If you had to choose between soccer and futsal, the winner would clearly be futsal, insists Michael Monheit, an Abington resident who will be coaching the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games this summer.
Futsal? What’s that, you ask?
Take the internationally beloved sport of soccer, find a heavier ball and squeeze the game onto a smaller indoor court. According to Monheit, there isn’t any athlete who has played both sports that prefers soccer to its lesser-known offspring.
Monheit may be slightly overstating soccer players’ affinity for futsal but at a practice for the Maccabiah team in late May, athletes certainly appeared to be enjoying the game.
The coach of the team, which will represent the United States as it competes in futsal for only the second time, said the games allow him to combine two of his favorite things: the sport and Israel, where he has visited three times.
Or put differently, “It’s like ice cream with whipped cream on top.”
Coaching futsal isn’t something Monheit just does for kicks. He has become a major advocate of the sport around Philadelphia and would like to see soccer training in this country start with futsal, as it does in many South American countries. He thinks that’s the key to making the United States more competitive on the global stage.
“Any parent that I run into that has a child getting involved in soccer, I tell them about futsal,” said Monheit, 49, a father of four children, one of whom is on the team.
In 2011, Monheit co-founded the American Futsal Academy, which rents gym space at facilities throughout the Delaware Valley, with the goal of providing year-round indoor training and altering the approach to soccer development in the United States.
What’s wrong with the way this country does soccer now? In short, says Monheit, swarm ball — the term used to describe young children all chasing a ball around a field.
“Our current model encourages kids to begin playing on outdoor soccer teams at a young age, and I think that’s done at the expense of developing foot skills and touch,” said Monheit, an attorney and board member at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
Futsal features five players on each side, one of whom is a goalie. The sport uses a smaller ball with less bounce, meaning it spends more time on the ground. (Watching the game, the ball moves as though it’s not meant to be kicked, producing a thud sound each time it’s touched, bouncing twice and then coming to a rest.)
The lack of space on the small court forces players to focus on their footwork and make quick decisions, Monheit said.
He points to some of the world’s greatest soccer players, like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who started with the game as proof that the futsal-first approach pays off.
Though relatively new on the American scene, the sport, at least among Jewish athletes, appears to have as wide a global reach as its parent, soccer.
There will be 17 countries competing in futsal at the Maccabiah Games later this month; the only other team sport with as many entrants is, in fact, soccer.
At the late May practice at SMG Sportsplex in Warminster, the futsal team scrimmaged across two basketball courts.
The game moved at a brisk pace. Players sprinted around one another and were constantly angling for position. Hardly 30 seconds went by where there wasn’t a scoring chance.
“They’re getting their heads up and they’re looking around all the time and that’s what you want to teach. Futsal is very unforgiving. If your head is down for a second, the ball is going the other way very quickly,” said Monheit.
Some of the participants on the U.S. team, comprised of mostly college-age players, had never played futsal before joining the team. The majority of them hail from the East Coast.
Mike Markovitz, a Philadelphia native, grew up playing club soccer for a coach from Argentina, who used futsal for training. Markovitz suggested that the sport “is almost half soccer, half basketball.”
This will be his first trip to Israel, but he’s a veteran of international Jewish athletic competitions. Over the last six years, he competed in the European Maccabi Games in Rome, the Pan-American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires and at the Maccabi Australia International Games.
“The thing I love about Maccabi is first of all, you’re representing your country; it’s incredible. But also, on all my club teams, you have some Jewish kids, but it’s totally different when you get everyone together and you all have that common ground,” said Markowitz, 20, a bioengineering major at the University of Pennsylvania.
Noah Rothstein holds the distinction of being both the oldest player and traveling the farthest for Philly practices. He is 30 and from Los Angeles.
At the end of the practice, the players all thanked Rothstein, who works in TV and film production, for his commitment to the team.
“Coming here and getting to know the teammates and getting to know the plays can only help us when we get over there,” said Rothstein, who traveled to Israel on Birthright and competed on the U.S. soccer team at the Australian Maccabi games two years ago.
For Powell Schneider, competing on the futsal team is one step on a road to recovery following an injury. After graduating high school in Boston, Schneider moved to Israel last year to play professional soccer for F.C. Ashdod but tore his hamstring three games into the season and returned home to the United States. The 19-year-old hopes to stay in Israel after the games and continue playing soccer.
“It was a sad experience,” he said. “But you have to bounce back.”