Any soccer player who has gone through a winter without playing the sport knows what it’s like to come out on that first day of the spring season, rusty and still thawing out.
The 166 teams in the Princeton Futsal League won’t have to worry about that this year.
Futsal is an indoor variant of soccer. Each team fields five players, and the field is less than half the size of a standard soccer pitch. The Princeton Futsal League is run during the winter through the Princeton Soccer Association.
Director Jorge Roman said the PSA started the futsal league ten years ago to benefit an athlete’s father who was paralyzed in a hunting accident. They played once a week at Princeton High School. Now, the 166 teams from all over New Jersey play in eight different gyms at five different schools twice a week.
“There were many other teams who wanted to get in this year, but we just didn’t have enough space,” Roman said.
Roman said the local growth of the sport is indicative of its growth across the country. Futsal is already extremely popular in Europe and South America, but in the United States, it’s just beginning to catch on.
“More people are starting to get to know the sport,” he said. “I remember seeing the U.S. teams struggle and trying to catch up with the other teams. I don’t see that anymore. The United States Futsal Federation used to be run off of somebody’s cellphone. Now, they have an office. It’s a real organization. The sport is growing.”
With good reason. Roman and the PSA coaches said the benefits from playing futsal during the winter are unmatched.
Because it is played in such a compact space, futsal forces every player to constantly touch the ball. As Roman put it, “you can’t hide.”
“The foundational element relative to soccer is the touches,” referee assigner Toby Smith said. “The more playing time and the more touches the players get, the better their skills develop. The better the skills, the more time coaches can spend focusing on strategy. It has an excellent effect on the overall game.”
Continuous touches make for a fast-paced game. Futsal is known for its quickness.
“You go from offense to defense so quickly,” Ewing United coach Steve Vincent said. “You can’t ball watch in this game. If you do, it’s in the net before you know it.”
PSA coach Tom Saunders said players have to think about what they’re going to do with the ball before they get it because everything happens so quickly.
“They don’t have as much time,” he said. “It’s all about thinking ahead.”
Raul Galindo, who plays for Saunders on the PSA U16 boys’ team, said the speed is what he and his teammates like best about futsal.
“You get to touch the ball a lot here,” he said. “It’s so much faster. You get to score a lot of goals. It’s exciting.”
Aside from the pace, the rules of futsal also set it apart from standard soccer. For example, goalkeepers can only touch the ball a certain number of times depending on the age group. When the ball goes out of bounds, players kick it in instead of throwing it in.
One of the more significant rule changes, though, is the no-contact rule. Moves like lean-ins that might be legal in soccer merit a foul call in futsal.
Roman said the lack of physical contact between opposing players is one of the most beneficial aspects of futsal.
“It forces players to be skilled versus using strength or even speed,” he said.
Vincent, who is also a futsal referee, sees it the same way.
“It makes you play a non-physical game,” he said. “It’s all about touch. It’s fantastic for touch an ball skill.”
Players and coaches alike said there is a notable difference in the way they play soccer when they get back on the field in the spring after playing futsal in the winter. The athletes play a quicker, smarter, and more skilled game.
“It makes us play faster and use our footwork more so that when we get outside, we play better,” Ewing United player Claudia Barbiero said.
PSA coach John Newman said he can easily differentiate between an athlete who played futsal and an athlete who didn’t work during the offseason.
“It’s very important,” he said. “We use it to keep the kids fit and to get them used to different scenarios. It’s good for them as players, and it’s good for us as coaches.”