Why Indoor Soccer is the Beautiful Game at Its Best

Today, soccer enjoys a presence in America that the sport has never had before: Lionel Messi now plays here, and the 2026 World Cup will take place in 11 U.S. cities. “Ted Lasso” and “Welcome to Wrexham” have made soccer popular television. Yet for all that, it sometimes feels as if there’s no “there” there. The two most watched leagues — the Premier League and Liga MX — are based in England and Mexico. Thousands of people turn up for their local Major League Soccer, National Women’s Soccer League or minor-league teams, but they perform sanitized impersonations of European and Latin-American soccer culture, where teams tend to be rooted in their cities’ history. The sport’s prized stars, teams and tournaments have been purchased, backed and exploited by autocratic rulers, private equity firms and oligarchs. It can sometimes feel as if the romance of the game is slipping away, replaced by an increasingly plastic product.

Things were entirely different in the early 1990s. Then I was a soccer-obsessed teenager at a time when most Americans seemed to hate the sport. There wasn’t much choice but to watch soccer from afar. One of the few options for seeing a match was indoor soccer, which I first experienced when my dad took me to an all-star game in the nearest big city. The arena was dingy. “Star” was probably a generous description for these players, though I did recognize one from a summer soccer camp I attended, where he apparently coached as a side hustle. This was the first time I saw professional soccer in person. It was also the first time I was among a crowd of American soccer fans.

Soccer was an outcast sport, but the scene was familiar: an old arena with sticky floors; hot dogs and greasy pizza slices at the concession stands; professional hockey and basketball banners hanging from the rafters; kids and families everywhere. The music thumped and the arena darkened as the players emerged with spotlights shining on them. It seemed so strange that we were all there cheering for soccer — or, at least, a version of it. This game was startlingly fast, with flashy feints and no-look passes performed on a smaller, artificial green field. The sometimes inscrutable, often low-scoring game of soccer was now practically on a tabletop, distilled to its most extravagant elements in front of American kids like me, high on the sugar rush of candy and soda.

Even in the ’90s, the indoor game had already been around awhile. Soccer was played in many countries throughout the 20th century, though “indoor soccer” is largely a 1970s American invention. During the years between the collapse of Pelé’s North American Soccer League in 1984 and the launch of the present-day M.L.S. in 1996, this hybrid sport was one of the only things keeping soccer from vanishing in the United States. For all that, indoor soccer is the Rodney Dangerfield of the game: It gets no respect. Even I was dubious about initially going. Disdained by soccer aficionados (George Vecsey called it “the indoor corruption of soccer, a.k.a. human pinball”) and soccer haters alike, its various leagues have folded numerous times in the past 40 years. Gimmicks such as two- and three-point goals have come and gone. One or more teams seem to dissolve after every season.

The main differences from the outdoor game are fewer players on the field (six instead of 11), with hockey-style substitutions on the fly, penalty boxes, power plays and walls that players use to ricochet the ball off. For me, the most important difference is that indoor soccer puts “the beautiful game” under a microscope. For soccer lovers, it’s like sitting in the orchestra section or at the chef’s table. You notice everything that gets overlooked on a screen or in a stadium — astonishing technique in dribbling and passing, as well as telepathic teamwork and timing — but also the kicks, elbows, trash talk, crotch grabs and other unmentionables that are part of the dark arts of the sport. Plus, its fast pace encourages plenty of goals. In its flamboyance and entertainment factor, it embodies the spirit of street soccer, the real roots of the game.

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