PFL

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

1 Comment

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

League Cup preview: North London Derby; Chelsea v. Cherries

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three of the four clubs active in Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinals are from London, vying for semifinal spots next to Tuesday victors Manchester City and Burton Albion (!?!).

Things have gone in opposite directions for rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur since the Gunners humbled Spurs 4-2 at the Emirates Stadium on Dec. 2.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 PKs) Man City]

Spurs have only dropped points once, a dramatic draw with Barcelona, while Arsenal has failed to continue its form and is coming off a 3-2 loss to relegation-threatened Southampton.

But North London Derbies have a way of framing a season, and reasserting control with a League Cup quarterfinal win at the Emirates would sure be nice for Unai Emery‘s men.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll begin another 20-plus match unbeaten streak. From Arsenal.com:

“Sunday for us is a big reality check in our way,” Emery said. “We need to improve and also we need to continue doing our way in our process. It’s not a good result but this reality gives us more motivation to continue to work hard, finding a new thing to work on each day, and also it makes us demand a lot from ourselves in the way we work on this way.”

The other match sees Chelsea entertaining Bournemouth, and the two sides split results in their last two meetings at Stamford Bridge.

The Cherries lost to Chelsea in last season’s League Cup, but topped the Blues 3-0 in the Premier League.

Meanwhile Chelsea has reportedly confirmed their interest in Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, so subplots? Yeah, we got ’em.

Eddie Howe‘s not having it. From The Bournemouth Echo:

“Callum getting linked with other clubs, I think in some respects I would almost want that with every player. It means they are performing at their highest level and doing very well in the league they are in, so I have no problem with it.

“From my perspective, Callum’s future is here. He is a massive part of what we are doing and I just want to see him continue to score goals for us.”

The “from my perspective” is a thing here, though, as the Cherries could get a fantastic offer from Chelsea or another big club for the non-Cup tied striker.

Burton Albion making League Cup semi “absolutely staggering”

Owen Humphreys/PA via AP
Leave a comment

Burton Albion has never finished higher than 20th in the Championship, so getting to the League Cup semifinals followed a 1-0 defeat of Middlesbrough is pretty darn sweet to manager Nigel Clough and his men.

The Brewers were relegated to League One last season, finishing 23rd in the 24-team Championship.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City]

Now, manager Nigel Clough has the club within a win of the League Cup Final. It’s their best major cup performance in a 68-year history.

From BurtonAlbionFC.co.uk:

“The scale of the achievement is absolutely staggering – for Burton Albion to get to the semi-final of a major cup competition. It’s very difficult to describe the feeling at this point.”

Sure the luck of the draw is involved — Burton has only drawn one Premier League team, and it was Burnley — but winning five cup matches is winning five cup matches.

Clough, the son of legendary manager Brian Clough, also sung the praises of Southampton loanee Jake Hesketh. The 22-year-old won the match with the game’s loan goal.

“We got the goal through Jake Hesketh. The most impressive thing was to win the tackle on the edge of the box and he was one of the few players tonight not to hit his shot over the bar, We bang on in training about hitting the bottom corners and he did.”

Whether or not Burton can hang with Premier League opposition in the final, this is a pretty monumental moment for the Brewers. Sitting 15th in league play, it will likely be the most memorable moment of the season.

River Plate loses on penalties to Al Ain at Club World Cup

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Leave a comment

AL AIN CITY, United Arab Emirates (AP) South American champion River Plate was upset by Al Ain FC in the Club World Cup on Tuesday, losing in a penalty shootout after the semifinal finished 2-2 following extra time.

Al Ain’s players converted all five penalty kicks, before goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved Enzo Perez’s fifth shot for River to seal a 5-4 victory in the shootout.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

River endured the humbling loss to the team from United Arab Emirates less than two weeks after thrilling its fans with a memorable win over fierce Argentine rival Boca Juniors in the final of the Copa Libertadores.

Real Madrid plays Kashima Antlers on Wednesday in the other semifinal.

Marcus Berg put Al Ain ahead in the third minute before Santos Borre scored twice to give River the lead in the 16th.

Brazilian forward Caio pulled Al Ain level at 2-2 in the 51st.

Gonzalo Martinez had an opportunity to put River back in front from the penalty spot after Mohamed Ahmad fouled Milton Casco in the area. But Martinez hit the 68th-minute spot kick against the crossbar.

The final is on Saturday.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Pep on Man City win, Sterling’s poor panenka, Mourinho sacking

AP Photo/Rui Vieira
Leave a comment

Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City needed penalties to outlast hosts Leicester City in the quarterfinals of the League Cup, but got the job done thanks in no small part to some laughable efforts from the Foxes.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

Kevin De Bruyne and Marc Albrighton scored good-looking goals in regulation, and Oleksandr Zinchenko converted City’s third penalty after Leicester missed three-consecutive offerings at the King Power Stadium.

Man City’s only miss was an awful missed panenka from Raheem Sterling, but Guardiola was mostly okay with the outcome given their lineup.

Eric Garcia started and made his first team debut at age 17. Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz also started the match. Young goalkeeper Arijanet Muric starred for Man City, stopping two penalties in the win. From the BBC:

“A tough game, it is always difficult at Leicester. We played with a guy who is 17 years old and some injured players, it was a good game. … Raheem took that decision [to chip his penalty], unfortunately he missed it but that is OK.”

Guardiola was also asked about fired Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho. He feels compassion for his longtime rival.

“I am always sad for the manager when that happens. We are alone in that situation. I am close to all of the managers. You are sacked when results are not good. He doesn’t need me, he is so strong. I wish him all the best and he will be back soon.”

Man City is one win from a third League Cup final in four years, and will face either Burton Albion, Arsenal, Spurs, Bournemouth, or Chelsea. Next up is a visit from Crystal Palace on Saturday and another trip to Leicester on Boxing Day.