The U.S. Soccer Development Academy completed its set of regional futsal events at the Under-13/14 age group in February. It is widely touted that the game hones the skills of budding youth players and their development, but the same sentiment also holds true for referees and their knowledge and progress.
“Futsal definitely has great technical benefits for referees,” said Florida-based Platinum Program referee Lance VanHaitsma. “Most times in outdoor, we referees tend to focus more on the lower half of players challenging for the ball, since the majority of fouls occur in this region of the body. That creates the potential to miss unfair upper-body challenges. In futsal, most fouls occur in the upper region of the body – charging, shirt grabbing, pushing off and holding – so your focus needs to be on the entire body.”
With quicker speed of play, the recognition of infractions also must be determined instantaneously – a big difference from the outdoor game.
“You have no time to think about the call you make,” Platinum Program referee Elvis Mahmutovic said. “The game is so fast and you have to be focused on making the next call. That certainly is one of the challenges – adjusting my foul recognition.”
Mahmutovic and VanHaitsma both participated in the regional futsal events held in Concord, N.C., and Austin, Texas. This also marked their first time refereeing futsal, other than Mahmutovic saying that he worked some local indoor matches in St. Louis.
Following the Academy regional futsal experience, both referees said that the game challenges and develops officials’ management skills.
“Most communication with players comes from a distance because the referees only enter the field when it is necessary,” VanHaitsma said. “Your nonverbal communication skills need to be sharp. If not, you are constantly interfering with the play by slowing down the speed of the game. This helps with outdoor because a significant amount of communication is nonverbal on the pitch.”
“Futsal is great for man management skills and game management,” Mahmutovic said. “It’s also good for focusing on eye contact with your referee partners, which is always important in the outdoor game. Futsal involves a lot of eye contact, and I think taking part in events like this will help me get better as an outdoor official.”
FIFA futsal instructor Ed Marco and FIFA futsal referee Shane Butler were on hand as mentors, and Marco was responsible for organizing these events and the referee training and instruction.
“When U.S. Soccer first approached me to spearhead these events, I saw a unique opportunity to design a training program that was different than what we normally use for training referees,” Marco said. “Along with a classroom session on the Friday night before the start of games, our instructional staff speaks to each official before games, sometimes during, at halftime and then after the games. It gives us a chance to personalize the instruction and make the feedback much more relevant as referees can make the needed adjustments.
“This year, we added a field session to work on signaling – a very important part of futsal officiating – positioning, how to view the pitch better and teamwork. The hope is that they will now return to work games in their home areas and show other referees how to do these things correctly.”
Butler specifically focused on the signaling and positioning aspects in his sessions.
“With the field sessions to start each event, we’d go over those elements and game situations,” Butler said. “As the weekend went along, they improved with the signaling and positioning and were able to focus more on the fouls and game management. Overall, the referees had a great attitude and wanted to get better in the sport.”
For a panel of referees going through the experience for the first time, there were understandably some bumps in the early stages. But, Marco said he was impressed with the progression during the duration of each event.
“What I am most proud of is the increase of not only the knowledge of futsal but also an overall improvement of those referees in attendance,” Marco said. “The first few games are never very smooth, but by the next day, we saw a huge improvement in foul recognition, movement, positioning, reading play, teamwork and signaling. These are all areas that will help these officials when they return to working 11-a-side games outside.”
“They were fantastic and very approachable both on and off the court,” VanHaitsma said of Marco and Butler. “They were extremely knowledgeable when it came to applying the laws versus common sense, and they were supportive and helpful to correct mistakes.”
With the increased focus on futsal in the Academy and in the United States as a whole, the ultimate goal is for players and referees to continue to improve in their areas of expertise.
“If you look at the teams that have traditionally had success with outdoor soccer around the world, the common theme is the influence and popularity of futsal in those countries,” VanHaitsma said. “The continued growth of futsal in the United States will have a direct impact from the bottom on up for both player development and referee development.”
“We have made some great progress these past two years, having the two events in Philadelphia last year and the events this year,” Butler said. “Hopefully we will continue to add more events and keep finding good referees to add to the program. We can only grow from here.”