For Young Soccer Players, Vast Ambitions Grow in Tight Spaces
Soccer is no stranger on the fields of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, where mostly Spanish is spoken and women sell empanadas and cold drinks from baby strollers that double as rolling bodegas. The players are mostly from Latin America, enjoying the game they brought from home.
Between those regulation fields and the Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower Promenades, with a view of the Unisphere, is another remnant of the 1964 World’s Fair: a dry reflecting pool that is the makeshift home of the New York Ecuador F.C. under-18 team, which plays a style of soccer called futsal.
Like the club founder Tony Toral, a native of Guayaquil, Ecuador, futsal is an import from South America. Futsal originated in Uruguay and Brazil in the 1930s and roughly translates to “hall football” or “football in a room.” The five-a-side game is played on a hard surface roughly the size of a basketball court with a low-bounce ball (think restricted-flight softball) and is meant to help players develop close ball skills and movement off the ball while keeping the ball on the floor — not in the air.
Players like Pelé, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Ronaldinho honed their skills playing futsal, and many club teams in Europe, like Barcelona, have full-time futsal programs. It is no coincidence that the tiki-taka, quick-passing, perpetual-movement style exemplified by Barcelona and Spain’s national team in recent years is futsal writ large.
“Futsal is a great activity for young players,” Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the United States men’s national team, said in an email. “They have a chance to get a lot of touches on the ball and to learn how to play in tight spaces. There’s a certain amount of creativity in futsal that is good for kids to experience. We want our younger players to be playing as much as possible, and futsal also offers that opportunity in the colder months of the year.”
Toral, 38, a sixth-grade teacher and mathematics coach at Public School 165 Robert E. Simon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, helped found New York Ecuador in 1994. His team, which trains a couple of times a week in the empty reflecting pool, is preparing to play in the World Futsal Championships starting Thursday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla. (Recorded matches will be available on WatchESPN.com and its smartphone app.)
The tournament has one adult division and seven youth divisions, with 64 teams from seven countries. It will be the first time Barcelona has sent a team (in this case its under-15 futsal side) to play the game in the United States. Although FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, stages a Futsal World Cup at the senior level (in the seven times it has been held, Brazil has won five times, Spain twice), it has not organized a youth tournament.
In December, Toral took his under-18 team to Barcelona for the World Futsal Cup and finished third. In June 2013, New York Ecuador won a national championship at the Intercontinental Youth Futsal Cup in Greensboro, N.C. The team, which has limited financial backing, drove to North Carolina in a van.
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That is also the plan for the tournament in Florida. Toral said, “What’s another eight hours in a car?”
At the tournament in Spain, Barcelona scouts were impressed by the play of two of Toral’s American-born players: Andres Huerfano, whose parents are from Colombia, and Luis Argudo, whose father is Ecuadorean and whose mother is Colombian. They have parlayed their play with New York Ecuador and other local clubs into college soccer careers, Argudo at Elon in North Carolina and Huerfano at Davenport in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Toral told Huerfano that Barcelona scouts would be watching.
“I was so nervous,” said Huerfano, 19, who was named the best player in the Greensboro tournament. He then scored four goals, but a contract offer from Barcelona’s futsal team was not coming because he was too old.
In the dry pool in Queens, Toral’s players come from school, jobs and other club teams to train, using the sport as an creative outlet and a place to develop skills that translate to soccer.
“It’s a really fun sport,” Argudo, 18, said. “Soccer is life to me, and I like doing this because it helps me get better technical-wise, it’s great for my fitness, and it helps me get better every day. Anything to get better.”
In the United States, when most people think of indoor soccer, they think of a game that reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1980s and early ’90s, when it was played mostly on ice hockey rinks covered with a thin carpet and jury-rigged goals carved into the glass and end boards. But futsal is growing because players have to “make decisions five times quicker, and when they get outside it can translate and look effortless,” said Rob Andrews, the president of USA Futsal.
Andrews added: “It’s not a magic game; it’s a development tool. Players get to touch the ball 600 percent more of the time than outdoors. It’s technical training.”
For Toral, the plan for the Florida tournament is simple.
“We want to win and prove we are the best,” he said. “Just competing is not enough. I think New York is largely overlooked in terms of the national team pools. But we have the talent here. And we want to play against the best in the world.”
Source: NY Times