Soccer newsletter: Indoor soccer deserves a wider audience
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we take a look at the new mood around LAFC, DiDi Haracic’s big opportunity with Angel City and Sebastian Lletget’s continuing efforts to give back to a Southern California community he’s left for New England.
But we start in Ontario, home of indoor soccer’s Fury, the most interesting team playing the most interesting game you’ve probably never seen in person.
Take the team’s star scorer Franck Tayou. If things had worked out a little differently for him, he might have spent part of this month playing for Cameroon in the African Cup of Nations on the expansive grass field of a 42,000-seat stadium in the nation’s capital.
Instead, he was playing for the Fury in the Major Arena Soccer League on a green plastic carpet laid above a hockey rink in a game that drew a crowd – their term – of 697 last Monday. But if Tayou thought circumstances had cruelly conspired against him, he was keeping that to himself.
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” he said.
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Indoor soccer has more in common with the Stanley Cup than the World Cup. Games consist of four 15-minute periods, with the clock stopping for dead balls. Teams play with five outfield players and a goalkeeper and changes are unlimited and happen on the fly, with substitutes tumbling over the boards every 90 seconds or so.
The ball rarely lifts more than a few inches off the ground, a blue card from the referee sends offenders to the penalty box for two minutes and teams frequently pull their goalie to get an extra attacker on the ice … er, carpet.
“I think I found my niche,” said Tayou, who led West Virginia to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and had three short but successful stints in the second-tier USL Championship in outdoor soccer, but is a four-time league MVP indoors. “I’m just going to focus on that.”
He’s not alone.
“I just fell in love with the small game,” teammate Chris Toth said. “Compared to outdoor, I just felt like it suited me better.”
Like Tayou, Toth gave the 11-on-11 game a shot, first as a youth player and later with a reserve team in his father’s native Hungary. There he was told, at 21, he was just old enough to buy a beer in California but already was too old to be a soccer prospect in Hungary.
“I knew my future in indoor was bright,” said Toth, a three-time MASL keeper of the year who actually is better at beach soccer, having played that sport professionally in Spain and Hungary and participated in two Beach Soccer World Cups with the U.S. national team. He has been voted one of the world’s top 50 beach players three times.
“It was kind of like, ‘OK, if I want to play [in Hungary] there’s a lot of different things I’m going to have to do in pursuing that.’ I really wanted it. But then at the same time, I was kind of ready to just be home in San Diego and pursue it here and then kind of get into beach soccer more.
“As the goalkeeper in both games, as opposed to outdoor, I just felt like it suited me better.”
Toth, 32, wasn’t the first one in his family to make that decision. His father Zoltán, himself the son of a national team keeper, played four seasons in the Hungarian first division and made one appearance for the national team before defecting to the U.S. at 23. He spent the next 12 years playing in two predecessors of the MASL, where he set records for wins and goals-against average and won two goalkeeper of the year awards.
For both Toths – as well as Tayou, 31 – the indoor game isn’t an aberration. It’s a passion. Nor is it the same as the outdoor game since, for starters, the rules and skill sets are completely different.
The small playing surface allows goalies to become involved in setting up goals as frequently as they’re called on to prevent them. And for attackers like Tayou, who is in his 10th indoor season, the tight quarters and physical play put a premium on dribbling, passing and ball-handling as much as futsal, a more universal form of indoor soccer.
In fact, many of Brazil’s top players, among them Neymar, David Luiz, Gabriel Jesus, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Rivellino, grew up in large cities where full-sized fields often were unavailable. So they honed their talents playing futsal or street football.
“Indoor and futsal are tremendous, tremendous tools for the development of young players. And the sport really needs to hold a place in the U.S. because it can change the culture,” said Tayou, who last month became the first player in MASL history to amass 400 points (goals plus assists). “It can change not just the skill level, but also the tactical awareness of the game because I think for the most part, in America, most players are not tactically aware.”
But if the indoor game can make players better, it won’t make them richer. Monthly salaries in the MASL generally range between $1,500 to $3,500 a month for the six-month season, although stars such as Tayou and Toth can make as much as $8,500 a month. Many players also receive housing arrangements as part of their contract.
That compares favorably to the USL Championship, where a new collective bargaining agreement has set the minimum compensation at $2,200 a month. That’s still far below MLS, where the average base salary last season was just more than $398,000.
Raising those salary figures first will require raising the league’s profile, something Jeff Burum, the Fury’s managing partner, is working on.
The game, after all, has everything U.S. sports fans say they want: it’s fast-paced, high-scoring and every seat in the Fury’s 11,000-seat arena is close to the action. Barring overtime – games can’t end in draws – it all takes place in less than two hours. And Fury ticket prices start at $10, less than what it costs to see a movie.
Yet the 13-year-old league has seen four times as many teams fold as survive, with its remaining 12 clubs – stretching from Baltimore and Utica to Tacoma and Chihuahua, Mexico – averaging less than 1,600 a game, about 600 more than the Fury get.
“We have almost 5 million population now in this Inland Empire,” said Burum, a developer who said he spent a quarter-million dollars to acquire the team in 2014 and has yet to make a profit. “We’re an empire. So we have to market ourselves properly. And when we do we’ll start filling this arena.”
“If you don’t have ways to put your product out there, nobody’s ever going to know,” he said. “The best product in the world, if nobody’s ever seen it, they’re not going to pay for it. That’s No. 1.”
In its heyday, roughly the years between the demise of the top-tier North American Soccer League and the start of MLS, indoor soccer averaged more than 8,000 fans a game and featured stars such as Preki, who played outdoors for England’s Everton and in the 1998 World Cup for the U.S., and Yugoslav international Steve Zungul, who played in the third-place game of the 1976 Euros.
The MASL attempted to recapture some of that in the 2018-19 season, when the San Diego Sockers signed Landon Donovan, the Fury acquired former World Cup starter Jermaine Jones and the short-lived Mississauga MetroStars had former MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario. But the experiment quickly was seen for what it was, a high-priced publicity stunt.
Tayou said the league should start selling the game it plays, not big-name stars who once played that other sport outdoors.
“The respect level of indoor soccer has decreased tremendously,” he argued. “I think most people tend to think that if you’re that good at indoor you should be playing outdoor.
“The game should be presented as entertainment first before sports. If the indoor [game] could be seen as an entertainment, then there won’t be that comparison.”
Burum is straddling that line. He’s trying to sell the game as a sport by inviting a group tied to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics to Ontario for a Fury game next month, part of a push he hopes will get indoor soccer added to the Games’ schedule. But at the same time, he’s promoting his players as more than athletes.
“I’m going to turn this team sometime here in the next several months into a nonprofit because we do more for community good,” he said. “This is not about the money. Myself and the silent partners simply care about the kids and what these players symbolize in the minds of the youth within our community.”
Players like Toth, who has worked countless hours with youth soccer players. Players like midfielder Jesus Pacheco, a player with deep local ties who the team signed as a teenager following an open tryout. Six months later he was a finalist for the league’s rookie of the year award.
And especially players like Tayou, who was named MASL Humanitarian of the Year for his work with orphans – work Burum said nearly cost him his life when he returned to a village in Cameroon and developed malaria.
“We can set an example for other franchises, other professional sports,” Burum said. “We are trying to set a mark for what you can do for your community and the youth to encourage them to continue to chase their dreams.”
Dreams that aren’t defined by the size of the playing surface. When Tayou chased his dream, for example, it led him to a hockey rink in Ontario, not a massive stadium in southern Cameroon. And he’s just fine with that.
A change in attitude at LAFC
Marc Dos Santos was an assistant coach with LAFC during the team’s first two MLS seasons. For the last two seasons he managed the rival Vancouver Whitecaps.
And now that he’s back in Southern California as an LAFC assistant once again, he admits the experience has reinforced one philosophy: rent, don’t own.
“I rented the last time, too. I’m renting again,” he said last week after a sun-splashed training session at the team’s Cal State L.A. complex.
But that may be one of the only constants between Dos Santos’ first stint at LAFC and his return. Gone is coach Bob Bradley and his stiff, demanding approach; in his place is Steve Chernudolo, a defender who played every minute for Bradley in the 2010 World Cup, then spent much of his coaching career patiently and quietly developing young players.
“You don’t hear as much shouting now,” an LAFC employee said as a training session wrapped up.
That doesn’t mean the standards have lowered, though. It just means the staff, which includes top Bradley assistant Ante Razov, has to find another way to get its message across.
“What’s interesting is that between Steve, Ante and myself there’s a very different type of profile and personality,” Dos Santos said. “So maybe sometimes there’s a good cop/bad cop [dynamic]. Because of all the characteristics that we have in the staff, we all bring different things in the different moments.”
The old approach worked well – for a while. In LAFC’s first two seasons Bradley, a three-time MLS coach of the year, led the team to a 37-13-18 record, a Supporters’ Shield and several league records. In the last two seasons, LAFC went 21-21-14 and missed the playoffs in 2021.
In the first two seasons, players were quick to praise Bradley’s attention to detail and devotion to a singular playing style. In the last two seasons, some players quietly chafed under what they considered to be an overly intense, unyielding approach.
Same guy, same philosophy. But vastly different results.
That may be one reason the team’s long-planned transition centered on Chernudolo, whose methods so far seem tamer and more forgiving.
“Maybe it relaxes some players that maybe felt more stuck in some way. Or maybe some players in the past played with kind of a different responsibility when it comes to their role,” Dos Santos said. “Sometimes you loosen up a little bit and it brings the creativity and the fluidity of out of a player.
“But our role as a staff is to be different. Sometimes [Steve] might ask me and Ante to go speak individually with one player in a certain way. What’s good about that is players get the message clearly and sometimes in different tones.”
Other times it will fall to a veteran locker room leader to deliver the message.
“There’s a moment to relax and enjoy. There’s a moment to joke. But there’s just a moment to say, ‘Hey, let’s man up and be serious’,” newly acquired goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau said. “And if we have to raise our voice, we have to raise our voice.
“Bob I never had as a coach, but I know a little bit of [his] character, the person he is. Steve gets this message across. There are just different ways to say things. It’s just two different kinds of personalities.”
She’s proving to be a keeper
DiDi Haracic’s pro career dates back more than a decade, to the D.C. United Women, a short-lived team that played two seasons in the second-tier USL W-League. And in all that time, she’s always been a back-up keeper.
Steady, reliable, with a save percentage of nearly 80%. But a back-up nonetheless.
However, through the first two weeks of training camp with Angel City, an expansion franchise that will make its NWSL debut next month, the 29-year-old said she’s finally getting a real chance to win the starting job.
“It’s been a very long journey,” she said after a training session at the team’s temporary home at Pepperdine University. “That also kind of describes my characteristic: resilient.
“I’m not complaining. Look where I am. I’m excited for this opportunity. I’m pretty blessed.”
The only other goalkeeper on Angel City’s roster in Brittany Isenhour, a 24-year-old who was not selected in the NWSL draft before being signed by the Orlando Pride and making one appearance in two years with the team.
Haracic started 12 times for Gotham FC last season and posted five shutouts. But the biggest game of her club career came in the NWSL Challenge Cup final, where she made five saves only to see Gotham lose to Portland in a penalty-kick shootout.
She also played for Bosnia and Herzegovina in pair of World Cup qualifiers last fall, her sixth and seventh appearances for her national team.
“I think I showed up in all those big games,” said Haracic, who was born in Sarajevo but fled with her family at the start of the Bosnian War, which began just six days before she was born. The family spent two years in Germany before eventually settling in Virginia.
Her transition to a new team on a new coast has been aided by a familiar coaching staff. Haracic played for Angel City manager Freya Coombe and goalkeeper coach Daniel Ball at Gotham.
“We all know each other to an extent,” she said. “It’s going to take us a bit to kind of figure out how everyone wants to play. At the end of the day, it’s just me doing my job. It’s another simple game of soccer.
“There’s no nerves. There’s just excitement for what’s to come and what the club is offering for the players.”
There’s another perk to playing for Angel City, though. Haracic is a budding photographer and the team’s training facility, on a bluff above the Malibu beaches, is among the most scenic places in Southern California, as is the drive through the canyon from her home in the San Fernando Valley.
“My goal is to obviously do the [Pacific Coast Highway],” she said. “But after a long day of training. I’m not doing it right now.”
He’s gone but he hasn’t forgotten
Sebastian Lletget may be playing in New England but his heart remains in Southern California. The former Galaxy midfielder spent a recent afternoon with students at Davis Middle School in Compton, where he surprised 60 students who showed up on the playground to join him in some soccer training exercises. They also received balls, jerseys cleats and shin guards donated by adidas.
The event was part of the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success program, in conjunction with Think Together, one of the foundation’s after-school and expanded-learning providers. Think Together serves 43,710 students across Los Angeles County and nearly 200,000 students across the state with academic-based youth programming and school improvement services.
“I know how important sports can be for building relationships and having fun,” Lletget said in a statement. “I want to share that with these kids and give them the proper gear to hopefully spark something in them to continue being active. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do this.
“I want these kids to know that with hard work they can be in my shoes one day, or go even further than I have.”
Lletget played seven seasons with the Galaxy before being traded to the Revolution this winter. Much of New England’s preseason training camp took place in Southern California, making Lletget’s visit to the school possible.
And finally there’s this …
The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal reports a record 16 players moved from MLS to foreign clubs for transfer fees of at least $65 million between the end of the 2021 MLS season in December and Feb. 2, by which time the bulk of winter transfer windows in Europe had closed. The previous one-window high for MLS transfer to foreign clubs was 10. Topping the list was FC Dallas’ transfer of forward Ricardo Pepi to German club Augsburg for $18 million … As Bayern Munich cruises to a 10th consecutive Bundesliga crown (despite Saturday’s loss at Bochum it leads the table by six points over Borussia Dortmund, the only other team to win a championship since 2009), the league’s new chief executive said it may be time to adopt a playoff format to inject some suspense into the title race. “The league would, of course, be more attractive if there was more competition at the top,” Donata Hopfen, who took over the German soccer league six weeks ago, said in an interview with the Bild-am-Sonntag tabloid. “If playoffs help, then we’ll talk about playoffs.”
“He’s a world-class player. He’s a guy you could sit down with and in five minutes talk about what your game model was, and what his role is, and how you want to defend and attack and he’ll be able to adapt to that quickly because he has played in those types of scenarios. He’s an intelligent player. He has sophistication. He’s played in all kinds of different systems and scenarios and countries. So the assumption when you get players like that, they don’t take as long to adapt.”
Coach Greg Vanney on getting newly acquired Brazilian attacker Douglas Costa acclimated to his new surroundings with the Galaxy less than two weeks before the start of the regular season
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