Things have not been going well for US men’s national soccer teams at the top levels. The US failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, then the Under-23 team was tripped up in Olympic qualifying in March.
But the US has gained some redemption via the indoor version of soccer, thanks in part to players from Boston-based Safira FC. The US finished second in the CONCACAF Futsal Championship in May, qualifying for the FIFA Futsal World Cup in Lithuania in September.
Safira’s Alencar Junior, Everson Maciel, Daniel Mattos, and Ricardinho Sobreira played key roles as the US won its group, then eliminated the Dominican Republic and defeated host country Guatemala before losing, 3-2, to Costa Rica in the final.
The Safira players represent the local Brazilian presence in the game, dating to the club’s founding in 2007. But New England’s indoor soccer roots go back more than a century, preceding the recognized origins of fútbol sala (Spanish for “indoor soccer”), which date to the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay.
In fact, the story goes that James Naismith invented basketball partly because so many windows were being broken during soccer games in the Springfield YMCA gym in 1891. And Juan Carlos Ceriani, considered the father of futsal, was likely inspired by his experience as a student at Springfield College when he introduced the game in Montevideo.
But five-a-side soccer was conducted mostly on an informal basis until the 1980s, when the first Futsal World Cup was held. The US reached the semifinals in 1989 and ’92 with players who were competing in professional leagues on courts using hockey boards. (Regulation futsal is usually played on surfaces the size of basketball courts, with five players a side).
But the US program declined after the team lost four successive games in the 2008 World Cup and did not form a squad after failing to qualify for the 2016 World Cup.
US Soccer revived its futsal program in late 2019, hiring coach Dusan Jakica, a senior process manufacturing engineer at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing in Minnesota, who guided professional teams in Novi Sad, Serbia, before moving to the US in 2015.
Jakica’s identification camps attracted more than 500 players from throughout the country. Jakica went outside the US for one player — goalkeeper Diego Moretti, 39, who plays in Italy’s Serie A. Maciel, 43, who set scoring records at Quinnipiac more than 20 years ago, was the team’s oldest player.
The rest of the team included Californian Eduardo Buenfil; Michigander Jeremy Klepal; New Jerseyites Raphael Araujo and Luciano Gonzalez; New Yorker Julian Escobar; Texans Eduardo Macias and 19-year-old Tomas Pondeca, who was named CONCACAF’s best young player; and Wisconsites Zach Reget, a Cheesehead from Kenosha, and Brazil-born Milwaukeean Guilherme Veiga.
Training camps included games in Croatia in March 2020, before pandemic restrictions again shut down the program, forcing Jakica to restart from scratch.
“First of all, we don’t have futsal in the US [because] we don’t have a professional league,” Jakica said. “When we started, we didn’t even have a ranking.”
A statement in Guatemala
The US players did not convene again until meeting in Atlanta in late April, a week before the qualifying tournament. That would be the extent of their preparation — meaning they had not played a game in more than a year when they traveled to Guatemala City.
The US opened with a 1-1 draw against El Salvador at the purpose-built Domo Polideportivo May 3, Maciel’s bicycle kick equalizing in the final minutes. That result turned out to be the difference as the US finished in first place on goal difference in Group D. And the goal was selected as “top play” of the day by ESPN, though it apparently did not surprise Maciel’s teammates; he has biked in “three or four” goals for Safira.
Finishing in the lead in the group meant the US delayed meeting Guatemala until the semifinals. In the quarterfinals, with a World Cup berth on the line, the US came through with a 2-0 win over the Dominican Republic as Araujo converted a third-minute wraparound shot off a corner kick and Pondeca scored in the second half.
As the US prepared to play in the semifinals, several players and coaches came down with digestive problems. The team could have mailed it in, since finishing in the top four was all that was necessary for a World Cup berth. But the US held Guatemala to a 2-2 draw, playing shorthanded after a Pondeca red card. Then the US captured the penalty kicks shootout, with Maciel, Junior, and Sobreira converting.
In the final, Reget equalized following a “rainbow” touch to get past a defender, then a chip over the goalkeeper — extremely difficult moves in a small space. But tournament MVP Milinton Tijerino set up the deciding score as Costa Rica took the title.
Much of the US team’s success stemmed from the guidance of Jakica, whose tactics and team selection proved sound. Players were impressed to find him preparing into the early-morning hours as they played six times in seven days.
Jakica and assistant coaches Otto Orf and Pablo Da Silva, a former Safira player, left little to chance. But when it came to political and social statements, they left it to the players, who decided to enter the court hand-in-hand and stand at attention during the national anthem.
“We acted as a family, held hands and stand with heads up and represented our country,” Jakica said. “This is beautiful — win or lose the game doesn’t matter, we sent a message. With the things that happen in our country, I know what it means when you don’t have money, there is civil war, all stupid things.
“You have to appreciate what [you have]. I don’t need to see if you are blue, green, white, I care about you as a person. My message is we go there united and we represent the United States.”
Jakica also hopes to spread the word of futsal as a key to development for the outdoor game.
“Before 2000, when Spain and Portugal started their futsal programs, they had not won anything,” Jakica noted. “Then, they won the World Cup [Spain in 2010] and European Championship [Portugal in 2016].
“Everywhere in the world, this is how we build players, through this game. We have all the resources, everything we need here. It is not a huge investment.”
This could be just the start
The improvised nature of futsal encourages spontaneity, and the restricted dimensions of the field require quick reactions and ultra-tight ball control in which the sole of the foot is often used.
Observers see elements of futsal emerging in the outdoor game: Ronaldo toe-poking a goal for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup; German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer advancing out of the goal area, hands low, widening himself, playing the ball with his feet; Christian Pulisic, whose father coached and played indoor soccer, making quick touches and turns.
Globally, advocates note futsal might actually be more popular than regulation soccer, since pickup games take place wherever there is space, much like basketball in the US. And this could be just the start. The hope is to advance the US women’s futsal team and US youth team programs; introduce the sport into the Olympic Games; start a professional league in the US; incorporate futsal into MLS teams’ development plans; promote US bids to host CONCACAF qualifiers and the FIFA Futsal World Cup.
“If they really start working with youth divisions, I’m sure the US will win the World Cup in the next two or three World Cups,” said Andre Ferreira, who has coached Safira to four national championships. “There are so many young talents here.
“Look at what Belgium and Croatia have done with the game. Even Germany, after 2002 they reset everything and said we are going to win the World Cup in the next 10 years, no pressure to do it now. And they developed players and won [in 2014].”
But first, the US must prepare for the upcoming Futsal World Cup. The competitive level will be much higher than the regional tournament, including well-compensated professional players, some considered superstars in the sport.
“We will play there as a family; it doesn’t matter who is on the opposite side,” Jakica said. “If it is Brazil, we will give our heart on the field, we will fight. We can get only benefits from this competition. Brazil, Portugal, Spain are very hard to beat.
“Maybe it is science fiction. But nobody can take our dreams from us. We will represent our country and put the US on the futsal world map. We didn’t have a ranking in the top 100 and now we are [45th].”