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:

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

Ligue 1: Alves secures late win for PSG; Depay does same for Lyon

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PARIS (AP) — Memphis Depay scored in the last minute of a frantic match to give Lyon a 3-2 win at third-placed Marseille that keeps alive its chances of Champions League soccer next season.

In the fight for a Champions League playoff spot, fourth-placed Lyon closed the gap on Marseille to two points with eight games left. Monaco is seven points ahead of Marseille in second spot.

The match at Stade Velodrome ended with players pushing and shoving after the final whistle. Lyon defender Marcelo then mockingly brandished a Lyon jersey in front of Marseille’s players as they were walking off. It sparked a further melee which took more than a minute before security officials brought it under control. Several players from both sides tried to get at each other, rather than walking away when they had the chance.

It was the latest volatile incident in the French league.

On Thursday, several police officers were injured after clashes with Lyon fans before a Europa League game against CSKA Moscow.

This followed on from a mass pitch invasion by angry fans of struggling Lille on March 10, when about 200 fans charged onto the pitch to confront players after a home draw with Montpellier.

The acrimony continued Sunday.

As the players walked back through the tunnel to the dressing rooms, Marseille center back Adil Rami had to be held back as he launched himself at Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes. Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda also had to be pushed away moments later as he sought to back Rami up.

“When I see that it just makes me sad,” said Lyon defender Jeremy Morel, who formerly played for Marseille. “This isn’t even about football. I think we’ve really had enough of this, we don’t need it.”

Marseille winger Florian Thauvin saw it differently.

“Some Lyon players took the liberty of mocking us. It’s not professional on their part,” Thauvin said. “They lacked respect. (Marcelo) is a professional player, he should be leading by example. They shouldn’t behave like that.”

Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou’s looping header in the 84th minute appeared to have earned Marseille a point, after Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar put Lyon ahead 2-1 shortly after the break with a sweetly struck shot from winger Betrand Traore’s pass.

Mitroglou then almost went clean through from the halfway line in the 89th, only to be incorrectly called back for offside. It proved a key moment as Depay scored the winner one minute later.

Lopes took the free kick after the offside decision, striker Mariano Diaz headed the ball on just outside the edge of the penalty area and Depay read it well to nod it over the advancing Mandanda from just inside the area.

Rami’s own-goal late in the first half canceled out center back partner Jorge Rolando’s opener in the 31st.

“We defended really badly,” Mandanda said. “We just didn’t match them in the challenges.”

Dani Alves took Paris Saint-Germain a step closer to the French title, scoring his first league goal of the season with a late header as PSG won 2-1 at Nice.

The 34-year-old Brazil defender met midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s astute curling pass with a powerful header into the bottom right corner in the 82nd minute.

PSG is 17 points clear of defending champion Monaco and almost certain to win its fifth title in six seasons. PSG has seven games left and Monaco has eight.

Nice took the lead in the 17th minute. Mario Balotelli expertly chested down a high ball to the feet of strike partner Alassane Plea near the halfway line, and Plea’s pass sent Allan Saint-Maximin scampering though to finish coolly.

Four minutes later, Angel Di Maria took advantage of slack defending to equalize. It was his ninth goal in 25 league games and he needs one more to match his career-best tally.

The match started at 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) to capture a prime-time television audience in Asia. This follows on from the opening of a French league football office in Beijing last year.

“The Spanish and the English did this before. We train in the mornings, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Nice coach Lucien Favre, referring to the early kickoff. “I hope it was a good advert (for Ligue 1). It was a good game.”

Nice is in eighth place, three points above Saint-Etienne in ninth.

Bundesliga: Bayern finally lose; Batshuayi scores a stunner (video)

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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BERLIN (AP) Runaway Bundesliga leader Bayern Munich lost 2-1 at Leipzig on Sunday in a rare stumble ahead of the international break.

Sandro Wagner headed the visitors into an early lead but Naby Keita equalized before the break and Timo Werner claimed the winner 10 minutes after it.

“We didn’t play like we have in the last weeks,” Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes said. “Leipzig is the deserved winner. You get such games.”

It was Bayern’s third defeat in 27 German league games and Leipzig’s first-ever win over the Bavarian powerhouse after three losses in the Bundesliga and a defeat on penalties in the German Cup last October.

Bayern leads Schalke by 17 points with seven games remaining. It can wrap up its record-extending sixth consecutive title with a win at home over third-place Borussia Dortmund on March 31 – if Schalke drops points to Freiburg on the same day.

Schalke and Dortmund had already postponed the celebrations by winning their 27th-round games, but Wagner got Bayern fans cheering when he scored in the 12th minute.

Wagner, selected to give Robert Lewandowski a rest, was one of several Bayern players waiting to head James Rodriguez’ brilliant cross inside the far post.

But Bayern failed to cope with Leipzig’s pressing game and Keita deservedly equalized on a rebound after Werner’s effort was blocked.

Keita then sent Werner through to score his first goal since Jan. 20 and end Leipzig’s four-game winless run.

Heynckes, who had called up Bayern under-19 midfielder Meritan Shabani to the senior squad for the first time, sent Lewandowski on for the last 20 minutes but the Poland striker was unable to add to his league-leading tally.

Cologne, which made the worst-ever league start by any team, rekindled its slim hopes of survival by beating Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 in the Rhine derby to leave the bottom of the table for the first time since the third round.

“The corpse is still alive,” said Leonardo Bittencourt, who was impressive for Cologne.

Yuya Osako fired the home side into an early lead after good work from Bittencourt, and Simon Zoller sealed the win with 20 minutes remaining when he lifted the ball over the outrushing goalkeeper.

Leverkusen’s hopes of claiming an equalizer were damaged after a half-hour when Lucas Alario swung his elbow back into Dominic Maroh in an off-the-ball incident, leaving the Cologne defender on the ground clutching his neck. Referee Harm Osmers sent the Argentine off after consulting video replays.

Cologne moved two points above Hamburger SV and five points behind Mainz in the relegation playoff place with seven games remaining. Relegation rivals Hamburg, Mainz, Wolfsburg and Freiburg all lost in the 27th round.

Leverkusen dropped to fifth, one point behind Eintracht Frankfurt in the last Champions League qualification place.

Michy Batshuayi‘s brilliant first-half strike was enough for Borussia Dortmund to beat visiting Hannover 1-0 and consolidate third place in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

The home side enjoyed the better start as it looked to make a statement following its disappointing Europa League exit to Salzburg on Thursday.

Batshuayi scored in the 24th minute, running toward Andre Schuerrle’s corner and flicking it on the volley with his heel to send the ball inside the far post.

Dortmund stayed a point behind Schalke with seven games remaining, while Hannover dropped to 13th after its fourth consecutive loss.

Serie A: Napoli make good on Juve’s slip-up, now just 2 back

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona still unbeaten after 29 league games; Ronaldo scores 4 ]

Napoli 1-0 Genoa

Juventus slipped up in a big, big way on Saturday, stumbling to a scoreless draw away to tiny SPAL 2013, and opening the door ever so slightly for Napoli. With a win on Sunday, secured by Raul Albiol’s late winner, Napoli now trail Juve by just two points with the two sides level on games played (29) once again.

The victory snapped a two-game winless skid for Napoli, a run which saw them cough up the top spot which they had held for nearly the entire season, and set up perhaps a colossal title decider on April 22, when first hosts second in their quest to claim a seventh straight Serie A title.

Crotone 0-2 Roma

One spot and 14 points further down the table, you’ll find an interesting battle for third, with Roma picking up their third straight win, 2-0 over 18th-place Crotone on Sunday.

Stephan El Shaarawy (38th minute) and Radja Nainggolan (74th) bagged the goals for Roma, who lead Inter Milan by four points with nine games to go (Inter have a game in hand).

Sampdoria 0-5 Inter Milan

No one was more impressive this weekend than Inter, who put four past Sampdoria in the first half, including a hat trick from Mauro Icardi, who would then go on to add his fourth — Inter’s fifth — in the second half. That’s 22 league goals for the Argentine forward, who now trails Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two in the Golden Boot race.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 1-1 Bologna
AC Milan 3-2 Chievo
Hellas Verona 0-5 Atalanta
Torino 1-2 Fiorentina
Benevento 1-2 Cagliari

La Liga: Barcelona unbeaten after 29 games; Ronaldo scores 4

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United vs. Spurs in FA Cup semis; Chelsea-Southampton]

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Updated numbers for Barcelona’s current unbeaten run in La Liga: 29 games this season; 36 dating back to last season. The quest for the unbeaten league season is now just nine games from reality.

Perhaps even more impressive than the W-D-L record is their defensive record: 13 goals conceded in 29 games (they’ve also scored 74 and have a +61 goal differential).

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Bilbao saw Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Co., go 11 points clear in the title race and all but secure their third title in four seasons, thanks to results elsewhere (see below).

Paco Alcacer opened the scoring after just eight minutes, and Messi made it 2-0 right on the half-hour mark (his league-leading 25th goal of the season; 34 in all competitions).

Real Madrid 6-3 Girona

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged four goals of his own to bring his season total to 22 (32 in all competitions), now second ahead of Suarez and three behind Messi for the Golden Boot, and in the process push Real Madrid (60 points) to within four points of Atletico Madrid in the race for second.

Ronaldo scored goals no. 1, 2, 4 and 6 for Madrid, with tallies from Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale sprinkled in between.

Villarreal 2-1 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid were the last side within touching distance of Barca — “just” eight points back coming into the weekend — but that’s no longer the case following a late collapse and a 2-1 defeat away to fourth-place Valencia.

Antoine Griezmann put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, but Enes Unal bagged an equalizer in the 82nd and the game-winner in the 91st. Atleti finished the game with 10 men after Vitolo was sent off in the 92nd minute.

Real host Atleti in the Madrid derby on April 8, a game which will go a long way towards crowning this season’s runners-up.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 3-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla
Real Betis 3-0 Espanyol (Saturday)
Celta Vigo 0-0 Malaga
Real Sociedad 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Levante 2-1 Eibar (Friday)
Deportivo La Coruña 1-1 Las Palmas (Saturday)