• Joe Campos

Twin Tracking: The Fusion of Futsal & Football For Real Talent Development

Updated: Jan 14


Meet Max Kilman. As a boy, Max had the great fortune of being selected for Fulham's youth academy. That's the path to pro every boy dreams of! But when he was just 15 years old, Fulham released him. Not ready? Not good enough? Who knows. Whatever the case, the dream was shattered and the path disappeared from sight. Of course, this is an all too common story for many young players entering professional club youth academies where very few last and even fewer make it to the first team.


Then suddenly in August 2018, at age 21, Max signed a professional contract with English Premier Club Wolverhampton Wanderers playing with their first team! Practically out of the blue, he finds himself playing with a top pro club in the English Premier League. What happened during those 6 years of Max's life after he left Fulham?You see, Max's story did not end when he walked out of Fulham's youth academy. He was about to discover a completely different path-to-pro.


One day, while he was still just 15 years old and still at Fulham's academy, he noticed two players training in a park near his home. According to Max “I was training with my dad and we saw two older people doing intense training work, fitness work, with a futsal ball. They were two Portuguese guys from Genesis Futsal Club … they were good.” The players invited Max to join in and that was all it took. He was hooked. "They were a bit older than me but they invited me down to a session with London Genesis. It was a bit of a drive over to east London so I went with my father, but it was worth it."


Max immediately joined Genesis Futsal Club and began absorbing everything futsal provides. And since Genesis competes in the FA National Futsal Super League, Max was soon also playing competitive futsal regularly.

While Max was thoroughly enjoying futsal, he was also still playing football. In England, when a player is playing futsal and football at the same time they call it "twin tracking". On the football track, he was still part of Fulham's youth academy, but then they released him at age 15. After being released from Fulham he joined Gillingham and then in 2015 he signed with Maidenhead United, a semi-pro club playing in the 5th tier of English football.

On the futsal track, Max was persistent. He simply loved the sport and made the time to continue training and playing futsal. At age 18 he left Genesis Futsal Club and joined London Helvecia, and that is when Michael Skubala, head coach of England's National Futsal team noticed him. Max quickly made his debut for the National Team.


According to Skubala, "Max was clever because he knew what he was doing and he found a way of doing both. His schedule meant he was effectively training full-time either for his futsal club or for Maidenhead. If you think about it, by twin-tracking, he was getting all of these elements and he was doing it for years. He used futsal to make himself a better footballer."


Max went on to make 25 appearances for England's National Futsal Team eventually becoming the captain of the squad. But the pivotal moment in Max's journey arrived in 2016. Matt Hobbs, the head of Wolverhampton Wanderer's academy scouting walked into the Cardiff House of Sport to watch England's national futsal team take on Wales in the Futsal Home Nations Championship. Max was in the lineup for England and immediately caught Hobbs' eye. Although Wales won the match 6-2, Max impressed. His skill on the ball was evident. With England behind 5-1, Max scored but the comeback was not to be. England found itself in foul trouble and then reduced to 4 players after a red card.


Despite the loss, Hobbs was extremely impressed by Max. A few months later, Hobbs learned that Max was also playing football for Maidenhead United and decided to watch Max play. He was curious to see how a top-level futsal player could transfer futsal skills to the football pitch. Hobbs was amazed and arranged for Wolverhampton's Sporting Director Kevin Thelwell to watch Max play. There was a lot to like about Max and his game. He was tall, good in the air, aggressive but perhaps most importantly, very technical. Max's technical abilities were clearly beyond those of tall defenders in professional club youth academies.


Wolverhampton worked with Maidenhead to arrange a try-out for Max and the rest is history. Just 18 months after Hobbs first watched him playing futsal, Max signed with Wolverhampton and now he's a Premier League Player. More than that, he's a player the fans are recognizing as a legitimate talent.


TWIN TRACKING - THE CLEVER PATHWAY


Consider Max's path-to-pro. Judged not good enough at Fulham at age 15, now a professional player just 6 years later. What was Max doing? He was playing futsal at London Helvecia, playing for England's national futsal team and playing football for Maidenhead United. Futsal + Football. Twin Tracking. Futsal is undoubtedly responsible for Max's journey to the Premier League. It is equally certain, however, that his simultaneous involvement in competitive football was just as critical.


Michael Skubala puts it this way: "Max was clever because he knew what he was doing and he found a way of doing both. His schedule meant he was effectively training full-time either for his futsal club or for Maidenhead. If you think about it, by twin-tracking, he was getting all of these elements and he was doing it for years. He used futsal to make him a better footballer."


Skubala put his finger on the precise issue that must drive the evolution of the modern American youth soccer club. Players should be twin-tracking - simultaneously training and playing futsal and football each week - for years. And when I say playing futsal I don't mean for just a few weeks during the winter when football leagues are on break. I mean training and playing futsal at least 2 days per week all year round.


Twin-tracking is at the core of the England FA's long-term strategy for the development of youth football players. The FA ha even gone so far as to partner with the Pokémon Company as a marketing and advertising strategy to encourage youth participation in futsal. The key to twin-tracking is understanding that futsal is a sport in its own right with unique constraining rules. Max Kilman was playing futsal, a sport in its own right, alongside football. Thinking about it another way, Max was a multi-sport athlete when Wolverhampton came calling.


Skubala sees twin-tracking as parallel tracks that begin at the youngest ages, ideally in schools, continue into the player's club training environment and converge at some point in time where a player must make a decision - be a pro futsal player or be a pro football player:


"It's about the twin-tracking of a pathway we are trying to identify. Where do players become futsal players and where do players become footballers? There's a cross-fertilisation of the technical skills but then at some point futsal will become a sport in its own right. If you look at all the anecdotal evidence around players that have come through futsal - Messi, Ronaldo, Kaka - they will at some point have to pick their code."

In Spain, every pupil plays futsal in schools. They don’t mess about with the game. It’s proper futsal rules. It’s not five-a-side with letter box goals, they play with futsal/handball goals, they have national futsal tournaments that schools run. Yet in our schools no one plays it.

It is significant to remember that Max's futsal and football clubs were separate entities. This is quite common in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and now in England, where futsal culture is vastly more evolved than it is in the U.S. Players in Spain, Portugal and Brazil move fluidly between their futsal clubs and football clubs. Here in the U.S., we are starting to see futsal-specific youth clubs emerging, particularly in California where the Hispanic community is more accepting of and knowledgeable about futsal than other communities, including Washington state. Good examples are Toque Futsal and Gamer Futsal School, both of whom compete alongside Eagleclaw Football Club in United Futsal's Champions Cup Series. Gamer Futsal School is a girls-only program but have partnered/contracted with other youth football clubs to provide futsal training, particularly San Jose Surf. There is also some important cross-over as Gamer Futsal co-owner Roxy Kamal is also the Technical Director at San Jose Surf.


While the stand-alone futsal program is gaining ground in the U.S., the next phase of the evolution is the integration or fusion of futsal and football under a single roof. This fusion has been a phenomenon in the U.K. for some years, including at the professional club level. Premier League club Everton in particular has bee pushing the fusion of futsal and football. After a trip to Barcelona to study the integration of futsal and football, Everton youth academy director Alan Irvine was persuaded and began experimenting with this concept at Everton in 2012. Initially rolling out futsal as a bi-monthly activity for the very youngest players, Irvine expanded the program two years later to include all players up through U13. In a 2014 interview, Irvine went even further, stating that futsal is "the foundation for Everton Football Club's future." The commitment to futsal is paying off in the Everton youth academy. In 2016, Everton's U9 and U12 futsal teams were winners at the 2016 Premier League National Futsal Finals.

For years, Eagleclaw has been advocating and pursuing the fusion of football and futsal within a single club environment. At the moment, Eagleclaw offers three levels of futsal programming:

  • Eagleclaw Futsal - A one-day-per-week training program offered on a club-neutral basis. The program runs August - March and is open to players from any club, not just Eagleclaw.

  • Pacific Futsal League - A competitive futsal league open to teams from any club in Western Washington.

  • Champions Cup Series - Each year Eagleclaw forms elite competitive teams to compete in United Futsal's Champions Cup Series. Teams are formed through tryouts that are open to players from any club or no club at all.

These futsal programs are available throughout the year to Eagleclaw players and players from other clubs. At this point, Eagleclaw Futsal is not required training for Eagleclaw players, but is offered as an elective. Some players proactively twin-track and some don't. The next evolution of the integration at Eagleclaw will involve mandating futsal as a component of weekly training so that every player is twin-tracking. Nevertheless, today we can see the differences between those Eagleclaw players who are twin-tracking - train/play futsal on a weekly basis - and those who don't. It is not a small difference. It is extremely noticeable.


THE CHALLENGE


More concerning, however, is the sharp drop off in futsal interest we see among players at age 14 and older. The drop off is particularly acute among players who were not exposed to futsal at the younger ages. This is a serious problem that must be addressed. If you think about Max Kilman's journey, 14/15 is precisely the age he was twin-tracking and accelerating his journey to the professional ranks. Many players at these ages are simply not good enough, and futsal may very well be the developmental accelerator they need to get themselves noticed by college recruiters or pro academy scouts. Younger players take to futsal like fish to water, but the older players need much more encouragement from their football coaches and such encouragement is sorely lacking. Until futsal is a mandated component of weekly training, it is up to coaches to really push their players to get involved with futsal. Unfortunately, many coaches are just not informed about the benefits of futsal or are just too long in the tooth and set in their ways to adjust to the new reality.

At progressive, modern clubs like Eagleclaw, we have no room for coaches who take a dim view of futsal or who see it as merely a winter clinic program or a way to get more "touches" on the ball. Its not about "touches"! It is about much, much more than that. Futsal is a sport in its own right. The modern youth soccer club coach will move fluidly between futsal and football in weekly training and be competent in both. They will know the rules, the tactics and the culture of futsal. They will educate themselves about futsal. And we mean PROPER futsal, not any bastardized version of it.


Before diving into what we mean mean by proper futsal, we should consider its benefits. How did futsal transform and accelerate Max's development to the point that he became the signing target of a Premier League club. Here is where scientific research is instructive. In a 2017 UEFA-funded study of futsal players and football players, researchers at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living at Victoria University and the Australian Institute of Sport reached some stunning conclusions. Using mobile eye tracking technology, researchers tested futsal players and football players in their own environments, focusing on their visual perception and scanning rates. Both futsal and football are passing games, and for each sport the speed at which players can play, perceive the environment and spot passing options is critical. In each group, two players would wear the mobile eye tracking system while playing a game. Each group played a total of 5 games, so every player's scanning habits and rates were measured.

The results? Prior to receiving the ball (before first touch), futsal players spent 54% of their time scanning their environment and other players, whereas the football players spent only 16% of their time scanning their environment. The rest of the time the players were focused on the ball. That is a massive difference! With the ball under their control, futsal players again out-scanned football players 45% to 32%.


According to the researchers: "The higher intensity of the futsal game, confirmed in this study (i.e., smaller individual playing area, shorter reception time and technical intensity), is suggested to be the main constraint that led futsal players to scan the environment and focus their attention on player-directed areas just prior to and during ball control."


THE PERFECT COGNITIVE WORKOUT


Watch a proper futsal match and it should be easy for anyone to conclude that futsal make players faster thinkers and decision-makers. This is the real benefit of futsal for soccer players. It's not about "more touches". It is not even about technical skill development, although that is a real benefit of futsal. The real benefit is what futsal can absolutely, positively do to create players who think faster and make quicker and better decisions on the field. Established research confirms that the inherent constraints of futsal provide the ideal context for working on player's spatial awareness and scanning rates. This is extremely important for the development of players who are the best decision-makers, as Dr. Geir Jordet concludes in his study of elite footballers. Jordet sees decision-making in football as the result of three factors that combine as :

  1. Visual perception - the ability to take in and interpret information;

  2. Visual exploratory behavior - the ability to actively search and scan to collect information;

  3. Anticipation - the ability to see what is about to happen.

The key to all of these factors is getting your eyes up. Unless that happens, players obviously do not have enough information to make good on-field decisions. So it should be no surprise that Jordet concluded that the pass completion for players with the highest scanning rates were 81%, but for players with the lowest scanning rates it was only 64%. When Jordet drilled into the data and focused only on forward passes, excluding possibly safer backwards and sideways passes, the results were even more stark. Players with the highest scanning rates completed 75% of those passes, compared to 41% for the players with the lower scanning rates.


So, lets put it all together. Visual scanning rates are critical to a footballer's decision-making (and pass completion percentages) and futsal creates the perfect environment for training (maybe forcing) players to increase their visual scanning rates. In other words, futsal is the ideal cognitive workout for young footballers. If players twin-track in a proper futsal environment, we should see massive acceleration in the development of effective decision-makers. That's exactly what we see at Eagleclaw! And Max Kilman feels the same way. In an essay he penned for the FA's website, Max writes: "And Futsal definitely helped my football, especially when I was about 15 or 16. For example, before Futsal, I used to be a bit nervous getting the ball from a throw-in but Futsal helped me feel more aware, make a quicker decision and see the bigger picture."


PROPER FUTSAL


But to get the most out of futsal, its got to be proper futsal. First, I want to be clear about what futsal is not. Indoor soccer on hockey-rink style fields with artificial turf and walls is NOT futsal. That kind of soccer - I call it "hockey soccer" is not even remotely close to what we are talking about and in no way represents the cognitive workout we should be looking for. And keep in mind that futsal, not "hockey soccer", is the only form of indoor soccer sanctioned and approved by FIFA. Proper futsal is NOT 5-a-side or small sided soccer games played with a regular soccer ball in small playing areas. And proper futsal is NOT indoor soccer on a hard surface without futsal's rules and without a futsal ball.


So what is proper futsal? Boiled down to just the essentials, proper futsal requires:

  • Futsal balls (heavier, smaller with a reduced bounce);

  • Futsal goals (3m x 2m);

  • Fast playing surface, meaning an indoors hard surface with touchlines and no walls;

  • Using the laws of the game including (a) 4-second rule on kick-ins, set plays and goalkeeper distribution and (b) can’t pass back to the goalkeeper unless he/she has it over the halfway line or the ball is touched by an opponent.


KEEP UP OR GET LEFT BEHIND


The futsal revolution in the United States is here. Many of us know it, but many other clubs and coaches don't. At Eagleclaw, we see twin-tracking as essential to the development of the modern American youth soccer player. Some, clubs and coaches have no idea what we are talking about and have no interest in learning. Thankfully, many other clubs and coaches do understand what we are talking about and are moving forward in positive directions. We can see an inflection point ahead of us when futsal is a sophisticated, year-round sport in the United States with its own pathway, from school playgrounds, to youth clubs to youth league to professional league to national team. States like California and Oregon are really pushing the evolution of futsal culture with tremendous success. Professional futsal clubs like Columbus Futsal are playing in professional futsal leagues that are growing in popularity around the country such as the National Futsal Premier League and the National League of Professional Futsal. Yes, these are still early days, but the momentum is building. Thankfully, we are also starting to see real efforts to build professional clubs and leagues for women, with Alexandria Futsal as a leader on that front.


At Eagleclaw we see the evidence around us. Eagleclaw Futsal, our weekly training program, is entering its 4th year and is now a year-round program with sold-out enrollment. We founded the Pacific Futsal League to empower clubs in Western Washington to offer competitive futsal games to their players. Eagleclaw joined the inaugural class of United Futsal's Champions Cup Series, allowing us to further extend the competitive futsal pathway for the most talented and competitive players. The inflection or tipping point for futsal may not yet be here and as with most advancements in youth soccer, the revolution is boiling up from below, not from any wisdom or energy from the top. US Soccer Federation is NOT leading on this. Your State association is NOT leading on this. US Youth Soccer, US Club and AYSO are NOT leading on this. Your local outdoor league is NOT leading on this. There are many reasons for this, but in the end the buck stops with US Soccer. Unlike England's FA, US Soccer has failed to outline and drive a futsal agenda that will facilitate and encourage twin-tracking for American youth soccer players.


Contrast US Soccer's dereliction of leadership, with the clear, published programmatic efforts led by England's FA and the Irish FA. In particular, England's FA has its finger on the specific problem of encouraging futsal in primary or elementary schools and building futsal-specific courts in schools. US Soccer is sitting on mountains of surplus cash, yet we see no ideas or movement from them toward influencing school sports facilities design or building school futsal programs.


"Crucially, focus on facilities for Primary Schools, given the FA’s overall strategy for the development of football in England, and advocate Futsal being introduced for 5–11-year old children in the "England DNA" and beyond." - England FA

The leadership vacuum in the U.S. is obvious and we cannot wait for US Soccer or state associations to get their act together. A generation of American youth football players is depending on us, the leaders at progressive youth clubs, to make positive change happen. It is up to progressive youth soccer clubs to build futsal programs, promote the fusion of futsal and football and encourage youth soccer players to start twin-tracking from the youngest ages and really push the older players to do so as well. If we do that, we will help the "Max Kilmans" in our clubs move to higher levels of play, domestically and internationally and we will really move talent development in the United States forward in a dramatic way.

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