ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Minnesota United’s ‘kit men’: Ryan Natusch, Sean Bigness really are the fabric of the club

The Loons’ kit men are responsible for setting up the team’s oval-shaped locker room at Allianz Field, with everything players need to perform — from emergency headgear down to their socked toes.

newunited1007-lead.jpg
Minnesota United assistant equipment manager Sean Bigness does his pregame tradition of catching balls in a bag, which has become a hit with supporters, before a home match during the 2022 season. Bigness and Director of Equipment Ryan Natusch are integral members of MNUFC staff.
Courtesy / Minnesota United
We are part of The Trust Project.

ST. PAUL — Minnesota United has some star power.

To name just four: There’s MLS All-Stars in Emanuel Reynoso and Dayne St. Clair, Finland national team midfielder Robin Lod and manager Adrian Heath, who had an illustrious playing career in England.

But when the Loons made their way past fans for a September match at Providence Park in Portland, Ore., no one team-wide was more sought after than Sean Bigness.

Who? The club’s assistant equipment manager.

During the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida in 2020, Bigness wanted to be more efficient at one of his tasks: collecting soccer balls at the end of pregame warmups, so on goalkeepers’ booming punts, Bigness would track them like a baseball outfielder and catch them in a mesh bag.

ADVERTISEMENT

Once the pandemic eased and fans returned, Bigness kept up the routine and supporters embraced the organic bit of entertainment. Loons midfielder Jacori Hayes nicknamed it the “Big Show” and Allianz Field’s game operations staff have added a “cha-ching!” sound when Bigness nets each ball.

Bigness will again have his few minutes of fame before the Loons play Vancouver Whitecaps in the Decision Day finale at 4 p.m. Sunday in St. Paul.

That quirky context had some fans excited at the Loons-Timbers game in Oregon a month ago. During the promenade between bus and locker room, members of MNUFC overheard traveling supporters say: “There’s the guy who catches the balls.”

“I thought it was quite funny,” Heath recalled. “That is a new one on me. … He’s got his own little fan club going.”

What are ‘kit men?’

Bigness and Ryan Natusch, MNUFC’s director of equipment, are known in soccer parlance as “kit men,” a role that received ample attention in the hit TV show “Ted Lasso.” In the first two seasons, character Nathan Shelley climbed from a shy, bullied kit man to wunderkind assistant coach, who then betrays head coach Lasso before jumping ship to be head coach at a rival club.

Unlike Shelley’s selfishness, Bigness and Natusch are all about the Loons. While Bigness has enjoyed his notoriety, he would much rather there be silence before games.

The Loons’ kit men are responsible for setting up the team’s oval-shaped locker room at Allianz Field, with everything players need to perform — from emergency headgear down to their socked toes.

If no player seeks them out pregame, they’ve done their job.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The best feeling is to have no one talk to us,” Bigness said. “Except if they want to talk to us. I don’t want anyone coming up to me and saying, ‘I need this.’ If they’re thinking about that, it could take them out of their zone.”

newunited1007-second.jpg
Minnesota United Director of Equipment, Ryan Natusch, looks around during warm-ups before the start of an MLS game against Houston at Allianz Field in St. Paul in August 2021.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo

Bigness has been with the Loons so long his internship offer letter came on Minnesota Stars letterhead months before the club’s pre-MLS rebrand in 2013. Natusch was in the same internship class as Bigness and never left. Bigness spent two years with Gophers football program before returning in the club’s final season before MLS in 2016. Together, they are among the club’s longest-tenured employees. (The ball-catching bit has origins to the Loons’ NASL days, but didn’t become a regular thing until two years ago.)

Their commitment includes being among the first to arrive and last to leave the club’s training grounds at the National Sports Center in Blaine each day. When the team’s flight returns from an away game at 3 a.m., they will load up the cargo van with gear for another trip up to Blaine.

They might start a load of laundry but are more concerned about the cleats, err, boots. “They smell the most,” Natusch said. “The boots need to get out, especially if we played the game in the rain. They’re … swampy. It’s really bad.”

While they do wash the Loons’ clothing, they make up the club’s fabric. “Kit men are vital to the team,” seven-year MLS veteran goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. “ They are the heart and soul of a lot that goes on and puts in so much time and effort.”

As a backup for most of this season, Miller has been the key player providing balls for Bigness to catch. Sometimes he will punt them as high as he can, and it’s not just Loons fans who have enjoyed it.

“It actually gets the opposing fans into the warmups,” Miller said. “They actually erupt into applause. They also enjoy the tradition that we started.”

Bigness, a weekend-warrior-type athlete, didn’t realize his routine was enjoyable to outsiders until last season. “Oh, dang,” he recalled. “They’re actually excited and into this. I just thought they were just being nice and cheering for me.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Bigness has made some impressive catches, including earlier this season when a ball bounced off the advertising boards and he stuck with it to make the catch. He has also tried to add some flair to his catches, including no-looks and behind-the-back snags.

He tried one no-look catch earlier this season but took his eyes off it too soon and the ball skipped off the bag and into the back of the net. After that, the Chicago native bagged the tricks.

“We’re a Midwestern state with Midwestern values,” Bigness said. “Just do the thing correctly and well. We don’t need a flare.”

A thankless job

Outside of Bigness’s ball-catching, Heath knows being a kit man can be a thankless job. At age 16, he was one with his first club, Stoke City, in England.

“I got in the first team for a year (in 1979) and still had to do all them jobs,” said Heath, now 61. “There was none of that, ‘Oh, he’s in the first team, now we will give him a break.’ ”

Heath saw how a kit woman can become “surrogate mothers” to players when they needed a boost. Bigness and Natusch provide a different relationship. They joined MNUFC in roughly their early 20s, when they were younger than most players. Now they are older than the average age.

“I used to be the one always working, working, working, working,” said Natusch, now 30. “Now I’m the one saying (to players), ‘Hey, clean up your stuff. This is not how it’s supposed to be.’ ”

Natusch will use the tidiness of certain veteran players’ lockers as an example for younger guys. He points out Michael Boxall, Wil Trapp and Brent Kallman.

MORE MINNESOTA LOONS COVERAGE:
Pro
The Loons acquired Rosales on an 18-month loan in August 2021, liked what they saw across 30 MLS matches.
Pro
Magee will vacate his role in the Loons’ front office in scouting and recruitment, which saw him routinely travel abroad in search of MLS talent.
Pro
Minnesota locked in the sixth seed and will travel to No. 3 FC Dallas for a first-round match next week.
Pro
Fragapane is on a team-friendly guaranteed compensation of $257,000, per MLSPA, and has been one of the most productive Loons over his two seasons.
Pro
MNUFC went into Saturday’s match in California with an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win and some help. That assistance came with Real Salt Lake’s draw with L.A. Galaxy late Saturday
Pro
Without him, the Loons are clinging to one of the final playoff spots with two games remaining.
Pro
With Minnesota’s playoff positioning slipping in three straight scoreless losses, a goal and a point will be precious. But they lost points from a winning position at home.
Pro
After a slow start, the Loons ascended to be one of the league’s best through late August, netting 26 out of the next 33 points during that stretch.
Pro
Reynoso, who has a team-high 10 goals, tweaked his right ankle before halftime of last Saturday’s 3-0 loss to FC Dallas.
Pro
Matt Navratil, a 26-year-old from Burnsville, Minnesota, is a diehard Loons fan and a season-ticket holder who travels with his parents, Scott and Chris, to a few road games each season.

“It’s now easy for me to guide them on how to act like a pro,” Natusch said. He also tries to get a jump on his own professionalism.

Once Loons technical director Mark Watson alerts Natusch to a new signing — such as Mender Garcia and Alan Benitez this summer — he will Google the new addition.

If a player is listed at, say, 5-foot-9 like Benitez, Natusch is thinking about organizing medium-size clothing. Natusch will find if the player has a shoe contract and contact that vendor — likely Nike, Puma or Adidas — to set up a delivery. Natusch will note things such as what type of socks a player has worn in matches for their previous club.

When the player arrives in Minnesota, Natusch will present the player with a series of clothing options and discuss the number he wants to wear and whether it’s available.

“When new players come in, they’re very excited and they’re just happy to be here,” Natusch said. “There’s no diva-esque vibe.”

Natusch and Bigness need to have strong interpersonal communication skills, while understanding and navigating players’ different personalities. For instance, one former unnamed player was a “great guy,” but would get grumpy when greeted with a “good morning.” He would bristle, saying they just saw each other the day before.

Natusch and Bigness want players to feel comfortable and will sometimes go above the job description to help players out. Saul Rosales, the assistant team administrator and a Spanish speaker, will do similar things for the Latino players.

For instance, they have picked up Lod and his family from the airport, and they helped former goalkeeper Vito Mannone move out of his apartment after the 2019 season.

Natusch and Bigness know players talk among themselves and decisions to move clubs go beyond salaries and playing time to how they will be treated at their new home.

“They’ll remember us and be like, ‘Oh, those are the kind of guys we want to be with,’ ” Bigness said. “We want Minnesota to be known for a really good support staff and that we really take care of our guys.”

______________________________________________________

This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA LOONS
What to read next
Pro
D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards both score 25-plus in home win.
Pro
Down early, Calgary takes over game to win its third straight.
Pro
Correa remains top priority for Minnesota's offseason.
Pro
Football great's father, Archie, played for Vikings in early '80s.