Professional Futsal League

As I watched the U16 Boys Final at the St. Louis Midwest Regional Futsal Championships, as I saw the level of skill exhibited by both teams, the amount of excitement generated by the fast and furious end to end play, and how much the crowd was enjoying the matches, I wondered if  Futsal could become a winter mainstream American sport, like hockey or basketball ? I later learned that  the PFL (Professional Futsal League) will debut in 2017.  I wondered if the sport could become popular enough to challenge hockey or even basketball ? Could it flourish, much like the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) did in the mid 1980’s ?

For the uninitiated, Futsal is a sport related to Soccer. Consider it like a cousin of sorts. While Futsal can be considered a miniature version of Soccer in some ways, there are ways in which it is quite different. In some respects, it is also similar to basketball and hockey in terms of both the size of the playing surface but also because of the lightning quick pace of play, tactical maneuvers, unlimited substitutions, timeouts, and yes, what is maybe most appealing to the American sport-loving fan-base, lots of goals.

Futsal is played with a smaller ball on a hard surface. It is a 5 v 5 (4 field players plus a goalie) with two 20 minute halves.  The hard court is about twice the size of a basketball court (and in many youth leagues it is played on a basketball court). Unlimited substitutions are permitted and teams have one timeout per half.


Many of the rules are similar to soccer but there are some significant differences. Many of the infractions are similar and have the same penalties (indirect, direct, and penalty kicks). There is no sliding tacking allowed in Futsal, and there are unlimited substitutions. Time also does not run continuously but is stopped when the ball is out of play. There’s an accumulated foul rule that allows a team to have a direct kick when the opponent has tallied more than five fouls.

The combination of rules, smaller court size, smaller number of players, and the speed of the game are some of the factors that contribute to the larger number of goals scored.

But don’t confuse Futsal with any kind of version of indoor soccer, such as the game played on a synthetic turf inside of a bubble or dome. The kind of game that was popularized by the success of the MISL in the 1980’s. That game was played inside of a hockey rink (a bigger playing surface than a futsal court) where the rink walls were part of the playing surface. This allowed for players to be able to pass the ball by bouncing off of the walls, which is something that can’t be done in Futsal.  Also because of the larger playing area, indoor soccer was a 6 v 6 game.

In Futsal, the characteristics of the ball forces players to make quick short passes along the ground when building up attacking play (i.e. such as South American or the European Continental style) as opposed to making long passes and crosses most characteristic of the Northern European style.  Goalkeepers are allowed to make long lobbing passes to the forwards into the attacking court (the low bounce allows players to control the ball quickly off of the long distributions from the goalkeeper) as well as to distribute to their defenders via a bowling style roll. Because of the much smaller playing surface than outdoor soccer and smaller number of players, a keeper is more an integral part of the offensive game than they are in soccer.

The small court also make the game more immediate to the fan, who can enjoy the subtleties of the game because they are so close to it.  The artistry of the game is undeniable. Skilled players can work magic with the ball, moving it every which way, spinning it, flicking it, scooping it into the air.  There’s a full repertoire of body movements in the form of feints and fakes that allow players to make amazing moves with the ball. The smaller ball also makes passing much faster and more more accurate. When combined with dynamic player movement and complex offensive schemes, players are able to generate lots of scoring chances.  The dazzling speed makes it a beautiful sport to watch.

The following video showcases the best Futsal players at the last FIFA Futsal World Cup.

You can see elements of Futsal in Soccer. This is most evident when an attacking team is operating in small spaces. The ability to think and act quickly in confined spaces is why a lot of players credit Futsal to having developed their comfort with the ball. Seeing players manipulate the ball as if it was attached to their feet is one of the most pleasing aesthetic qualities of either game.

But what may make the sport more palatable to mainstream American fans and also to advertisers that would be integral to support it in the American Sports model are the built-in pauses (currently only one timeout per half is allowed but that could easily be expanded to two or three to accommodate advertising).  I personally hate this amount of stoppage in play, but if the sport is ever to gain a foothold in the US, this concession to advertisers would have to be made.

The MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) consisted of more than 10 teams and in it’s heyday attracted around 8,000 fans on average to its games. I attended some Minnesota Striker games and they were loud, raucous affairs. At those games, the passion of the fans was as palpable as you see in games played in the rest of the world. The game, like Futsal,  was fast paced, exciting, and there were always lots of goals scored.

Nearly thirty year laters, America has seen Major League Soccer establish franchises in 20 cities and will expand to 22 in 2017. Could there be more appetite for a similar sport in the Winter season ?  There are a lot more players and fans than in the past, but part of MISL’s success was the fact that it was the only game in town, as there was no real viable outdoor league after the NASL folded. The success of the PFL hinges on how much appetite there is for the both soccer and futsal in the United States.

Futsal has a growing professional presence in Europe and South America.  In the United States, it has of late been considered as a sport to develop skills for soccer, and its popularity is growing. In Minnesota for example, there are many more leagues than just 2 or 3 years ago. At the national level, there are regional and national tournaments that feature hundreds of skilled players. With many more players being exposed to it in the youth ranks, the talent pool is increasing. Many of these players could form the basis for the PFL.

The presence of a PFL team in Minnesota would be amazing since Futsal is as entertaining to watch as Soccer, and for those of us who have grown to love the game, it may be even more so.

Johan Cruyff

“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” – Johan Cruyff

When I was thirteen years old I lived in Madrid Spain for one magical year. I learned a lot about Spanish culture, language, and sport. I went to an elite private school known as Colegio Estudio which was an hour away from our house and where the kids would loudly chant Franco, Franco, Franco in the bathrooms and gym dressing rooms in rabid support of the dictator. I went to a lot of museums and traveled extensively around the country with my parents who were obsessed with seeing as much of  Spain as possible during the nine months we were there. I learned how to speak proper Castellano (which is what the Spanish call the language since it originates from this province), and how to order tapas and the occasional glass of vino tinto at a bar.

I also fell in love with the sport of futbol by watching Johann Cruyff play what may have been the finest seasons of his illustrious career. For me Cruyff was my first soccer love, and to this date I revere him as one of the best players the world has ever seen.

We ended up in Spain because my parents had obtained a scholarship to do research work on Middle Ages poetry in Spain for the 1973-1974 academic year. We settled into an apartment in the outskirts of Madrid in a complex of 4 20 story buildings right next to the Madrid Amusement Park. From the balcony of our tenth floor apartment, off to the right, I could see a soccer stadium located about 2 kilometers away. When there were games at night, I would see the stadium light up and I longed to go to one of the games, mostly because I didn’t know much about soccer (or futbol as it is known in spanish speaking countries). As a young kid I was already fascinated with other sports, mostly baseball, basketball, and American football.

One day a Spanish man named Martin and a woman involved with the research project came over to have dinner. The conversation drifted between various topics of Spanish culture. Martin was very knowledgeable about all things Spanish and he talked about a lot of different things. I mostly remember his rambling about bullfighting (a truly Spanish sport) and futbol.  He cited that the two most important teams in Spanish soccer were Real Madrid and Barcelona. They were the two biggest clubs, hailing from the two largest cities in Spain, they had the two largest and most energetic fan bases, and they had dominated the league for what appeared to be decades. Real Madrid had dominated the 1950’s with legendary players such as DiStefano, Puskas, Gento, and Kopa were led by the president Santiago Bernabeu and had won 5 European Champions League Cups in the decade.

I asked Martin if Real Madrid played in the stadium that was visible from our apartment and he informed me that this was not the Bernabeu (Real Madrid’s home) but the Vicente Calderon, which was the home of Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid’s arch-enemy from the capitol city, but not their most important rival. He went on to tell me that although the Madrid Darby was important, it paled in comparison to the Real-Barcelona rivalry, which was not only the most important in Spanish Futbol, but one of the largest in the entire world of soccer.

In the summer of 1973, Barcelona had signed a very good footballer from the Netherlands named Johan Cruyff. Barcelona was going through a down period and had not won the Spanish Championship since 1960.  Cruyff, with his genius, changed all that.  He made other pretty good players around him so much better (Rexach the tall elegant midfielder and Hugo Sotil, the diminutive Bolivian forward are the ones I liked the most). Barcelona played with a style that I really liked even though I didn’t know anything about soccer tactics back then. Their game flowed back and forth between offense and defense. I think Cruyff and Rinus Michel, the Barca coach who was also from the Netherlands were implementing the Dutch idea of total football. Even though I had no idea what it was, it was a beautiful thing to watch.

I watched the first Clasico that year as Cruyff Barca team thrashed the Merengues 5-0 at the Bernabeu.  Martin, who was a Real Madrid fan, called the following day, quite despondent. He told me that I had witnessed the worst possible defeat a team could absorb, especially from against their bitter rivals. From then on, the scoreline 5-nil has become magical to me and whenever I see one team beat another by that scoreline, I immediately identify it with that past Barcelona result.

Cruyff’s other magical moment that I remember vividly came during a game played at the Vicente Calderon. On a cool evening in November, 1973, Cruyff scored what is now known as the phantom goal.  He leaped high into the air to knock a cross that had already gone past the far post with his heel past the stunned Atletico keeper. I was watching the game on TV but I would occasionally step onto the balcony where you could hear the noise of the stadium when fans celebrated a good play. After Cruyff scored his legendary goal I quickly went to the balcony. Although I didn’t hear anything coming from the nearby stadium, I felt as if a magic wave emanated from his foot all the way to the apartment balcony. The goal is still amazing even by viewed through today’s hyper athletic prism. It was an act of pure genius and it is one of the goals that is forever etched into my collective soccer memory. It is the kind of goal that you try to emulate, and if you can’t actually do it, you imagine yourself doing it, you dream about doing it.

Although Cruyff was a brilliant and transcendent player, many are now proclaiming Cruyff’s greatest legacy to be the practices he instituted at the Barcelona club, both while he was there as a player and then when he was head coach starting in 1988.  Cruyff was responsible for starting Barcelona’s youth academy at La Masia and introducing the tiki-taka style of ball movement and possession. More importantly, he was responsible for establishing the way that the club teaches promising players that style of football for generations to come.  It is without a doubt that Barcelona has been the best club in the world for the past 20 years, with all of their Champions Leagues (4), Interncontinental Cups (3), La Liga titles (10), and Copa del Reys (5) to boot.

What I know for sure is that Cruyff was absolutely a pleasure to watch. I fell madly in love with the sport watching him play for Barcelona those years. I returned to Spain in 1998 and went to the Camp Nou and saw and relived the moments from that season.

I may have lived in Madrid, but thanks to Cruyff, my favorite player of all time, I became a Barcelona fan for life.

RIP Johan.