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USA - September 04, 2021 12:00The Rebirth of Team USAReport by Valerio Scalabrelli and Mark WysockiCover photo: Dusan Jakica with Pablo Da Silva and Otto Orf (Courtesy: US Soccer)

Diverse Squad Lands in the Group of Death

After a successful 2021 CONCACAF qualification run earning their ticket to Lithuania, the United States have drawn the "Group of Death" - featuring Argentina, Iran and Serbia - the Americans face a heavy task ahead to progress to the Round of 16. The advantage of over two years of maturation under the excellent guidance of Dusan Jakica notwithstanding, the Americans face three of the most developed national teams in the world. Of course, the United States should not be underestimated: defying the odds by reaching a continental final after a recent past made up of bitter disappointments was no small feat. Certainly significant strides for the rising American federation - leaving behind the shortcomings of 2016 which saw the Americans succumb to Canada in early qualification stages and failing to advance to the CONCACAF tournament, let alone the 2016 World Cup.

For better or worse, the fate of the USFNT has long been tied to the performances of players selected from the MASL, the longest-running indoor soccer league. Faced with the task of reviving a national team that had been dormant, Dusan Jakica knew that he had to extend his search far afield and even started inquiring about whether there were real futsal players in Europe with an American passport. Leading into CONCACAF, he came up with a mixed bag: a couple of them are active on NFPL teams (Jeremy Klepal, Daniel Mattos), four in the MASL (Zach Reget, Julian Escobar, Guilherme Veiga), four belonging to amateur futsal teams (Raphael Araujo, Alencar Ventura-Junior, Everson Maciel), three are from European leagues (Tomas Pondeca, Luciano Gonzalez, Diego Moretti), and one unattached (Eduardo Buenfil). Of the USA-based players on the roster, nearly all have a resume that includes time on both semi-pro/amateur futsal teams and MASL teams over the years.

Dusan Jakica’s chess pieces are set as he has named the USFNT 16-man squad to represent USA in the global tournament which has included four new players who were not at the CONCACAF Championships: Diego Bobadilla (MASL; St. Louis Ambush), David Ortiz (MASL; Dallas Sidekicks), Estevan Vasquez (MASL; Mesquite Outlaws), and Robert Damron (Amateur; Michigan Futsal Factory). Meanwhile, Ricardo Sobreira (injury) and Eduardo Macias (selections) have been left off the roster for Lithuania.

The USA bask in their silver-medal success at the CONCACAF Championship (Photo credit: US Soccer)





An Intricate Mosaic

In an ideal world, Jakica would spend each weekend scouting at professional matches across the states, but competitive futsal in the USA is a patchwork of acronyms scattered throughout a country that is geographically massive. Current and previous semi-pro leagues include the NFPL (current), NLPF (2016-2018), MLF (on and off in different regions), NAPFL, AFL, and PFL (backed by Mark Cuban and other stakeholders but never truly took off). There are perhaps a few other smaller or regional-based leagues that could be of similar quality, but the NFPL occupies the top spot and primarily consists of teams in the Midwest and, prior to the pandemic, carried a more frequent schedule of games than the USFF national and regional events. Rumors are that the NFPL is looking to expand to other regions and add events to the calendar.

Currently, the most competitive men’s and women’s teams trend toward competing at the USFF National Championships and Regional Championships highlighted by the historical success of Utah Elite Futsal, Safira Futsal and a few other notable clubs. While these are amateur events, they are the longest-running tournaments (this year’s edition was the 35th) and draw top talent from across the country. Many teams include talented players with a variety of experience including MASL, outdoor soccer, semi-pro futsal leagues and up-and-coming youth as well. The USFF National Championships are held once a year in July, while the Regional Championships are held in February and March.

The NFPL and other previous leagues also carry a slate of dynamic teams who could be successful amongst USFF competitive action. Often times, the close eye will see an overlap of players and teams competing in both competitions over the years, echoing the patchwork to build a comprehensive approach to top tier futsal in the USA.


Tomas Pondeca (#11) grew up with both futsal and soccer in the Dallas area, and eventually decided to pursue the indoor game. It has paid off, as he has been playing in the top flight of French futsal and was selected as the Best Young Player at the CONCACAF Championship. (Photo credit: CONCACAF)





American Ingredients with a Balkan Recipe

Based on their performance at the CONCACAF Championship, the United States’ style is still very much a work in progress, even as the World Cup approaches. They're working toward transforming themselves into a team focused on possession, able to keep the ball against any opposition, but they'll have to get a bit more pragmatic on the big stage and find a balance between Jakica’s desired setup and the more impulsive and offensive style that they are used to employing. At the CONCACAF Futsal Championship, the Serbian mastermind experimented with a progressive possession game that relies on the type of players who in Italy used to be called palleggiatori (jugglers): players able to keep and pass the ball with great technical skills, such as Luciano Gonzalez, Ricardo Sobreira, Raphael Araujo and Julian Escobar. The success achieved at the CONCACAF competition suggests that Jakica might end up sticking with that style. The USA drew with El Salvador, outplayed Nicaragua and Cuba, and continued to amaze everyone throughout the tournament, which saw them victorious against the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, only to lose to Costa Rica in the final.

It is a system contingent on the safety guaranteed by expert Italian-American goalkeeper Diego Moretti, who many hope will be decisive in changing the course of history of a nation that has had precious little international success since 2008. To achieve this, the Americans must also lean on the rising expectations of the player who drastically lowers the average age of the entire squad: Tomas Pondeca, who played a central role with his own club, Paris Acasa, the 3rd-place finisher in the French championship dominated by ACCS and Mouvaux Lille Métropole Futsal. If Jakica does indeed stick with this system, the wingers will be key. They'll have to provide most of the width going forward, while also ensuring that they don't get caught too far up the court when they have to defend against counter-attacks, which may be difficult to manage against expert players such as Borruto and Petrov, to name a few. Deployment of a strong and quick defensive phase will be key against superior opponents.


Arguably the most important player on the pitch for the USA, Diego Moretti (right) has two decades of experience in Italian futsal – and yet the idea of playing for the USA had never even occurred to him. (Photo credit: US Soccer)





Short-term Success vs. Long-term Growth

Many have high hopes that the USA will be able to equal the heady years of the first two FIFA World Championships (victory over ’89 tournament champion Brazil in Round 2, finalist at the ’92 edition), success at Lithuania (however modest) will doubtless lift the stature of the sport in a country where futsal is widely practiced but rarely noticed. Of far greater importance is a nuanced approach to addressing the many structural barriers which impede the development of the sport across the nation.

• Soccer tends to get priority: Having to compete with the annual soccer calendar, futsal training often takes place during the winter offseason from December to February. Without an intentional domestic pathway (i.e., professional futsal, consistent youth club futsal, high school futsal, collegiate futsal, etc), the soccer path is prioritized and emphasized. And futsal is often seen as simply a development tool for soccer. Side note: Though futsal has relatively wide participation by youth across the USA, indoor soccer (e.g. MASL) is almost non-existent for youth due to the lack of such arenas open to the public.

• Politics: From youth to professional, there are at least six managing bodies (US Soccer, USFF, USYF, United Futsal, USYS, and the NFPL, amongst other organizations) that all have a hand in organizing futsal structure nationwide (and all are doing good things in their own right), but the failure to collaborate has a negative impact that reaches from the grassroots level to the top of the pyramid. Stronger oversight, involvement and investment by US Soccer would encourage more collaboration, thus fortifying the pipeline to the US Soccer extended futsal national team program.

• Facilities and investment: There are extremely few futsal-specific facilities or even facilities that were built with futsal as an intended use. This limits the access to and growth of the sport (i.e., pro/semi-pro teams unable to access training environments, youth teams unable to rent futsal-specific gym space, less chances to play/learn in school, limitations on event opportunities, etc). And since renting gymnasiums in the USA can be quite pricey, futsal organizations are often reluctant to pay as much as traditional indoor sports such as basketball and volleyball.

Dusan Jakica (second from left) and his coaching staff have accomplished much in their relatively short time with the USA national team. The coming World Cup will be a good indicator of the short- and long-term goals ahead. (Photo credit: Marko Simurina)





Home of the brave, land of dreams.

The Lithuania slate of “Group of Death” matches ahead will surely prove to be a monumental test for the Americans. Expectations have already been exceeded in the qualification phases advancing to the CONCACAF Championship final, but the momentum and energy building off of their Atlanta early-August Preparation Training Camp coupled with their current pre-World Cup Slovakia Preparation Training Camp certainly has an air of hope for the United States to surprise the historically dominant Argentinean, Iranian and Serbian giants.

Beyond the upcoming 2021 Futsal World Cup, the globe is longing for the vision of Dusan Jakica’s staff and overarching achievements of the USFNT to stretch its impact across the states with the guidance of US Soccer to truly build a cohesive pathway, pipeline and infrastructure for futsal in the USA.

All eyes focused on September 12th in Lithuania for the launch of the global tournament. Supporters back home in the states will surely have their alarms set for day 3 of the competition as the Americans take on reigning champions, Argentina, in their 1st group stage match. Can the USFNT embrace their underdog spirit to shock their group? See you in Lithuania!

Authors

Valerio Scalabrelli: Born in Rome in 1992 and raised in that city, Scalabrelli is an Italian content creator working as a full-time social media manager. A lover of futsal for 16 years and counting and a former semi-pro player in the Italian regional leagues, he dreams of being able to make a living out of this sport. His motto: “Life is a climb, but the view is great!”

Mark Wysocki: Director, Strategy & Operations, Alexandria Soccer Association; Founder & Chief Editor, Pivot Futsal. Based in the Washington, DC, USA region, Wysocki serves as a sports business industry veteran with deep roots in the United States and international futsal landscape as a thought-leader, administrator, consultant, coach, player and advocate of the sport.
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