PFL

Exclusive: Pro Futsal League looks to break into U.S. market

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There’s been no hiding the growth of soccer in the United States over the past two decades-plus. Major League Soccer has developed into an impressive entity, continually growing and attracting some of the world’s greatest talents, including David Villa and Kaká.

[ MORE: MLS expansion looking at 28 teams, says Don Garber ]

In a similar path to success, futsal — a newer, quicker variation of soccer — is seeking its opportunity to crack the U.S. soccer market with the introduction of the Pro Futsal League.

For those that may not be familiar with the game, futsal is played with five players a side on an indoor surface typically about the size of a basketball court.

Professional Futsal League game between USA and Spain in at Dr. Pepper Stars Center in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2015. MIKE STONE
Professional Futsal League game between USA and Spain in at Dr. Pepper Stars Center in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2015. PFL Commissioner Keith Tozer pictured (right). PHOTO CREDIT: MIKE STONE

A few other noted differences between soccer and futsal include — unlimited on-the-fly substitutions (like in hockey), accumulated fouls penalty shot (which results after a team concedes six fouls in a half) and kick-ins (replacing a traditional throw-in).

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Pro Futsal League with some of the organization’s executives, including Michael Hitchcock (CEO), Keith Tozer (PFL Commissioner), Rob Andrews (President of International Affairs) and Christie Nelson (Executive Director).

The league has begun its development phases and will officially launch its exhibition season in 2017. PFL — which is set to be comprised of 16 teams in various large markets across the United States — will kick off its inaugural season in 2018.

The excitement surrounding the league is unquestioned and unique because of the entities that PFL is reportedly aligning itself with. Back in February, the Dallas Morning News cited sources saying that PFL will be working closely with renowned clubs like Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Boca Juniors and Corinthians, who will take on ownership stakes.

Here’s my full conversation with PFL’s executives:

Baseball has taken some heat over recent years about the speed of play in which the game is played. Futsal is a very fast-paced game, almost similar to basketball or hockey. What was it about the sport that intrigued you when starting PFL?

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: I was introduced to futsal almost two years ago in Milwaukee. At the time, Keith Tozer, who is now the Commissioner of the PFL and currently the U.S. Futsal National Team Coach, was hosting the France Futsal National Team in a friendly. Within minutes of the match, I fell in love with the high-octane sport. Coming from a basketball background, I was attracted to the 5-on-5 aspect and the quick pace of the game. My immediate thought was why haven’t I heard of futsal, and why is there not a professional league in North America? It is perfect for the American eye and combines the best components of hockey, basketball, and soccer.

As a sport that is still growing, how important do you feel it is to get youths involved in the game?

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: Involving children in the growth of futsal is imperative. The younger generation is the future of the sport. Children playing in youth leagues now have the opportunity to aspire to be professional futsal athletes and will also be a part of the fanbase attending matches.

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: Futsal is one way to reach into urban areas, and the PFL is committed to supporting the growth of the game in neighborhoods across North America.

Italy, but more so Spain and Brazil have been powerhouses on the international futsal stage. How does the United States reach the heights of success futsal nations such as those have experienced?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: The PFL has been collecting and observing the best practices from every major futsal nation in preparation for the launch of the PFL. Building futsal in the the U.S. is crucial to members of the PFL, and we see the opportunity to reach the same heights and successes by having the best brands and premier players in the top markets in North America.

There has been discussions about the U.S. pursuing a bid to host the 2020 Futsal World Cup. We’ve seen a rise in American soccer its popularity since hosting the 1994 World Cup. How important is it for the U.S. to push for this opportunity in four years?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: The MLS grew into what it is today with the support of U.S. Soccer over the past two decades. We are hoping to follow a similar path in the development of the PFL.

How many teams are confirmed for PFL’s launch in 2017? 2018?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: The PFL will kick off the exhibition season in 2017 and begin the inaugural season in 2018. Sixteen teams are confirmed in NBA and NFL major markets.

What kind of allocation process does the league have or will it have in place to determine rosters moving forward? Will there be a salary cap?

Keith Tozer, PFL Commissioner: The PFL will have a draft similar to the NBA. Details regarding roster creation will be voted on by owners at the next owners meeting and will be released in the future. Players can submit a player registration form on our website to be entered into the PFL database to receive future updates and information: http://professionalfutsal.com/player-registration-form/

What does it say about the league right off the bat that you’re partnering with teams like Barcelona and Boca Juniors, given their respective histories?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: At this time we cannot comment on the brands we are working with. However, being able to start a league with such iconic global brands would be unprecedented.

We’ve seen other industries in the United States attempt variations of a sport before. Arena Football is something that has tried to compete with the NFL for several years now, but has certainly been put on the back-burner by fans. What challenges does your league face in trying to cultivate a solid fan base?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: This is not an American invented sport. Futsal has an almost 100 year history, with multiple countries celebrating 25 years of professional league play.

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: Currently, North America is the only continent that does not support a professional futsal league; it couldn’t be a more perfect time to start one.

There’s been a lot of talk in the past about the disconnect between soccer and futsal. Do you feel the league has an obligation to kind of tie the two together in order to bring fans to pay attention to both?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: It is no secret that some of the greatest players in the world credit futsal for their development. Many people don’t know, however, that Kobe Bryant also grew up playing 5-a-side in Italy and credits it for his development into one of the greatest in NBA history.

Keith Tozer, PFL Commissioner: Playing futsal naturally develops quicker decision making, better spacial awareness, and faster acceleration that will benefit any athlete who wants to excel in any sport. Our goal with the PFL is to offer the opportunity to those players who want to stay with futsal to do so at a professional level.

What were your takeaways from the exhibitions that the league had in 2015? Additionally, how important was it to have a player like Falcao involved?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: Since the PFL International Challenge last March, the response has been huge both internationally and domestically. After breaking the North American record in attendance for a futsal match, we know there is a market for futsal here in the USA. We have come a long way since then and look forward to what the future holds.

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: The response to having Falcão last year was so great that he will be returning for the PFL’s largest event of 2016. Details are to come mid-April about the event.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

LIVE – Everton kick off Europa League campaign

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Wayne Rooney will play his first competitive game for Everton in 13 years.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

That storyline will dominate Everton’s return to Europe as they kick off their 2017-18 UEFA Europa League campaign in front of a packed house at Goodison Park on Thursday.

The Toffees welcome Slovakian side MFK Ruzomberok for the first leg of the third qualifying round as they aim to make it back to the group stage for the first time since 2014-15.

Click on the link above to follow not only Everton’s game but all of the Europa League qualifiers going on across Europe this afternoon with the likes of AC Milan, Fenerbache, PSV, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao all in action.

If Ronald Koeman‘s side successfully navigate their way past Ruzomberok then they will be in the play-off round which is the final hurdle before the group stage.

Bob Bradley named first-ever LAFC head coach

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Bob Bradley is heading back to Major League Soccer and will be the first-ever head coach of Los Angeles Football Club.

LAFC announced Thursday that Bradley, 59, would take charge of the new MLS club for their inaugural season in 2018.

The former Chicago Fire, New York MetroStars, Chivas USA, U.S. national team, Egyptian national team, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea City head coach is back Stateside for the first time since 2011 when departed his job with the USMNT.

Bradley won the 2007 Gold Cup, took the U.S. to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and reached the 2010 World Cup Round of 16 while in charge of the USMNT.

LAFC announced the news in an unconventional manner with the video below as Bradley is back in the game after leaving Premier League side Swansea City in December 2016 as he became the first-ever American to coach in the PL.

MLS’ newest team is already pushing ahead with its 22,000 capacity soccer-specific stadium in downtown LA with construction underway on their swanky new home.

The club also boast a huge number of high-profile owners including Mia Hamm, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell, Vincent Tan and many others with entrepreneur Peter Guber the executive chairman.

Barcelona praise Man United; Mourinho lauds Pogba

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Barcelona beat Manchester United 1-0 in their International Champions Cup clash at FedEx Field on Wednesday and the Spanish giants were quick to praise Jose Mourinho’s side after the narrow victory.

[ VIDEO: Man City hammer Real Madrid

New Barca boss Ernesto Valverde certainly has his hands full in his first few weeks in charge at the Nou Camp as Neymar’s future is the main topic of conversation around the Catalan club.

That said, after the win (which came via a goal from, you guessed it, Neymar) Valverde had plenty of kinds words to say about United and the job Mourinho is doing at Old Trafford.

“Obviously it hasn’t been well lately, but I mean they won the Europa League. This year they are going to be in the Champions League. Their presence by itself is impressive. They impress. I think they are going to be a really hard team to beat,” Valverde said. “For me, they are contenders to win and they are going to be hard to beat in the Premier League and the Champions League. I wouldn’t want to face them in the Champions League.’

Mourinho was asked about the situations regarding the top talent in world soccer and the huge transfer fees, and he picked out that moment to praise the current most-expensive player in the world Paul Pogba.

“(Lionel) Messi and Neymar, there is only one; there is not two,” Mourinho said. “(Luis) Suarez, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Gareth) Bale, (Luka) Modric, Toni Kroos; there is only one so they can only play for one club, not for two clubs. We can’t have them, they belong to the clubs. But I have to say that Paul Pogba showed the level… he showed he belongs to that level.”

This is certainly a big year for Pogba after his up and down start to life back at Old Trafford in 2016-17.

Sure, he he hadn’t plenty of pressure on his shoulders with the huge price tag, his emoji spinning around the pitch and much more, but he helped drag United through the season and achieve their main aim of getting back to the Champions League.

After a strong preseason Stateside where the won four games and lost a tight encounter to Barcelona, it appears Mourinho has things moving in the right direction.

Whether or not United will challenge for the PL title and Champions League this season remains to be seen but you can’t argue that Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof aren’t huge additions and if Mourinho can add one or two more he will have the required balance to made the Red Devils a formidable unit.

LA Galaxy fire Onalfo, hire Sigi Schmid

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Sigi Schmid is back in the game.

On Thursday LA Galaxy announced that Curt Onalfo had been relieved of his duties “effective immediately” and that Schmid had been hired.

The former UCLA, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders coach is back for his second-stint with the Galaxy — he previously coached the Galaxy from 1999-2004 — as the man with more wins than any other boss in MLS history is tasked with saving LA’s season.

Schmid has won two MLS Cups, a record five U.S. Open Cups and three MLS Supporters’ Shield over his illustrious career.

LA Galaxy President Chris Klein explained the decision to bring in the experienced coach after Onalfo’s promotion form LA Galaxy II failed to work out with the MLS giants currently languishing in ninth spot in the Western Conference.

“After a great deal of evaluation and careful consideration, we believe that Sigi Schmid is the best person to coach our team for the remainder of this season and into the future,” Klein said. “Sigi is one of the most experienced coaches in the history of soccer in the United States and he is an extremely successful manager that has proven himself to be a winner within Major League Soccer. Sigi has been one of the best coaches the history of our league and we have full confidence in him to lead our team moving forward. Our goal remains to win trophies and be the best club in North America and we believe that Sigi gives us the best opportunity to achieve this. Curt Onalfo has been a loyal servant to the Galaxy and Galaxy II for a number of seasons and we wish him well.”

From the start Onalfo was on a hiding to nothing with Bruce Arena departing for the U.S. national team last season and Onalfo tasked with an almighty rebuild following his great work with bringing through youngsters at LA Galaxy II.

Schmid knows the league inside out and his main aim will be to rally a talented group of Galaxy players to one of their famed second half of the season surges as they search for another MLS Cup to add to their record haul of five.

With LA in ninth spot in the West they are only three points off the bottom of the standings but are also just five points from the final playoff spot.

For so long Schmid plotted LA’s downfall as head coach of the Seattle Sounders from 2009-16, but now he’s back in LA and as fate would have it his first game back in charge of the Galaxy is against… the Sounders this Saturday at StubHub Center.