In US futsal circles, it’s long been felt that the first great American soccer player would have futsal roots. Christian Pulisic’s quick decision making, close control, precision passing and off-the-ball movements all scream futsal. Bleacher Report’s recent article details the extent to which Mark Pulisic went to ensure his son played futsal at an early age. This included creating Detroit’s first futsal league. Those of us that have founded clubs and leagues can attest to the rapid development that occurs when a small ball is placed on a hard surface in a confined area. This simple recipe creates magical results again and again. Pele, Socrates, Zico, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Messi, Christian Ronaldo, Neymar and numerous other stars played countless hours of futsal as kids. Pulisic is our first American entry into this conversation. And yet, there are still plenty of skeptical US coaches, parents and players as to futsal’s benefits. The world is round, the sky is blue, and futsal is the most direct route to soccer success. Just ask the Pulisics.
When I first came across competitive futsal, what struck me the most was the urgency of play. The hounding defenses, rapid transitions, and lightening quick shots were tough to process. It all seemed a blur. In every second of every game there was the urgency to score or be scored upon. There was no down time. No chance to catch your breath. You had to be mentally and physically “on” from beginning to end. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
The best description of futsal’s nonstop back and forth comes from Mario Gonzalez of Legends Futsal. “It’s like soccer when the ball is in the penalty area. The urgency to score or defend takes the intensity to an entirely different level. Futsal is constantly played at this level.” I couldn’t agree more.
In much the same way the NBA’s tactics evolved in recent decades, so have futsal’s at the highest level. One of the sport’s great minds and tacticians is Xavi Closas, head coach of FC Barcelona Lassa B. Along with his long time friend and coaching partner, Oscar Alonso, the two have developed a highly respected coaching curriculum at iOX Futsal. Coaches and players travel to Barcelona from all over the world to learn from the pair.
Recently Closas’s team won the Spanish League championship with a group missing five of its top players through promotion to the top pro team. In spite of playing against opponents that averaged 5 years older than his young FCB team, Closas managed to win the league title on the last weekend. It is considered one of the great coaching accomplishments of recent times.
The following interview with the coach or “mister” as they say in Catalonia, looks to provide ideas for developing futsal in the U.S. and other growing futsal communities.
Bulldogs: Mister, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. First off, for a coach, what are the most important things to put in place to begin guiding a team?
Closas: The most important thing for putting together a new group of players is to be clear about the goals you have for the team. These personal goals then need to be reconciled with those of the club’s. Starting from here, you can build the values of the team and a way of playing.
Bulldogs: During your distinguished career as a coach at Bellsport, FC Barcelona and iOX Futsal, what moments have you found the most rewarding?
Closas: The moments of greatest reward have come from the various promotions I helped attain at teams such as Bellsport and FC Barcelona. All the hard work one puts into a season is reflected in the promotion.
Bulldogs: Your son, Nil, plays on FC Barcelona’s top team. How did you mentally prepare him for playing at the highest level?
Closas: The easiest way to help your child grow in a sport is to let them be theirselves. Let them pick their own path. It must be clear to them how far they exactly want to go. I think the coaches he has had over the length of his career have allowed him to grow at a steady pace as well.
Coach Xavi, thank you again for your insights and good luck this week versus Valencia!
Ballistic United’s and Mustang Soccer’s USDA Academies will enter teams this July into United States Futsal Federation’s national championship in San Jose, California. Many of the clubs’ current players have previously played in the event and directors Andrew Ziemer of Ballistic and John Doyle of Mustang see value in keeping their players active during the summer through futsal. Ballistic United (BUSC) has the distinction of being the nation’s first USDA club to promote futsal training year round.
In the words of Director Ziemer, “BUSC has an integrated futsal component within our club curriculum for all U8-11 age groups and are training the U12 DA teams one day a week with futsal. This summer we will place teams in the USFF National tournament during the outdoor break. We feel that futsal is a great tool to complement the outdoor game. The fast pace, small spaces, and fewer parents layers all help develop quicker thinking.”
In baseball there is an old adage about being strong up the middle. The idea being that a team strong at catcher, shortstop, second and center stands more of a chance of winning championships. Their placement in the middle of the field allows them to be involved in more plays, so they impact games on a deeper level. In the youth 9v9 soccer game these crucial middle positions are the 3, 6, 10 and 9. They often receive more touches and influence games to a greater degree due to their central positioning. Of these four positions it is the 6 and 10 midfield spots that demand the most decision making and field awareness. They are the hub of an ever spinning wheel.
Three of the more established and respected Bay Area USDA programs, San Jose Earthquakes, De Anza Force and Ballistic United, all have starters at the 6 and 10 positions with extensive futsal backgrounds at their 04, 05 and 06 age groups. Coincidence? Small sample size? Perhaps, but what can’t be denied is the exceptional decision making skills and creativity these players show on a weekly basis. And as organized futsal grows, I suspect the days of the fast, athletic, yet technically limited 3 and 9, will be numbered. In the future the spine of every high level soccer team will likely be dominated by futsal trained players.
Futsal’s roots into youth soccer continue to grow and deepen in the East Bay. Ballistic United Soccer Club of Pleasanton and Mustang Soccer of Danville are large, respected USDA clubs in Northern California. Their adoption of futsal during the soccer season shows the value being placed on the sport. From u8 to u11, both clubs have replaced soccer trainings with futsal 1x per week. In the winter, both clubs have formed in house futsal programs to accommodate the increased interest. And both clubs are actively pursuing outdoor courts with city officials. In the U.S. futsal was once a quirky winter sport to keep players busy in the off season, but now many of the more ambitious coaches and clubs realize it’s a dynamic tool that enhances the soccer side.
In the words of u8-u11 Mustang Director of Coaching, John Kinnear, “Developmentally, we believe futsal really helps with quick decision making, movement off the ball and close ball control. This makes players better. They will enjoy the game and have fun at a higher level of play. By giving our youngest players a chance to develop these skills along with other soccer skills, it will lead to our overall goals of development, having fun and making kids want to play soccer and futsal for a long, long time.”
This past year, I had the enormous privilege of observing and learning on three separate occasions from some of FCB’s top youth coaches: Xavi Closas, Oscar Alonso, Pep Ruiz and Sergi Lopez. As you can imagine the X’s & O’s of the tactical discussions were brilliant, but I also took a close look at the way they carried themselves and what parts of training they valued most. Here are some take aways.
- Friendly, nice personalities. Each one of them was very down to earth. I’ve seen this in other successful people as well. The more accomplished a person is, the more secure they seemingly are. You could never guess that each one of these men have won championships at the highest level. Each carried themselves very humbly. Just good guys.
- Passionate about futsal. Okay, so this one seems obvious, however, these guys can literally talk about the sport for hours on end. Although each has probably explained how to break a zone defense hundreds if not thousands of times, when Xavi and Oscar explained it to me, it might has well have been the first time. Their sincerity to educate was palpable. They want their beloved sport to grow.
- Wickedly deep evaluation process. Each player’s progress was charted from game to game in the minutest of detail. Video was used extensively and individual clips of a player’s performance were created to highlight strengths and weaknesses.
- Advanced scouting. Every opponent was scouted ahead of time for individual and team tendencies. This information was then worked into the week’s training.
- Training through fun games. Elementary school PE type games like keep away and tag are frequently used to keep training fun and get the neurons firing. Decision making under time and space limitations is a constant feature of these drills.
- Development over winning. There is plenty of pressure to win at FCB, however, without development it means little. Players are encouraged to work the ball up the court with precise passing. At the younger ages blasting shots from distance over short goal keepers is frowned upon. Yes, this can run up the score, but it deprives the players of developing a well rounded game.
- Focus on decision making. As noted above decision making is a hallmark of all FCB drills. If the brain is trained the feet will follow. Dribbling around cones doesn’t cut it.
- All areas trained simultaneously. Technique, tactics and conditioning are not viewed as separate areas to be trained in isolation. Instead all three are incorporated into every drill from a young age.
- What happens in the staff meeting stays in the staff meeting. Coaches may disagree and offer up differing opinions, but in the end all coaches support the training and game plan publicly. Unity at all times.
- Serious, energetic trainings. All coaches showed great amounts of energy and were constantly offering praise and critiques in real time. Not a second was wasted as players transitioned seamlessly from drill to drill. Through frequent eye contact and simple, clear instructions, the player engagement was off the charts.
Many thanks again to Xavi, Oscar, Pep and Sergi. Not a day goes by where I don’t reflect on their coaching ways.
We don’t do drills on cones because I beat the cone every time. – Xavi Closas, FC Barcelona Lassa B
Decision making is found in every FC Barcelona drill. Practicing scissors on a defenseless cone isn’t in the curriculum. Since futsal requires decision making of the highest quality, it is factored into every exercise. From ball mastery to passing patterns to rotations, decision making is front and center. A fast mind equals fast feet, so the focus on forcing players to solve problems is relentless. On the surface futsal resembles soccer, however, at its tactical best futsal is basketball with the feet. Like basketball, futsal requires lightning quick thinking on where and when to pass, dribble or shoot, and all with a defender in your face. So cones have their place, but just not as training partners.
Last year at this time a group of USA Futsal’s Top 12 parents spied Neymar zipping out of La Masia. Normally composed adults were suddenly texting and tweeting with the dexterity of teenagers. A hundred yards away, I had my “Neymar” moment inside the FCB gym where I met the coaching staff. The first minute distilled everything; each one was friendly, polite and deadly serious about their craft. Most sporting teams are just that, sporting teams. But on rare occasions, special coaches take their knowledge and passion and bend sports into visual art. The geometry of parallel and diagonal passing lines takes on the same brilliance of a Ferrari’s angular frame. Tomorrow we will walk through La Masia’s gates again. Neymar or not, it should be the ride of a lifetime.