You’re trying to play a sport you’ve never encountered on any level. You’ve had little opportunity to witness it live or find a broadcast.
Now imagine an entire country is trying to pick up that sport from scratch and come up with a team that can compete internationally.
That’s the reality of 5-a-side soccer -- not futsal, but soccer played by visually impaired athletes.
As of now, it’s the only soccer in the Paralympics. The 7-a-side game for physically impaired athletes, in which U.S. Soccer has a long history, was omitted in 2020 and will also miss out in 2024.
In 5-a-side soccer, the USA has no history to speak of. The dream would be to reach the 2024 Games, but a more realistic goal is to be competitive by 2028, when the Paralympics come to Los Angeles.
“The Paralympics 5-a-side has been around since 2004 in the Athens Games, and there really hasn’t been much interest in the U.S. until about 2016,” says Kevin Brousard, program and finance director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) and an elite visually impaired athlete in track and field as well as judo. “At least not enough to actually start up a program.”
The USABA, a longstanding member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, became a member organization of U.S. Soccer last month at the Annual General Meeting. The association is a world power in goalball, an event unique to visually impaired athletes. It also covers most other Paralympic sports and general health for the visually impaired community at large.
In Rio 2016, blind U.S. athletes won medals in track and field, judo, rowing, swimming and goalball. The only event exclusive to blind athletes in which the USA did not participate was 5-a-side soccer.
“We know blind athletes, but we don’t know soccer,” Brousard said.
U.S. Soccer continues to support the 7-a-side game, for players with physical impairment most commonly caused by cerebral palsy or a traumatic brain injury. Past and present 7-a-side players Chris Ahrens, Gavin Sibayan and Kevin Hensley are on the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council. At the same meeting in which U.S. Soccer welcomed the USABA, the federation announced a new department for “extended teams” -- beach soccer, futsal and 7-a-side.
“This commitment will enable our Paralympians to play for the team full time,” the federation’s statement said.
And the 7-a-side team is doing well. It’s ranked fourth going into this summer’s big events -- the World Cup and the Para Pan Am Games. Those events will be streamed live and covered on the USPNT Twitter feed.
The 7-a-side sport was dropped from the Games in 2015, with International Paralympic Committee (IPC) claiming the sport lacked “worldwide reach.” Team sports are supposed to be practiced in at least 24 countries in three regions.
The world rankings now list 76 countries playing 7-a-side. But the IPC decided in January not to reinstate the sport for the 2024 Paralympics, this time citing a gender equity issue. Both sports have generally been contested only by men, but the 5-a-side game seems to have a slim lead in building a women’s game. A 5-a-side world tournament of sorts debuted in 2017. The 7-a-side federation held what it billed as the first international women’s game in 2018.
Bringing in the USABA is the first big step for U.S. Soccer to get into the 5-a-side game. Brousard said the USABA gains many advantages from affiliation with the federation -- resources, networks and an easier path to establishing a full-fledged national team.
Qualifying for 2024 would be extraordinarily difficult. Brazil and Argentina took gold and bronze in Rio, with Mexico also competing. For 2028, the USA gets a berth as the host nation.
The USABA held its first national camp last year in Baltimore, getting 90 applicants for 45 spots. That camp was designed not just to teach athletes but also coaches.
“We know blind soccer 201, and we want to get to blind soccer 701,” Brousard said.
The sport is unique among blind events in that it’s the only event in which many athletes from two teams are in the same space. In goalball, roughly akin to team handball, players stay in their own half of the court. In many other sports, the athletes have guides.
It’s a noisy game by design. Crowd noise is kept to a minimum so athletes can hear everything that guides them -- the ball bearings in the ball itself, the defensive organization from the goalkeeper (who may be sighted but covers a limited area of the field), and a coach who can guide the attackers.
Aside from that, it’s close to futsal. And the play is similar -- less running, more footskills.
And just as FIFA was anxious to get soccer moving in the United States in the 1990s, the international blind soccer community has been happy to help the USA learn the game.
“People want the U.S. to have a solid program, so they’re willing to help out as much as we can,” Brousard said.
(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)