By Paresh Dave
3:00 AM PST, January 15, 2014
The amber lights flicker on above the tennis courts at DeForest Park in Long Beach.
The nets have disappeared. Tennis balls are nowhere in sight. This evening, people are playing with a different kind of ball.
On the chain-link fence that surrounds the courts, spray paint marks the goals. Shots whiz by like cars on a freeway.
English and Spanish blend as players chant "Corre! Corre!" ("Run!") and "Mira! Mira!" ("Look!"). The murmurs from onlookers — "nice" and "wow" — swell after each dazzling play.
The matches on this concrete court are quick. The first team to score wins. Losers retreat to wooden benches, ceding to the next challenger.
Arturo Sanchez is in his element. The 20-year-old from Long Beach grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, following friends into basketball and football. But when Sanchez moved to a side of town dominated by Latinos, he fell in love with soccer.
During the day, the soccer field down the road at DeForest Park was overrun with youth leagues and when night fell, the unlighted field was dark. The tennis courts, though, were bathed in light.
So, several years ago, Sanchez and a group of friends began to turn the tennis courts into miniaturized, rock-hard soccer courts, mimicking what Brazilians and other Latin Americans started doing nearly a century ago — re-imagining any flat, open space, from basketball gyms to rooftops, as a soccer field.
They know this fast-paced and squeezed-down version of soccer as futsal.
With existing soccer fields beaten down from constant use and a lack of green space in urban neighborhoods to build more, futsal has rolled into parks across the nation to meet the growing demand of soccer-loving millennials.
Nearly every player prefers a more forgiving field of grass, but futsal courts have come to be viewed as the best available option (not to mention that building a futsal court costs about $25,000, or 10% of the bill for a normal soccer field).
Parks officials say the demand for soccer space is so strong that some areas meant for tennis, basketball or volleyball have seen more soccer balls bounced on them than anything else in recent years — providing another sign of how the nation's growing Latino population is reshaping landscapes.
The emphasis on futsal is expected to triple the number of places to play in the region, from about 15 to 45 during the next two years. The figure includes private facilities that charge fees to players.
"What's driven the growth of futsal courts is you can provide a playable space at a smaller cost and in a smaller area," said Patrick Escobar, a vice president of the LA84 Foundation, which disburses surplus money from the 1984 Olympics and has funded some of the construction.
At DeForest Park, teenagers and people in their 20s come for pickup games from as far as Torrance, Paramount and Downey. First-timers arrive after seeing posts about "quick soccer" or futsal on Facebook.
The rhythm is noticeably different from a full-fledged soccer game. The boom-run, bam-run, tap-strike of soccer is replaced by zap-zap, zap-tap-strike in futsal's tighter quarters.
Normally played with teams of five rather than 11 as in soccer, futsal increases the amount of times each player kicks the ball, and a smaller, heavier ball that produces quicker rolls and requires harder kicks.
"There's not really positions in futsal," Sanchez said. "So you have to know how to pass really fast, how to attack in small spaces and how to defend all at once."
Soccer players may let the ball soar a long distance and rely on their own speed to attack the goal. In futsal, players rely on footwork as they weave past one another. There's little margin for error.
Tap the ball too hard and it will sail out of bounds; fail to give it enough zip and a defender is there to steal it away. There's not enough space to outrace another player for a misplaced ball.
"Here, I can experiment and see if I can do these new tricks quickly in a small space," Sanchez said. "If I can humiliate a lot of people in futsal, it's easier on the big field."
Soccer experts say that children improve at soccer more quickly if they play futsal. That draws some high school soccer players to DeForest during the off-season as they try to emulate international soccer legends such as Brazil's Ronaldinho and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Last year, the U.S. Soccer Federation began requiring some of its academy teams to play futsal during the off-season.
When played with official rules, futsal is also distinct from indoor soccer (though for marketing purposes, the names are often interchangeable). Indoor soccer fields typically resemble a hockey rink, and kicks that bounce off surrounding walls are legal. In contrast, futsal has an out-of-bounds line just like soccer and sneakers or running shoes are worn instead of cleats.
L.A. Unified adopted those rules when it introduced futsal as an after-school sport at soccer-hungry middle schools two years ago. It's the only sport that attracts as many girls as boys. Last year, the number of schools offering futsal doubled from 32 to 64.
The district's futsal championship in October, played on a field among Wilshire Boulevard high-rises, featured teams from across Los Angeles County. Nearly all the competitors were Latino; several said they participated in soccer as well.
April Diaz, a member of Dodson Middle School's title-winning teams in futsal and soccer, said it didn't matter which of the two sports she was playing as long as she was with her sisterhood of teammates.
In either case, the same simple mantra guided the girls to success. "We try our best and play harder every time," she said.
The county opened its first futsal fields last summer at Lennox Park, near LAX, and Col. Leon H. Washington Park in the Florence-Firestone area. Parents play with toddlers during the day. Teenagers come through in the afternoon. Adults, many of them Spanish-speaking immigrants, play pickup games in the evenings.
County officials described the addition of futsal courts, sometimes at the expense of general park space, as being necessary to make community parks relevant for today's demand for soccer-like activities.
"On any given day, you had mayhem of soccer competing with baseball," said Karly Katona, a deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "This creates a more specific area for the soccer."
Three months ago, the city of Los Angeles resurfaced the popular turf futsal court in Glassell Park with artificial turf because the field had worn out from daily use. Constructed five years ago, it's the only one maintained by the city, and people come from as far as Pomona to play. The city plans to build futsal areas at two more parks this year; Lynwood and Downey plan to open futsal courts by summer.
Thousands more play futsal each week at a handful of private facilities, a mix of outdoor lots and indoor warehouses. The entrance fee is usually $5.
In South Gate, the Scottish firm Goals Soccer Centers built 11 fields on the site of an archery range, and it is considering adding more locations. Three fields at Hollywood Sports Park in Bellflower — built in the late 1990s on top of tennis courts — are believed to be the region's oldest.
In Long Beach, Sanchez no longer needs to tear down tennis nets; the city has done it for him. Three of the four tennis courts at DeForest Park were converted for futsal last summer. Two have a rubber-like playing surface, but Sanchez prefers the concrete court still etched with tennis lines because it cuts less skin if he falls.
On a recent Thursday evening, Sanchez watched from a stairwell that leads down to the courts. He had been sidelined after smashing his toe into the ground trying to kick the ball the night before — an unfortunate consequence of playing on a surface without grass. But he didn't want to change his routine, so he came to the courts just the same.
Now an engineering student at El Camino College, Sanchez shows up six nights a week looking for pickup games.
"It's a stress reliever," he said. "So I hope I can keep coming out here forever."
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