Like many in the American futsal community, I’ve long admired Rose City Futsal’s ambition, sportsmanship, and style of play. All reflections of their superb former director of coaching, Eduardo Araujo. His 2004’s are arguably the first US homegrown team to compete at an international level. It’s a team that I observed court side for years at Regional and National tournaments. I also had the great fortune of guest coaching many of these 04’s at La Masia versus FC Barcelona at the Top 12 Experience where I witnessed first hand the group’s amazing mental grit. It’s the first US team I can remember that played the 3-1 with ideas. Eduardo and the 04’s were truly trailblazers that should not soon be forgotten. We caught up with Eduardo in Australia where he now lives and works.

Eduardo, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and memories. Can you talk a little about what made your 2004’s so special?

So one of the big things I’d like to put out there is that it’s not my work with those kids. The work of a player or a team involves so many people. It would not be fair to take the credit for the development of the players. I think we all have input, and we help their development, but nobody is shaped by one person, and so I just want to make that clear. So many people, so many amazing humans that were connected with that group that really helped get them to what they achieved. If you really think about it, you include parents, you include other coaches, you include different clubs they played at, and other players they played with, the environment, all those different areas that get them to where they are. To where they were when you saw them and to where they are nowadays. And that will continue to happen on their path, but for us that was always a big thing. Keeping our feet on the ground, right? Taking the pride out of the way and making sure competing was part of the development, but never putting it ahead of developing human beings. That was always a philosophy that we tried to instill in families and players. If we developed a great player that’s not a great human being then we’ve failed in our work. If we developed a great human being, but failed to develop a futsal player, we still succeeded. That was also the philosophy that we tried to instill in our coaches. There were several people that came along in that group that helped, and I’ll name several of them throughout the conversation. I just want to make it clear that I’m happy to answer the questions. I’m happy to share what happened from my point of view, but of course there were so many different people involved in their development and they may share different points of view. I’m happy to share as much as I can as it’s always fun to bring up some good memories! 

So that group specifically, it was at the end of 2010 that I got to meet most of those kids. So basically they were 6-year-olds if you really think about it, 6-7 year-olds. They were playing for a club in Portland called Eastside Timbers nowadays. They used to be called Eastside United. At that point I had just got to Portland. They were the first group of kids that I started getting involved with in the city. Luckily at that time there was another guy in the club named Steve Storley and another guy named Jeff Fletcher pushing very hard at the development of players in Portland to focus more on futsal and bringing technical work to the younger ages. So Steve actually spoke to an old coach of mine, they knew each other, and when I moved to Portland we got in touch. My old coach mentioned that Steve really believed in futsal, and that it would be nice for me to get connected with him. So I got there and Eastside Timbers were just opening a facility with a couple futsal courts, so it was perfect timing. I’ve always been involved in futsal, it has always been in my life. Seeing that just align with the club’s goal, seeing it align with what I could do for the sport felt really good. With that, came this group, so we started seeing them playing in recreational games in the city and started inviting a player here and there to come. But basically we were mainly focused on futsal, so once they were 6 and 7-years-old, we were like playing futsal and investing in them. And just to make a link here, you’ll ask a different question later on, about how do we get them to be so tactical? So when they’re 6-year-olds, we didn’t emphasize much tactics at all at that time. So our focus was futsal, making it fun, teaching life lessons, making them be a group, making them bond, and developing technical skills. That was basically what we were trying to do, making them as multifunctional as they could be. So that was always our goal, to get them to enjoy the game and make them the best technical players they could be. And that only happens if they enjoy it, otherwise they would not like it and not want to be around the ball, right? So I remember those players as mostly kids that would go home and just be with a ball all day, and never miss a training session, always there. So it was just a good group of kids that I was pretty lucky to be involved with. The group of 04’s that you saw later on through Rose City are not necessarily all those kids that started at 6-7 years old in the club that I was coaching at the time, but some of them were, the majority of the group were in it, and then different pieces came along and joined that group as well. But basically, again, that sort of start that we got with that group, it was developing the technical skills, the heart for it, the love for it, the dynamic aspects of it, so we never really focused on the tactics at that age. 

So back in 2010, and through those years, we competed against another really good team in town that was called PCU, and they had several good players that were working really hard as well. These same players would wind up later on joining our group at Rose City, so our group became kind of a mix of these two clubs to some extent. The coaches of the PCU team also believed in futsal. So that was a shift in mentality in the game at that young age happening in Portland in general. And that age got to be the most affected by it. 

Once you became director who took over the coaching of the team?

I had that group for several years and eventually I got hired as the director of coaching for Rose City Futsal. With that we had an interesting dynamic at Rose City, where players were still playing for their clubs and they would come to us and train futsal in addition to their club practice. And at that time that’s when a lot of the players from Eastside Timbers came over and so did the PCU kids and so did one other from a different club, and that group really started taking shape as you saw. They were competing. There was another very important component of their development of the group once they got together at Rose City. I had the role of director of coaching, so I wasn’t necessarily their head coach. I was overseeing the work of the head coaches, involved in their training sessions and also involved in the different aspects of running a club. But certainly one big piece of the group was a guy named Nicholas Silvestri. Coach Nico is just an exceptional human being. Very caring and really loved the kids. Very high level player, who grew up playing the game in Italy. Loves the game and is a character. He influenced that group quite a bit as well. Nico came in with a very broad idea of the game, like lots of different tactical aspects and components that could be added to their group as well. Which at that point was a good blend when we got some of my philosophy and my understanding of the game, and we got this mix with this Italian guy coming in. I have this South American way of seeing and playing the game which is in fact more European structured, and we have this guy from Italy that comes with a different sort of perspective which was very South American influenced…very weird how it happens, but it’s true! We have a lot in common, but we also have different things. I think our minds got together really well, and we were able to piece together something really good for those kids to develop through. So that was a key point right there for that group to step towards what you saw, to what they were capable of doing. But again, those kids never gave up the game of futsal. They were very passionate about what we developed when they were 6-year-old. They continued to carry on through their whole lives, and they’re still carrying on. They are players that love the game. They are players that are getting to the end of their high school years and it’s been quite amazing to see where they all are starting to head in their path, soccer or futsal. 

What part did travel play in the group’s growth?

Through Rose City we started being able to travel and those families were really committed to having their kids really experience the game. When you asked about mental toughness, there was an aspect of it when they were young. Believe or not that group was not the strongest mentally speaking. They were to some extent at times very fragile. It’s like a beautiful glass that you shape and shape and shape, but it could break! (laughter) We weren’t super tough on them when they were young, we kind of let them be, we let them express themselves. Later on when they were ready to be pushed a little bit more and they understood the needs of the game to evolve to the next path, then it was time to actually start pushing them a little bit harder on their emotions, not on the game itself, but on their emotions to see how much they could handle in that aspect of it. If you do that when a kid is really young and you push them in an emotional sense and that kid can’t hold on, you just might break that glass, right? That glass is not fully made yet. It’s just one very thin layer. So once all those layers are kind of in place is the time to actually push them a little bit on the emotional side as well. Again, when they started traveling and started getting tournament experiences, they got their little bums kicked, (laughter), then they came back and they suffered and they cried, and they challenged again. So I think that was the dynamic in the evolution of mental toughness. I don’t think there is a secret to it or that there is only one way of doing it. I am very pleased that they showed that to you when you had a chance to coach them in Barcelona. And I’m very pleased that they respected and honored the game, and competed at their very best at all times in all different aspects of development, but again that mental toughness comes with time and experiences and through putting themselves in many different situations, so therefore there’s not like a secret. They go into a game now, and they’re not worried about it anymore, right? It’s not like their first time. The first time you can get very nervous, but once you’ve done it so many time, you may still get a little nervous but it goes away quicker and quicker. Although you still respect your emotions, you start to lose the fear and you become a little bit more mentally tough. 

When you look at that group, the amazing thing is that we were able to stick with a development process from a young age all the way until an older one. We wanted to win games. That’s part of being a competitor, but we never put that ahead of developing the group. So we’ve been to Nationals and Orlando for the World Futsal Championships, and to many different places, and we haven’t always won the tournaments, and we sometimes got our butts kicked, too. (laughter) And that was part of their development. Every time that happened they got a little bit better and they would work on some aspect that they were missing, and they would sharpen up a little bit here and there, but we also stuck to the idea of developing the player, developing the human being. On the player side of things we always stuck to the idea of not skipping steps on the ladder. If you want to go to the top, you have to climb the ladder one step at a time, right? And they did. They’d been doing that through the years. From the technical aspect of the game to the physical, emotional, and tactical. All those different layers of it were built up, and made their tool box more resourceful all the time. Always adding tools to the toolbox. I think through the years as we look at it now, we can see how that really impacted their overall development to the point it was really difficult for any player to join that group. It was really, really hard. We tried to add other players, but they just hadn’t been exposed, they hadn’t been through the same sort of pathway of development. It was hard to add a piece. And if we did, it took a lot of work to get the new player to the same level of the group. 

What was the focus when the group was younger?

I’m a strong believer, Rob, that to develop teams, you must start with the individual, right? You must start with the basics. You must start with developing a technical foundation. A lot of times in the US they want the kids to play like FC Barcelona, the professional team, when they’re 10-years-old. They can’t do that. That’s not physically, mentally, or technically possible. They just can’t do that. So when we really put the player development ahead of everything else, in a step-by-step way, regardless of what the outside world is going to think, eventually they’re going to get there. If you have kids that have amazing quality, super humans in the sense of understanding concepts and applying concepts, you might be able to teach some aspects earlier. But that’s not the case all the time. So you have to use the steps that are available. You start developing those players from step one, step two, step three, and always with the technical component that comes first. Through the years I’ve gotten a chance to talk to many coaches, many amazing coaches from around the world, and it’s the same thing. Ultimately, the team, at the professional level, that can win is the team that has one or multiple players that can make a difference, right? No matter how tactical you are, how organized you are, when you have one player that can make a big difference, that team has an increased chance of winning the game at the professional level. So our focus, again, for an early age was always to make them as technical and as broad as they could be. So they could solve many different situations on the spot. That way their game got quicker. If you have to think about a solution every time you receive the ball, you’re going to be in a spot that’s going to take you a bit longer, and there’s studies on that. If you become a little bit more instinctive playing, movement of your body, game movements, elements patterns, etc, you react quicker to the game. If you’ve been exposed to a number of situations, you have a better chance of problem solving on the fly which is what the game is all about. You can make all the plans you want in the world, but when the ball rolls, so much of it is unpredictable. You can train, you implement the tactics, you can put it in place, but ultimately, the ball may hit a little bump and it changes the whole game, right? (laugher) So players need to be able to adapt on the fly. So when you really think of this from a young age and give them as many experiences as possible. And I’m not being restrictive to futsal here. I’m a futsaler and a believer in futsal and in the development of players, but I don’t think that restriction is a good thing. If you think about the most technical and gifted players in the world, it’s not because they just played futsal. They played futsal and it’s a big influence on their life and really matters, but they were also playing on the streets and they also played soccer and they also played at home with a ball made of socks or maybe with a ball as big as a basketball. They’re playing with friends younger and older, they’re getting exposed to as many environments as possible. So their brain develops to a point where they can adapt on the fly to any circumstance. So we’ve done a lot of those things. Playing on the parking lot to playing with bigger and smaller balls, tennis balls, playing in the mud, playing in the grass, playing on the dirt, playing on different games that aren’t necessarily with the ball on their foot. Or it could be with their hands or anything to expose them to different situations. So that’s a little bit of what goes into player development in my understanding, in my philosophy. It’s like if you just get so stuck to one concept then you might miss all those other things going right by you that could make you a better player or a better human being, ultimately. It’s important to keep the vision broad and welcome things, accept things, review and work those things. Talk about it. Not just with that group, but with most groups we coach, we always made sure there was a debrief at the end of every practice. There was always a welcome at the beginning of practice, a mention of the concepts we were going to work through, the practice itself and then at the end we always had a debrief to review what happened during the practice and during games and seasons. And not only with the players, but also with the coaches as well. So at Rose City, we’d get all the coaches and debrief and talk about our session. What went well? What didn’t go well? Is there anything we need to change or adapt? Is there anything happening to a player who needs help? Is the player having family issues? Is the player having break downs? What is it? How can we solve it? This line of communication being open I think was crucial for the development of that group. That group definitely stood out, but that’s the work we’d done with all the groups. And you see amazing kids in many different age groups at Rose City. The kids went through this sort of development, you can really see how they developed their path. You can see those layers ingrained on them. Try to be as open as you can be, try to welcome feedback, try to listen, instill work ethics, do your best, come to practice on time, and leave on time, well, some of them would stay forever like gym rats. (laughter), respect their parents, respect their coaches, respect the opponents. Be an ambassador of the game. Any time we’d travel we’d talk about that. You’re going to San Francisco, you’re not going there to just play the game. You’re going there to represent your city, your club, your country. We’d travel abroad, so your work ethic must be in line with that. You need to treat others fair. You need to treat the opponent, the referees, the other parents, their fans with the most respect that you can at all times. So those are all philosophies we really instilled in the club. I think it helped them, too, to be mentally tough. So with that aspect of being an ambassador there’s a higher responsibility. You’re going to honor that when you know that you’re representing something bigger than yourself. You really can’t let yourself down. You’re going to give everything that you got on the line to represent well. 

The 2004’s made it to the finals of the World Futsal Cup. What was that experience like?

We played Barcelona twice. We played them in the group stage and the game ended up 7-3, but until the last minute it was like 4-3, and we were all over them, just pushing hard. Then we made a foul. They played quick while our players kind of looked around, kind of complaining. Barcelona played fast and scored a goal. After that they scored two goals in a matter of a few seconds, and we completely lost it. When you’re so focused at that point in the game, one little mistake can break down the momentum of the game. We ended up playing them in the final again and took second place. Barcelona is just a tough team to beat man. (laughter)

During that tournament, I remember all of our kids got sick. It was some sort of a flu that had them throwing up and feeling so bad. It started with one kid who we then isolated. He then recovered. Then another kid got sick, and then another. And as soon as one would get better another would get sick, so luckily not the whole team got sick at the same time. But basically for every game we had someone having a hard time. (laughter) They just kept passing to each other no matter what we tried. It didn’t get any adults, but it got the whole team. Crazy, eh? (laughter).

The trip was amazing. We went earlier, before Christmas and spent like three days training. We rented a gym. Families kind of went around and did their own thing with tours, but we made sure that kids needed to be at training for sessions. We had three sessions and two games before the tournament. Everyone had Christmas Eve and day off. So we all flew over earlier and got to acclimate and not be so jet lagged. I think that helped a lot. The kids went into the tournament more focused. They had already played a couple games against Spanish teams. But basically the funniest thing was the flu. It’s one of those things that’s unpredictable. You train all year long, you can prepare as much as you want, but something comes and knocks out a few players, and you’re like, what do we do? But the kids adapted well, and there were a lot of good learning lessons. During the Barça games, it was funny to see how intense the Barça fans were, singing and chanting. In the first game when we had them on their heels for a while the fans were just quiet. (laughter) And our fans were just like in a riot. It was super loud. So when you’re on the court, you can just feel it. Seeing the fans react was quite fun. It was a good experience overall.

Those kids are a good bunch! I miss them very much! Interesting enough is that we can get so focused on developing players, human beings, but when you really stop to notice the whole time I was developing myself to the version I am today. So I am very grateful for all the kids that came through my life and all the lessons they have taught me.