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.
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.