Courtesy: The New York TimesIndoor Soccer Skills Blossom Into Open-Air Artistry
by Jack BellJune 30, 2012
The United States will play a World Cup qualifying match on Monday in Guatemala City. Wait. Didn’t the United States soccer team recently play a qualifier in Central America?
A World Cup qualifier in futsal, a five-man indoor soccer game, will be played in Guatemala City.
Yes, but this qualifier is for the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup in Thailand later this year. Futsal is short for the Spanish fútbol sala, or indoor football.
In the United States, indoor soccer reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1980s and early ’90s, when it was mostly played on ice hockey rinks covered with a thin carpet and jury-rigged goals carved into the glass and end boards. Not surprisingly, the United States put in strong showings in the first two Futsal World Cups, finishing third in 1989 and second in 1992.
Futsal may be the de rigueur training method in many South American and European countries, but the five-on-five game, played on a field roughly the size of a basketball court with a smaller, weighted ball (think restricted-flight softball) is only now gaining adherents in this country. The idea is to develop close-ball skills, playing on the floor and not in the air, so players gain a better understanding of movement off the ball.
“Countries that are the best in futsal are also the most technically skilled outdoors,” said Peter Smith, the founder of the Washington-based Smash Soccer consulting agency, who was a member of the 1989 United States team, “including the best players who learned and played almost all their soccer until age 14 and 15 on small urban futsal courts, players like Zidane, Figo, Robinho, Ronaldinho, Maradona.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that players who play with tight skills, using the sole of their foot, play tiki-taka, all had futsal as their foundation, just like urban New York City basketball players, or hockey played on small ponds in Canada.”
Several years ago, a Nike promotional campaign used footage of Ronaldinho, the Brazilian star, playing futsal as a youngster. It is easy to see where his technique and improvisational skills came from.
In Guatemala City for qualifying games at the Domo Polideportivo, the United States team is in Group A, playing Panama on Monday, the host team on Tuesday and Canada on Wednesday. The two top teams in each of the two first-round groups advance to the semifinals, and all four semifinalists earn berths to play in Bangkok in November.
“The only way to look at the tournament is to go in and win gold,” said Keith Tozer, who has taken the United States to three World Cups since becoming the team’s coach in 1996.
He added: “In the ’80s and ’90s, indoor soccer was booming and the top Americans were playing indoors. We had 20 teams in the Major Indoor Soccer League, playing a 10-month season. We were considered the top of the world in the game. Now, there are professional leagues all over the world, and guys are playing all year long. We don’t have anything like that. The indoor league is smaller, and M.L.S. has all the top American players.
“A year ago when I was in Madrid for a conference, the president of Spanish football said the reason they won the World Cup is because in Spain, futsal is part of the program. It’s also ingrained in Brazil. It has to be part of development here for us, too.”
To many people, the notable strides the United States teams have made in soccer over the past 20 years — playing in every outdoor World Cup since 1990 — are somehow unsatisfying. For all the top American goalkeepers and defenders now playing in Europe, the United States has failed to produce highly skillful and technical players capable of taking on opponents one on one while playing the ball on the ground.
Most of the indoor soccer American youngsters play uses a full-size ball that bounces off the walls. The game looks more like kickball.
In futsal, balls that squirt over the sideline are put back into play with a kick-in. The game is about control.
Teaneck Armory in northern New Jersey, among other spots around the country, is configured for futsal games. But changes are coming slowly.
The youngest player on Tozer’s World Cup squad is Lucas Stauffer, 17, who grew up playing the game in Owensboro, Ky., in a building built and operated by his father, Ty, who played basketball and soccer at Kentucky Wesleyan.
Lucas Stauffer basically made the team as a walk-on. He was looking at the U.S. Soccer Web site for information on the under-17 national team and came across news about an open tryout for the national futsal team. He impressed Tozer, was called back to camp and traveled with the team last September to Brazil, where “it was easily my best soccer experience so far; it was eye-opening.”
“My dad wanted to find a different way to train younger kids to get comfortable on the ball,” said Stauffer, who recently completed his junior year at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn. “I like the game, I like the shorter space, and it’s more of a quick, faster-paced game than outdoors. It forces you to be technically perfect and just forces you to use all your skills. Sometimes, you can get away with doing questionable things outdoors, but some guys who can play outdoors can’t play futsal. But guys who can play futsal can always play outdoors.”
Though futsal will probably always be the poor relation to outdoor soccer in the United States, fans here will continue to ask where and when we will produce our Lionel Messi. How did the great players of today become great players? Probably by playing futsal.
In a country with some of the best goalkeepers in the world (like Tim Howard), stalwart defenders (like Steve Cherundolo), hard-working midfielders (like Michael Bradley) and forwards who are getting better (like Jozy Altidore), how does the United States find a player who can create outside the box when tactics go out the window? Maybe he is out there now, playing the free-flowing game of futsal.
Posted by Luca Ranocchiari