A focus on fun

A modified game of soccer for youngsters puts entertainment ahead of competition.

Published July 6, 2007


Cameron Huntley dreams of stepping onto the pitch at England's Old Trafford Stadium and playing for Manchester United, one of professional soccer's most popular and storied clubs.

For now, though, he'll have to settle for the outdoor roller hockey court at FishHawk Ranch.

Cameron, 8, of Valrico is one of a handful of youngsters who play weekly at Hawk Park in a futsal league developed by Brendan McCafferty, a youth soccer coach for six years who leads the U-9 and U-10 teams for the Player's Club of Tampa Bay.

Futsal is a modified version of soccer that's played on a hard court, usually with five players per side and a heavier ball that rarely leaves the ground. That means players have to use their skills to control the ball rather than relying on its bounce, making for a fast-paced game that emphasizes footwork and passing.

"I like the game a lot, " said Cameron, who has been playing soccer since age 3 and has been in the league since its inception. "You get more practice, and you can really improve your passing."

McCafferty started the futsal league amid last summer's World Cup excitement. With about 20 regular players and another five or 10 stragglers who show up each Monday, McCafferty has had to expand to two courts. He divides the players, most of whom are from FishHawk Ranch and are 7 to 14 years old, by age.

"I was one of those players who was quite good when I was young, but then the game wasn't fun anymore, " said McCafferty, who was lured into soccer by his father, Vincent, a former professional player in Northern Ireland. "This is a way to keep the game entertaining for the kids while also developing their skills."

McCafferty takes an informal approach to the league. Teams are rearranged each week to prevent one squad from dominating, and score is rarely kept. Games last about 10 minutes, and waiting teams are continually rotated into the action to fully utilize the 90 minutes that the league gets on the courts. Because of the hard playing surface, tackling is not allowed.

"I'm sure the kids are keeping score in their head, but we try to keep it as pickup as possible, " McCafferty said. "The idea is to not be super organized and results competitive."

Instead, the emphasis is on having fun. That players improve their ball skills during the offseason for soccer is an added bonus.

"I'm good at shooting, but I think I've gotten better at it since playing here, " said Matthew Knowlton, 8, who was playing the game for just the second time on June 25. "My mom didn't know about (the league) until my friend offered to take me. I love it."

McCafferty has two sons in the league, Conor, 7, and Shea, 9, and has seen improvement in their play.

"Their foot skills, vision and movement off the ball have all gotten better, " he said. "This game teaches kids to run more diagonal and at better angles."

The futsal league, which last year featured a season-ending tournament, runs through mid August.

"Once school starts, it kind of phases out, " McCafferty said.