Elk Grove News

Elk Grove park to swap tennis courts for futsal

James Hendrix, 9, left, defends as Payton Coss, 9, advances the ball in a futsal game in Rocklin on Saturday.
James Hendrix, 9, left, defends as Payton Coss, 9, advances the ball in a futsal game in Rocklin on Saturday. rbenton@sacbee.com

The days of grass- and dirt-stained uniforms may be over for soccer moms as futsal, an extra-challenging foot sport played on a hard surface, makes its name in the Sacramento region.

Considered a training tool for off-season soccer players, futsal puts focus on speed and foot skills, making it is a key part of sharpening the region’s soccer youth, coaches say. Futsal courts and leagues continue to spring up as soccer gains popularity in the United States.

Sacramento’s first dedicated, public-access futsal court opened in the fall of 2013 at Northgate Park, when the Natomas United Youth Soccer League asked the city to modify an underused tennis court as part of a wider park renovation project. After a resurfacing, two goals and a little paint, the futsal court was ready for action.

“(The city) was apprehensive at first because nobody knew what futsal was,” said John Flores, vice president of the league. “But now, (the court) is being used like crazy. It’s convenient, it’s fun, it’s well lit. You’ll find people out there all day.”

On a recent school night, members of a local soccer team were dribbling through cones on the court. Because a soccer ball moves faster on a hard surface than it does on grass, players are forced to react quickly and tighten their movements, making it a great skill-building activity, Flores said.

The Cosumnes Community Services District followed suit last week, voting unanimously Wednesday to convert two dilapidated tennis courts in Jennie McConnell Park in Elk Grove into futsal courts. The Elk Grove Youth Soccer League – one of the biggest in the region with 6,000 members – recommended the change and is providing the approximately $8,000 required to get the court installed, said league president Debra Carlton.

Finding a hard surface to practice on is a challenge due to competition with basketball teams, said Mike Stralen, youth soccer league coach who also heads a futsal academy for the kids. He supervises about 30 Elk Grove youths while they play Friday night futsal in a Sacramento church gymnasium. He has been working with Carlton to get the park project approved, and said he looks forward to having a court specifically marked for futsal, since basketball courts are technically smaller.

“Tennis courts are really the same type of surface and there’s a blocked exterior, the fence,” Carlton said. “It’s been a great option. In other countries they play on something very similar, of the same size.”

Futsal originated in Uruguay, and professional soccer players worldwide have long sworn by its training benefits. The five-player-per-side sport has gained momentum in Sacramento alongside soccer, with minor-league Sacramento Republic FC selling out games and the city vying for a major league team.

Carlton and Stralen hope to start a formal youth futsal league with regularly scheduled games once the court is up and running. No completion date has been set.

“(The new court) will attract a lot of kids,” Stralen said. “Futsal is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Soccer has already proven to be a popular sport … there are more people playing soccer and futsal now than there are tennis players.”

The court will be a silver lining for McConnell Park, which has seen hard financial times in the past few years, said Steve Sims, parks superintendent for the community services district. In 2009, the district had to reduce some of the park’s acreage, including the baseball and soccer fields, due to a lack of funding.

“I’m looking forward to being able to go out there and watch kids having fun and enjoying themselves and really revitalizing a somewhat deteriorated area of the park,” he said. “And who knows? We might be producing a future World Cup star.”

That’s the attitude at Futsal Factory in Rocklin, which has provided futsal training for the area’s soccer youth for the past four years. The company was founded by Lee Callow and James Kavanagh, two English soccer players who made a name as coaches through their other organization, Vision Soccer Training. When they first started the Futsal Factory as an off-season supplement, they offered clinics just one day per week. They’ve since grown to offer more regular weekday trainings to meet demand and, starting this year, a formal league that plays every weekend.

The league draws kids from as far as Elk Grove and Folsom, Callow said, and is open to local soccer teams who want to join the futsal bracket as well as free agents who make up the factory teams. Those teams, drawing on futsal’s global history, are named after pro soccer teams from the U.S., England, Germany and Spain.

On a recent Saturday, boys on the “under 10” teams were in a heated championship faceoff, diving to block shots in the hockey-sized goals, passing within tight boundaries and keeping close control of the futsal ball, which is slightly heavier and less bouncy than a soccer ball.

“Individual dribbling skills are improved straightaway,” Callow said. “It’s so fast, the fitness level you get from futsal is great as well. At an outdoor field, you may touch the ball once in a while and not be involved in the play. In futsal, you’re touching the ball all the time.”

Craig DuBose, coach for the Loomis Youth Soccer Club which enters teams into the Futsal Factory league, said he has seen a huge difference in his players since they began playing futsal, which is more challenging than indoor soccer because the arena has no walls. His son Trevor, who plays the holding midfielder position for an “under 14” team and recently quit baseball to focus on soccer, said his passing skills have improved from futsal.

“You get a lot of one-on-one opportunities,” Trevor said. “It’s on a futsal court, so you have to be aware of your surroundings because it’s in a smaller area.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.