A parade of minivans. Lush, immaculate green grass. Perfectly striped white lines. Every child uniformly dressed, hydrated, fed, instructed. Referees with their neat outfits and shrill whistles. Moms and dads in camping chairs bivouacked on the sidelines. Little soccer players running far and wide, chasing a full size ball across the giant field, kicking it once in a while towards the giant goal.
Accuracy, control, skill, inventiveness are sideshows to the main event: running and chasing is the name of the game on these suburban fields. The moms and dads heckle the referee, and sometimes even the children. Someone wins, someone loses, everyone cares — too much.
The invoices go out and the parents stump up: for the price of a vacation in Italy, their children enjoy the privilege of pay-to-play soccer.
This has long been soccer in America.
In Indiana, that’s starting to change thanks to a new sport taking hold — futsal.
I must note, before we go on: the above portrait has a mean spirited undercurrent that is not entirely fair. The thousands of volunteer youth soccer advocates who have grown soccer from its marginalized roots over the past few decades to make it a mainstream sport actually deserve far more praise and recognition than they have received. Without it, the North American Soccer League team I work for, Indy Eleven, likely wouldn’t exist and certainly could not draw 10,000 fans a game.
The soccer moms and dads aren’t a problem: in fact, they’re the backbone of soccer’s growth nationwide. It’s just that they aren’t the solution, either, to America’s pressing need: for soccer to become an urban sport, accessible to all regardless of means, developing players with the touch, spatial awareness and flair needed to elevate the men’s national team and its professional leagues to the levels of Europe and South America. All the minivans in the world aren’t delivering that.
Not that it’s perfect everywhere in Europe, either. When I was a kid, growing up in Brighton, England, my inner-city primary (elementary) school didn’t have any grass. Our concrete outdoor play area was the size of a postage stamp. But we played soccer (football!) out there every day during break and lunchtime. Nobody in my class owned an actual soccer ball, so instead, we rolled some socks up and taped them together. We learned some pretty good skills controlling and passing a ball in a space like that.
Then when I was 11, I went to Secondary School and suddenly we were playing on giant fields, chasing a full size ball, on windswept muddy fields. Any skill I had developed playing without rules, controlling a small ball in tight spaces, didn’t develop much further. I got faster, better at tackling, tracking runs, hitting the ball harder, able to run forever. But I didn’t improve technically all that much from any formal training I received. I continued to develop more actual skill playing pickup at local parks every moment I could outside of school or club soccer.
A way of playing the sport I didn’t discover until moving to America, it turns out, is actually what could have best developed my foot skills alongside playing organized outdoor soccer: futsal.
Futsal can be played on any hard surface indoors or outdoors: a gymnasium, a converted tennis court or a parking lot surface. It requires a smaller space (roughly a basketball court size), fewer players (5 v 5), and a ball that is slightly heavier and smaller than a regular ball, easier to control and encouraging fluid passing and movement. Every player in futsal touches the ball with a frequency unmatched in the outdoor game: forced to make quick decisions, take risks in dribbling and passing. There is no place to hide for all taking part: they are involved in every play. It’s fun, fast, and exciting.
Futsal is the game that developed the skills of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Robinho and most other Latin American players of note. Size and strength isn’t inflated in importance in futsal among young players as it is in the 11 v 11 outdoor game, as Xavi observed:
“In futsal, you see whether a player is really talented. In normal football you don’t necessarily identify talent as easily because it’s so much more physical. But with futsal, you notice the small details in quality, class and tactical understanding.”
Unfortunately, Anglo-American soccer culture has not embraced futsal traditionally, and that has hurt player development on both sides of the Atlantic. An emphasis on size and strength has long led to smaller, more skillful players being dismissed in the youth soccer world with its emphasis on winning now. Futsal helps bypass that, as it rewards a good touch, smart movement and imaginative play far more than over-developed physiques.
The legions of British coaches who have played significant roles in coaching America’s youth these past couple of decades have been as unfamiliar with futsal as I was when I arrived in the United States. (Some have adapted and embraced futsal now, especially as the English Football Association has belatedly made the game a priority.)
In the United States, there have been dedicated advocates of futsal for many decades (the U.S. National Futsal team played its first game in 1984) — but faced with the competition of indoor-soccer-with-walls, it’s only in the past few years the sport of futsal has really started to make headway with a slowly growing emphasis on the sport from U.S. Soccer.
It’s at the grassroots level that the U.S. needs to develop a futsal culture to spread the game to new communities and help more young players develop greater technique and flair. Fortunately, precisely because of futsal’s accessibility and with the support of the traditional soccer community, the opportunity is there for the sport to grow rapidly.
In Indiana, Indy Eleven — the state’s only professional club — has partnered with the governing body of amateur youth and adult soccer, Indiana Soccer, to make the development of futsal a priority.
This summer, Indiana Soccer hired a full-time Director of Futsal (affiliating to U.S. Futsal in the process), former Indy Eleven intern Justin Becht, to spearhead the growth of places to play, coaching education, leagues and pickup play. Futsal is already becoming part of the programming of Indianapolis YMCAs (echoing the sport’s origin in Uruguayan YMCA halls), Boys & Girls Clubs and at local schools. The Mayor of Indianapolis himself has embraced the game.
In May this year, Indy Eleven, Indiana Soccer and the Indiana Soccer Foundation worked together to open Indianapolis’ first dedicated futsal facility at Rhodius Park on the city’s near west side, in a mostly Hispanic, low-income neighborhood. One of the beauties of futsal is its relatively low cost: less than $15,000 was spent to convert a disused and crumbling tennis court into a futsal facility. Now, every day, dozens of neighborhood kids — notably, especially girls from the area — are out there playing for hours on end. They aren’t sitting inside on their PlayStations or watching TV, they are out together playing futsal. There are no uniforms, no coaches, no score keeping or referees: just kids playing until the sun goes down.
Indiana’s futsal initiative isn’t about developing the next Messi (though that would be nice!): it’s about bringing places to play to neighborhoods that don’t have FieldTurf soccer fields (which is most of urban America). The goal of the #FutsalForIndiana program is to build at least 11 futsal courts in locations that need places to play, and from there, help the game mushroom as Parks and School Districts realize it is an affordable way to implement a sport that is tremendous for fitness and fun. Since Rhodius Park opened, we have already heard from a wide range of individuals and groups across Indiana who want to partner and bring futsal to their communities.
One challenge futsal faces is the lack of awareness of what futsal actually is. One solution to this are showcase events for the sport. In Indy, the Mayor’s International Futsal Cup held this September was the first step to spreading broader awareness of the sport.
This event was the brainchild of Mayor Greg Ballard, who suggested Indianapolis host a “World Cup” of soccer featuring teams representing international communities from across Central Indiana. We quickly realized a futsal tournament would be a perfect way to host an entertaining, fast-paced event in downtown Indianapolis. Historic Pan Am Plaza, located between Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker’s Life Arena, was converted for a weekend into a futsal showcase, with four SnapSports futsal courts provided by the U.S. Futsal Federation. Amateur teams representing 32 international communities played a World Cup format to a backdrop of international music, food trucks, craft beer, and plenty of passion from local fans.
The event headlined the front page of the Indy Star, Indianapolis’ daily paper, the Monday after the Honduran team claimed the tournament title.
Building on this success, further futsal tournaments are already planned for Indiana, including the U.S. Futsal Regional Tournament at Grand Park in Westfield next February, featuring over 120 teams.
In just a couple of years, futsal has made huge strides in the Hoosier State — and there are tremendous developments elsewhere in the country too, including the impending launch of the nation’s first professional futsal league and the installation of courts in numerous urban locations.
Futsal will never displace the outdoor game, and nor should it, but it is a tremendous supplement for traditional soccer due to its accessibility, its benefits for skill development, and for sheer enjoyment. Let’s play!