Futsal finds a home in Southwest

Futsal Society
A group of participants from the Futsal Society’s Wednesday Family Futsal night at Whittier rec center. Submitted photo

Stevens Square resident Caleb Crossley always had a passion for soccer, but when a college trip to Brazil introduced him to futsal, he learned a whole new aspect of the game’s culture and he’s been working to share it with his community.

Futsal has all the basic components of soccer: It’s played between teams trying to put a ball into a net without using their hands. But the game is smaller, played traditionally on a hard surface slightly larger than a basketball court between teams of five players using a slightly smaller ball. The game is common across Europe and Latin America and is starting to flourish stateside. In the Twin Cities, Southwest Minneapolis has become a bit of a hub for the game, in part thanks to Crossley’s nonprofit organization Futsal Society and the regular pick-up futsal nights it hosts at the Whittier Recreation Center.

Unlike field soccer, which in the United States tends to be an expensive sport relying on private youth clubs and field access, futsal is cheap and casual. No formal commitments, no massive registration fees. People just show up and play.

“I view it as accessible soccer,” Crossley said.

On Thursdays, crowds of players of all ages, races, genders and skill levels come to test their mettle on the hardwood gym floor. Local teens and high school players take on grown adults.

Players pitch in $5, of which $4 goes to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and $1 goes to Futsal Society.

“There’s a huge interest in futsal; it really seems to be growing,” said Becky Lewis, a recreation facility specialist with the MPRB who oversees the Whittier rec center.

The Thursday night drop-in league draws about 40 players each week, and its popularity has led to the introduction of Family Futsal Nights on Wednesdays at Whittier, which allows younger children to play, too. (The Thursday pick-up sessions require players to be in high school or older.) The games are fast, played for seven minutes or the first to two goals, allowing lots of players to get in on the game.

The last two years they’ve held “Futsal is Female” tournaments exclusively for school-age girls, who are paired with female adult coaches, many of whom are former college players, Lewis said. While pick-up games are co-ed, they wanted to find a way for women to have their own dedicated time to play.

They also added weekend drop-in sessions on Saturdays and Sundays last winter and would like to offer them again, Lewis said. One barrier to that is cost. While $5 to come by and play pick-up is fairly affordable, it can still be a cost barrier, especially for younger children, she said. So Futsal Society and the MPRB are on the lookout for grant funding to cover the cost of hosting weekend play.

Futsal at Whittier draws heavily from local east African and Hispanic residents, Lewis said. As a result, they’ve tried to facilitate ways for people to share food and culture with each other at the gatherings.

“I view futsal and soccer as a vehicle for social change,” Crossley said.

In addition to drawing large, diverse crowds for exercise, futsal is seen by many as a way to develop better foot skills because the smaller playing area requires players to maintain tighter control of the ball.

“In a smaller space, you have to think quicker,” Crossley said.

Futsal Society is in a brief break currently, due to the start of school, but plans to start hosting Thursday night pick-up again on Oct. 10. They’ll also be hosting a 3-on-3 tournament on Sept. 15 during the Eat Street Festival at 27th & Nicollet.

Plans for the future

The Southwest Service Area Master Plan, which is currently going through a community advisory committee process, calls for a permanent outdoor multi-use court striped for futsal at Whittier Park. Two multi-use sport courts that can serve as futsal pitches are also planned at Clinton Field Park in Whittier. A planned outdoor ice rink at Armatage Park would have two sport courts lined for futsal. Another planned multi-use court at Pershing Field Park could be used as a futsal surface.

Lewis, who also oversees Clinton Field Park, said people are excited about the plans to get dedicated spaces for futsal in Whittier.

Futsal Society has tried to lobby the Park Board to add spaces for the game in Minneapolis and has also been in talks with the U.S. Soccer Foundation about potential grants. This summer the USSF partnered with Minnesota United FC to put a futsal pitch on a tennis court that had fallen into disrepair at St. Paul’s St. Clair Park. Futsal Society would like to see one come to Minneapolis.

“I think it’s going to be incredibly successful and they’ll have to drag kids out of it,” Crossley said.