Atlanta’s youth soccer players beat the summer heat in a new futsal league

ATLANTA — When the final whistle sounded on Vine City’s first futsal championship, there was no holding back the emotion from the bleachers. Rushing the court, normally a basketball tradition, was the perfect exclamation point to a title-winning season at the MLK, Jr. Recreation Center.

Atlanta’s first recreational youth futsal league finished its inaugural playoffs over the weekend, with Vine City capturing two of the three trophies that were up for grabs. Jill Robbins, chief program officer at Soccer in the Streets, delivered a quick pep talk on the court after the final — and even informed the squad about a pizza party to reward the successful futsal debut.
“I knew you guys would come here and play hard,” Robbins told the young players, with a hand on one of the new futsal trophies Vine City would take back to the Westside. “This is just the beginning.”

A New League in Atlanta
Atlanta Youth Futsal didn’t happen overnight, though. Throughout Soccer in the Streets’ 27-year history, coaches have frequently used foundations of futsal to introduce the sport to recreation centers and after-school programs, but this summer was the first time the different pieces came together in an structured intramural league.

“It has taken a long time to get all of the stars aligned to make this happen,” Robbins said.

“Now that people are starting to see it, they are catching the vision. It’s already generating a lot of enthusiasm among players, coaches, center directors and parents.”

Once players, coaches, student referees and staff members were ready to get the ball rolling, opening ceremonies kicked off the inaugural Atlanta Youth Futsal season on June 11 at the MLK, Jr. Recreation Center. Four organizations — Soccer in the Streets (Vine City), Healthy Lifestyle Healthy Kids, FCA Urban Soccer, and students from the MLK Rec Center — fielded teams this summer.

In total, 80 players hit the court for an inaugural season filled with highlights. Check out a few of the details from year one:

Why play futsal?
Accessibility, playing style, and smaller squad sizes make futsal an ideal medium for youth soccer development, especially in large cities. More touches and quicker decisions allow futsal players to complement their outdoor soccer season with intensive technical work on the court. Indoor space, like gyms normally used for basketball and volleyball, is often much easier to find than suitable outdoor space.

Abdul Bangura and Abu Tommy, who both have experience as professional players, regularly coach Vine City’s outdoor teams and continued their usual roles on the sidelines during futsal season. As the playing style shifted indoors this summer, the pair of Soccer in the Streets coaches spotted plenty of growth on and off the court.

This clever turn and finish was one of the highlight-reel strikes during Vine City’s title-winning futsal debut.

“As we progressed in the league,” Bangura said, “we’ve seen a lot of positive things from them: the ability to dribble in tight spaces, passing to one another, and most importantly they’ve become more competitive and work as a team.”

Robbins agrees with Bangura’s assessment of the quick futsal development: “The kids are not disappointing — they are showing marked improvement in ball control, accuracy in shooting and finishing, amazing dribbling and movement off the ball.

“It’s also creative and fun — it’s exciting to watch and exciting to play. It really draws in new players and fans right away.”

Taking one look inside the gym on a summer Saturday would immediately support that notion. Families and friends from each of the teams packed the Center of Hope’s bleachers on a weekly basis, cheering on the kids in a way that might make you believe the league had been around much longer than a couple months.

What’s next for futsal in Atlanta?
With the inaugural season as a game plan, Bangura and Robbins both see futsal playing a massive role in Atlanta’s thriving soccer culture.

“The organization of futsal will rapidly improve Atlanta soccer as a whole,” said Bangura, who played locally for the Atlanta Silverbacks at both the NASL and NPSL level. “If you want to succeed in soccer, the grassroots are the foundation.”

“Futsal will help soccer become more entrenched quickly,” Robbins said. “It’s easily adapted and costs less. It could become the summer sport of choice, particularly during those sweltering summers when it’s too hot to be outside.”

If the inaugural season is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before kids across the metro Atlanta area — experienced soccer players along with newcomers to the game — will be able to experience futsal’s various benefits.

“The recreation centers will embrace it, one by one,” Robbins predicted. “Kids of all ages will be playing, and the Atlanta Public Schools will also use the sport as a means for improving the level of soccer in their athletic programs.

“There is no doubt that futsal has a future in the City of Atlanta.”