The Guardian: Can futsal deliver a world-class US soccer star from the inner city?

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Can futsal deliver a world-class US soccer star from the inner city?

Written By: Bryan Kay

The game in America is geared towards kids who can afford to pay-to-play. But the five-a-side game popular in Brazil could help develop the USA’s Messi

Photograph: Jan Kruger/Fifa via Getty Images
Futsal is popular in South America and Southern Europe, and many 11-a-side players developed their skills on small pitches. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Fifa via Getty Images

When Irv Smalls considers Harlem he sees a canvas of many hues. Art, design, music and sport: places like Harlem are where things emerge, he says. Smalls sees in Harlem the perfect example of the inner city as incubator of American creativity – but when he looks at that picture, there is something missing.

“How do you bring the inner cities into what has truly always been the global game but is taking off more here in the US?” Smalls tells the Guardian. It’s an argument at the heart of what might be wrong with youth soccer development in the United States.

“I think traditionally what you’ve found in this country, and I think might be pretty consistent around the world, is that inner cities are where you find a lot of your talent from the standpoint that a lot of creativity comes out of the inner cities,” says Smalls. “That doesn’t mean there can’t be a great player that comes out of the suburbs but there’s something to the kids in the city.

I think what the US has been missing is: how do you engage the kids in the inner city if you define the game only as 11-a-side, also where the structure has always been extremely pay-to-play.
—Irv Smalls, FC Harlem Executive Director

“I think what the US has been missing is: how do you engage the kids in the inner city if you define the game only as 11-a-side, also where the structure has always been extremely pay-to-play.”

The result might be plain to see at the very highest levels of American soccer: an often efficient US men’s national team but one often lacking players capable of moments of genius. It’s the burning question: when will a nation of 320 million produce a Messi or a Ronaldo? The more pertinent questions might be how and from where. One-time Penn State football star Smalls, now the executive director of grassroots soccer enterprise FC Harlem, believes a critical juncture may be approaching. And it involves the curious figure of NBA owner Mark Cuban and his low-key entry into the world of futsal, the game credited with helping mold Messi.

A five-a-side game played within tight confines with small goal frames and boundaries, futsal is generally referred to as the international standard of small-sided soccer: the sophisticate to traditional American indoor soccer’s brute. Small-sided games have long been considered the best arena in youth development, futsal their logical culmination.

The new Professional Futsal League, based out of Frisco, Texas, didn’t make much of a splash when it was first unveiled in early 2015. But when Cuban was revealed to have bought a principal ownership stake about a year later, there were understandably a few more ripples.

Slated to begin play in major American cities in 2018, details remain somewhat scant. There have been showcases involving top pro players from the world of futsal. Other NBA team owners have been fingered as possible PFL franchise owners. Top European clubs, too. Michael Hitchcock, the PFL president, declined a Guardian request for an interview, stating that news will be forthcoming in the New Year.

But for Smalls, the PFL proposition could be pivotal for youth soccer development in the US: the marriage of Cuban and other NBA team owners with top soccer clubs – reportedly including Barcelona – could be game changer, a marketing vehicle to the small-sided game becoming firmly implanted in the cultural conscience. Not replacing basketball, but complementing it. Smalls sees a unique opportunity for the global game to finally register in inner cities by showing kids that what they see on TV is possible on the streets with fewer bodies, in confined spaces. Street soccer. From where the greats came.

“By having a professional futsal league, what it also will do is legitimize it for the kids playing that already,” he says. “Even in Harlem where there is a large Hispanic community who traditionally play soccer … I’ve actually seen certain immigrants that you’d naturally know would play soccer but because of a limitation of space, funding or whatever, start shooting a basketball.”

FC Harlem help local youth players develop their skills on smaller pitches. Photograph: Roj Rodriguez
FC Harlem help local youth players develop their skills on smaller pitches. Photograph: Roj Rodriguez

Futsal is growing in popularity Stateside. In recent years, US Soccer made futsal a key part of its development academy system in the Under-13 and 14 age groups. But futsal’s popularity in South America and southern Europe is long-standing: it was founded in 1930 in Uruguay as a small-sided game for youths played on basketball-sized courts.

“There’s a technical part to the futsal game that definitely helps to develop skills, without a doubt,” says Uruguay-born Fernando Clavijo, who was part of the USAsquad at the 1994 World Cup and is also a former member of the US national futsal team.

“You touch the ball probably 100 more times than you do in an outdoor game. You have to make decisions quickly. You really need to be three or four steps ahead because it’s a small place to play,” adds Clavijo, who nevertheless retains some reservations about whether a pro futsal league can survive economically in the US.

His team-mate at the 1994 World Cup, Hugo Perez, who grew up playing street soccer and futsal in El Salvador, says the game should be introduced early. “Those are the ages I think are important,” the former coach of the US U15 national team tells the Guardian. He is currently working with the city of Los Angeles department of recreation and parks. “I’m telling them that they need to concentrate [on] futsal. From five year olds to 10 year olds. LA is big but I think if they do it’s going to be successful, it’s going to help our kids develop their technical skills much quicker and give them a very, very solid base so that when they turn 11 years old they will be able to perform in the outdoor game.”

Perez says it’s not just about developing better soccer players. He believes the PFL will also serve another purpose: it allows kids who don’t have the capacity for full-fledged outdoor soccer to see a pathway to an alternative professional playing career. A separate setup launched in 2015 known as Major League Futsal USAinvolves both pro and amateur teams, though minus the sort of cachet provided by someone like Cuban.

A street soccer culture can’t be superimposed on the US overnight, of course. But perhaps the spread of organized futsal is a nudge in the right direction. “For our country to really create the world name player, we’re going to need unorganized, kind of street soccer, unorganized futsal, players playing as much as possible, players playing pick-up and playing competitive and playing club,” Kraig Chiles, a US futsal team player, who currently plays indoor for the San Diego Sockers in the Major Arena Soccer League, tells the Guardian. “And right now we’re just not there.” For what it’s worth, Chiles credits his introduction to futsal as an adult with improving his pro indoor career.

Back in Harlem, Smalls admits soccer wasn’t his first love. He came to the game late. A tight end for the Penn State football team in the 1990s, he later worked in the legal affairs department at Major League Soccer. The 2002 World Cup led to a transformation in outlook. He went from being a relative soccer naysayer to possessing the zeal of the convert.

“I think the general critique from third parties who’ve watched the soccer of the US national team is lack of creativity, not the hard work,” says Smalls. “We will outwork anybody when it comes to team play. Our mentality of keep working to the end: you’re going to be in a dogfight with us. But start putting us up against – as we saw in this last Copa America – some of these South American teams, and they will just bop that ball all around us because we’re missing some of that creativity.”

He looks into a hazy future that sees the US host the World Cup in 2026. That team would be the proud bearer of a kid developed deep in the heart of the inner cities. It’s his dream. Argentina’s takedown of the US at last summer’s Copa America was the perfect illustration of futsal’s merits in this sphere, Smalls observes. “When everybody keeps referencing that game, do you know what that was? How we got beat? A lot of that individual skill, that technical skill you see? A lot of that is small-sided soccer. Futsal, whatever you want to call it.”

Perez lays out a similar vision with a more studied eye.

“At the young ages it’s easier to master the ball playing every day in tight spaces—that’s the key,” he says. Making mistakes, free from coaching input, liberated from tactical overload. Instruction can come later. “Because, at the end, soccer games are decided not by tactics a lot of the time — most of the time. They are decided by kids who are better, more creative than the other ones they are competing against. By one dribble, one shot, one feint — in tight spaces most of the time. But you won’t get that if you have a coach coaching kids from five to 10 and teaching them that they need to defend here, they need to defend there. That they need to pass all the time. No, give them the freedom to play football.”