Modified and miniaturized as it is, a mashup of disparate sports that entertains Minnesota United players before and after training sessions is all about what drives them on gamedays.
“It’s all about competing,” United veteran defender Michael Boxall said.
Only this competition they call “soccer tennis” looks more like volleyball played with the feet and head, and it comes dripping with laughter and trash talk.
The spirited 2-on-2 games — and occasionally 1-on-1 — feature a thigh-high net and plastic markers that outline a small grass court where participants refine their touch and ball skills, creativity and teamwork.
As with volleyball, a serve on the 6-by-6-yard court must bounce on the opponent’s side before it’s returned. Like volleyball, there’s a limit of three times playing the ball with the feet, knees or head before a ball is sent back over the net, either softly or with a kill shot.
Lacking from the game they play professionally is another 95 yards and supervision. First side to 11 points wins, must win by two.
“There’s a lot of opinions, you know?” United goalkeeper Vito Mannone said. “We don’t have a ref, and that’s a problem.”
They play mostly at the beginning and end of training sessions on days before or after games. Gifted scorer Darwin Quintero is considered top class in soccer tennis as well. Mannone and midfielder Jan Gregus are the most dedicated and a pair.
“We’ll have to get these in again in a minute because they’d play all day if you let them,” United coach Adrian Heath said, gesturing to an extended game after training one day recently. “It’s a bit of everything. The good thing is it’s about touch and feel and awareness and angles off each other. They love it.”
Quintero is considered the team’s best because of his skill and short stature that puts his headers on such a low angle they’re difficult to return.
“To be fair, it doesn’t matter who Darwin is teamed up with,” Boxall said. “Whoever he’s with, wins. Vito is pretty good, too, especially for a goalie.”
Teammate Ethan Finlay calls Gregus a “little bit of a backboard who can return anything” and considers Mannone owner of a “killer volley that is pretty unstoppable.”
Mannone attributes his expertise to work that keeps a veteran goalkeeper’s body nimble. He’s able to get his foot over the top of balls and sends them smashed over the net to opponents unable to return it.
“It’s the hip rotation,” he said. “Not everybody is flexible. I always try to be flexible. That’s why for Darwin it is easier. His size is perfect for the net. He’s waist high. I need to do a little bit more with my hips to bend down.”
The best Finlay said he’s seen “here or anywhere” is former United player Ibson, who had every volley and bicycle kick developed from playing on the beach back home all day long.
“He’s Brazilian,” former teammate Miguel Ibarra said, “so that’s naturally.”
Quintero now always is the favorite, but Finlay says the “crown is open” every day they set up the nets.
“You need a really good partner,” Finlay said. “You have to have good cohesion. You can’t just put two stars like Serena [Williams] and [Andy]Murray together, right?”
He credits soccer tennis for sharpening his first touch on a ball and softening his touches overall.
“You can make a skill out of it if you really take it seriously,” Finlay said. “It gets pretty competitive and there’s plenty of bragging rights. It’s no different than the pingpong table in there after training.”