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.