. Now, we wash everything because you never know where the virus can be. It’s more work but we do the best we can to keep people safe.”

Signed jerseys and limited edition football boots

When it comes to football boots, Ryan is just as enthusiastic about them as anyone of us at BOOTHYPE. He oversees a huge collection of adidas boots for any players without a contract and recommends pairs they should try on.

“The league is sponsored by adidas so all our kits worn by players and staff have to be adidas kits. In terms of boots, if the player doesn’t have a boot endorsement deal, they have to wear adidas boots so we have a room full of the latest adidas boots for new players to try on,” he explained.

“Many of them had experience playing in Nike Mercurial Vapors so they tend to prefer the adidas X Ghosted or even the adidas Nemeziz. It’s very different switching between Nike and adidas but it’s my job to make it seamless and comfortable for the player.”

Ryan also had the privilege to work with adidas on future launches as he manages the club’s boot collection. “I’ve had the luck to get my hands on limited edition boots like the X99.1 and Predator Mutator Archive for my personal collection though my favourite pair has to be the X17+ Purespeed. I liked how they fit on me and I like how my touch feels clean with the lace cover.”

All the special access to football gear can’t always compare to meeting your big heroes. “My biggest fanboy moment was meeting Nani. Minnesota United was in Orlando City for pre-season and on that day, they announced Nani as a new signing. He is my favourite player and while I was in the stadium locker room, I saw him walk past and my whole body froze. I have the first jersey that Nani signed when he joined Orlando City,” beamed Ryan.

His other highlights also include signatures from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger and the entire AC Milan team when they visited Minnesota United for pre-season.

Just like Minnesota United, Ryan has come a long way since his first foray into American soccer and he’s proud of his team’s upward trajectory. “You get all these big European teams and players coming here and complimenting us on our facilities and how we conduct ourselves. It makes me really proud of the work we have been doing to establish ourselves as a serious sporting organisation.”

“We came from the minor leagues and now, we’re a serious professional team competing in the play offs.”

From a fellow Singaporean and neighbour, this writer is absolutely proud of him too.

A big thank you to Ryan for making time for this interview and the Minnesota United media team for providing us with these amazing photos. We at BOOTHYPE wish Minnesota United all the best for MLS Cup Playoffs.

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