There’s no mystery about why soccer has grown so much in popularity over the past two decades. The world’s favorite sport is played year-round internationally, and U.S. Major League Soccer season spans February through early December each year. Now the No. 1 youth participation sport in the U.S., grown-ups have been getting into the game as well, with adult competitive and recreational leagues. Today one can find both youth and adult leagues played outdoor and indoor, across the country.
But there’s one variety of soccer that’s exploded in popularity in just the last five years, that is just gaining momentum in Southern Oregon. It’s called futsal (pronounced: foot-sall). This variant of soccer is played indoors on a hardcourt surface, with five players per side (versus 11 in outdoor soccer), and a smaller goal than is used outdoors. Being indoors, futsal uses a ball that’s slightly deflated and heavier than a regulation soccer ball – to help reduce kick loft and bounce in the smaller setting. Unlike indoor soccer, surrounding walls and boards are not part of the playing surface, so players are forced to work harder to keep the ball in-bounds.
The result is a brand of soccer that’s accessible to all levels, and that actually aids soccer players’ development as they look to polish their technique for the outdoor game. As well, players can enjoy futsal year-round in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
A similar, but separate sport
The appeal of futsal stands on its own, apart from soccer.
“I’ve seen players who have not been as successful playing outdoor soccer really grow their skills when they come to play futsal indoors,” says Cheryl Rose, co-owner of Medford Soccer Post and the unofficial director of the Southern Oregon Futsal League. “The game is fun to watch. Players get multiple touches, and the speed of play is so fast, they really have to react quickly. It helps build their skills.”
Rose became involved with futsal as the sport started taking hold in Southern Oregon. Dave Kaufman, the former South Medford High School varsity coach and professional player, started his sons playing indoor soccer and futsal to help maintain their skills during wintertime. As they worked on their games, more and more people became interested in playing.
Because Rose’s Medford Soccer Post was one of the local go-to providers of soccer gear, she saw a need and opportunity to organize a formal program, and it wasn’t long before she turned to the Oregon Youth Soccer Association (OYSA) for help. Now the OYSA operates leagues with premier, competitive and recreational levels across much of the state, including Southern Oregon.
Around the same time, Medford Parks and Recreation started its first futsal league.
“We had a lot of soccer teams wanting to go inside during the winter, so we developed a league out of that request,” says Jesse Nyberg, superintendent of the City of Medford Parks and Recreation Department.
The city operates men’s, women’s and coed leagues, as well as a youth indoor league for ages 4-8. Rose’s Southern Oregon Futsal League is primarily for youth ages 11-18, and she says the Oregon Futbol Academy in Grants Pass just started an adult futsal league. So, the sport’s momentum is growing.
Rose says the players who gravitate to futsal aren’t much different from those who play soccer. “But I can tell that we have more futsal players here than indoor soccer, because I see how many futsal balls I sell,” she says.
When asked whether players need specific skills to succeed in futsal that are different from soccer, Rose says it all depends on the individual. “I’ve watched a lot of soccer with my son, and I see many kids who are successful on the outdoor fields, but when they come inside, are sometimes challenged by futsal. And, there are kids who have not been so successful outside that have excelled in futsal because of the number of multiple touches and the speed of play. It’s fun to see the kids that aren’t successful on one side become successful on the other.”
Along with a focus on footwork and ball control, another element of futsal that builds skill is constant two-way play: all five players per side play both offense and defense nearly all the time.
“There’s faster play, faster communication and more defensive trapping,” says Rose. “And transitioning within positions, from one to another, is critical. If someone is playing defense, they are also technically a midfielder, so they have to transition between their positions more so than with soccer.”
In futsal, heading—the act of passing, blocking or shooting the ball off one’s head—is allowed, but only with the older youth players. But even among the older players, heading is controversial, because the heavier, deflated ball can cause head trauma if the player’s technique isn’t sound. Rose says that younger kids are taught early on to not do it, but they know they’ll have to be good at it if they want to play soccer when they get older.
Easy to play, easy to start a team
Nyberg says one of the biggest appeals of futsal is just how easy it is to field a team. “It’s easy for almost anyone to gather five or more friends for a team,” he says. “And because a game is just two 20-minute halves, with unlimited substitutions, it’s easy to play.”
Rose adds that there isn’t any special training required to start playing. All you need is shin guards and flat-bottomed court shoes—no cleats. And league participation runs just $200 per team, so there’s a low cost of entry.
“As we get more and organized all the time, there are some online courses for coaches to get trained in futsal,” says Rose. “Because we (Southern Oregon Futsal League) is recreational and moving toward more competitive play, we do want our coaches to be trained specifically in futsal. And referees require licensing specifically in futsal.”
Futsal is the future
Rose sees unlimited growth in futsal’s future. “It’s a growing sport—the fastest growing indoor sport in the U.S.,” she says.
There’s a national futsal team that competes in the FIFA-sanctioned Futsal World Cup. There are currently 200-plus participants in the Southern Oregon Futsal League, and Nyberg says there are about 20 regular participating teams in the Medford Parks & Rec league.
Rose says that despite low name awareness, futsal will continue gaining popularity. “It can be played in any weather, and I can envision it growing to the point where it will one day become a professional league,” she says. “Funny, most people just don’t know what it is yet.”