On a snowed-in Monday night at the Whittier Recreation Center, the Minneapolis high school futsal team "AFC Richmond" faced off against a slightly younger Ten Thousand Lakes Foundation team from St. Paul on a repurposed basketball court. The St. Paul team lagged in points but pressed hard to stay in the game.
Layla Deeq, a player and coach, cheered for the underdogs as she watched from the stands.
"This game could switch in a matter of seconds," she said without taking her eyes off the match. "They get one goal, they get the momentum shifted."
Futsal is pressure-cooked soccer contained on a hardcourt with five players on each side. It requires less space and fewer bodies, which makes it ideal for city kids who cannot afford costly memberships to clubs that rent out full fields.
During the last five years, the local nonprofit Futsal Society has transformed informal pickup soccer at the recreation center into free, organized leagues with a dozen volunteer coaches and more than 130 participants, 70% of whom are first-generation immigrant kids.
"The boys in our community, it's hard to find a safe space for them to come and really feel welcome, that is free," Deeq said. "They're going through a lot, like, as soon as you step outside, there's drugs on the street, boys their age overdosing, gun violence and gang violence, dropping out of school. This is a good thing for them because it keeps them around people that that want the best for them."
Futsal Society's founder, Caleb Crossley, has long lobbied the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for designated futsal courts.
In 2017, he got close when the U.S. Soccer Foundation offered to build one at Central Gym Park as part of the foundation's campaign to create 1,000 mini-pitches in cities across the country by 2026. However plans fell through when a U.S. Soccer Foundation logo requirement failed to meet the Park Board's branding policy and the foundation moved on to St. Paul to build three courts there instead.
In 2020, the board approved the addition of two futsal courts at Clinton Field Park as part of the Southwest Service Area Master Plan. And last month, with the support of the Whittier Alliance, the Park Board finally budgeted $400,000 to start design in 2022, followed by construction in spring 2023.
"That's all Futsal Society's been asking for years now. I'm really happy that they approved it," said former player Bishar Mohamed, a recent high school graduate whose younger brothers are growing up through the league. "We can have more league days, we can have more fun days. It's going to be amazing."