Inside The Indoor Game With Michael Lewis / Pro Cup
Tavoy Morgan and Stefan Mijatovic can't wait; they can't wait to display their futsal skills in front of several hundred spectators on Thursday night, Jan. 11.
They will be playing for their respective Major Arena Soccer League teams, the San Diego Sockers and Empire Strykers, in the MASL Pro Indoor Cup at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Anaheim, Calif. Kickoff at the Anaheim Convention Center is 8 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).
Both players have performed in several high-stakes futsal or futsal-style matches in their careers.
Morgan, a forward, was a member of Newtown Pride FC, the champions of The Soccer Tournament, a winner-take-all $1 million competition in Cary, N.C. last summer.
Mijatovic, a forward-defender, competed for the United States in the World Minifootball Federation World Cup just prior to the start of the 2023-24 MASL campaign.
Because the exhibition game will be played without boards, players' skills in fairly tight quarters will be a priority and tested on a field that measures 120 by 64 feet (37.5 by 25.3 meters). The match will follow FIFA Futsal rules, which will include a pair of 20-minute halves. Teams will have one timeout in each half.
"It's going be a little challenge for some people that only play with the boards, but we have a lot of players that are used to playing without the boards,” Morgan said. “We're going to take caution and do our best. I know it's a rival. Hopefully, we can come up with the win.
"I'm going to take it seriously and play like it's an MASL game and just try to just keep the winning streak."
The Sockers sit atop the Western Division with a 5-0 record, while the Strykers were 2-5 entering their Tuesday night home match against the Texas Outlaws.
The game pits one of the best rivalries in the league. San Diego and Ontario, Calif. are separated by 114 miles, or about a two-hour ride on I-15.
"I'm actually excited," Mijatovic said. "We play San Diego six times during the season and they're our rivals for sure. So, to have something like this, to put on a show in front of coaches and a convention like this, I think it's going to be pretty cool. I know a lot of the guys from our team are excited for it, and talking with their guys, they're excited for it as well.
"I love the concept. What better way to do it and against our rivals put on a show for the coaches at the convention?"
There are differences between indoor soccer and futsal.
Mijatovic said the game "will be very similar, but it will also be very different because indoors, balls always are going to go off the board."
"A lot of teams use the boards to turn and shoot," he added. "Defenders play the boards to get the ball to the targets. Here, you've got to be really good with your feet. Your passes have to be exactly on. There's nowhere to hit the boards. There's no room for errors or mistakes. The ball has to stay in. It's going to show what players can really play and it's going to expose a lot of players that maybe aren't as good as we think they are."
Perhaps no one knows better than MASL commissioner Keith Tozer to talk about the importance of technique in futsal. A major exponent of futsal, Tozer is a former coach of the U.S. Futsal National Team.
"I've always said, if a player has great technical ability, and a player has great tactical awareness, and the player has physicality, I don't care if he's playing on a tennis court, an outdoor field, an indoor field or beach soccer," he said. "If you're a good soccer player, you're a good soccer player."
Josh Wilkins, who worked the 2021 FIFA Futsal World Cup, and Mark Rodman, who was named a 2024 FIFA Futsal referee, will officiate the match.
The game, which has seating for 500 and a VIP section, will allow the league to showcase itself in front of soccer coaches, players and administrations from various backgrounds. United Soccer Coaches has billed the exhibition as the first professional indoor soccer game to be played inside the convention. In 2022, an MASL match between the host Kansas City Comets and Tacoma Stars was held during the convention, but was played at another venue, at the T-Mobile Center in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
Last year Tozer broached the idea of a game in Anaheim with United Soccer Coaches executive director Geoff VanDeusen, who liked the idea. The game was born.
"United Soccer Coaches have co-branded with us, hosting this, and have done marketing for us," Tozer said. "Major League Soccer is there and the NWSL is there. Colleges, European, South American, Central American teams are there. For them to showcase the MASL with their logo and our logo next to each other is pretty remarkable. We're highly thankful for them helping us out.
Tozer commented that when he and MASL chairman Shep Messing and president of communications/media JP Dellacamera took over their roles 2 ½ years ago, “we said we needed to get in those type of back into the conversation. This is just another big thing that we've done."
Morgan knows something about playing in the spotlight. He was an important addition to the Sockers' 2022 squad, as it won its 16th indoor title.
He and his Newtown teammates made national headlines by winning that 7 v 7 tournament. The Connecticut-based team blanked SLC FC (Canada), 2-0 in the final. Sockers forward Gabriel Costa, the MASL newcomer of the year, and defender Drew Ruggles, St. Louis Ambush goalkeeper Paulo Nascimento and Harrisburg Heat defender Onua Obasi, who coached the team, also were members of that championship squad.
"It was big for us," Morgan said. "It was the first time I experienced something like that. To play two games a day and then to go out there again and win everything is just unbelievable. There's no words. You want to go there again and play after that experience."
Which Morgan and several teammates plan to do this summer.
Morgan split The TST prize money with his teammates and the club. He said that tournament officials “came to us before the finals. We had to sign how much money we were going to get. Once you win, right after the game, they gave you that check."
The players agreed to $20,000 apiece, Morgan said.
But there was nothing like winning it all in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
"In the beginning, we didn't have enough fans," Morgan said. "The way we played; the fans liked really liked our team. They were going for us in the final. That was a really great experience to see fans from nowhere cheering for us. That was a special part for me. It was special just to win, to be the first winner of the TST."
Mijatovic experienced the trip of a lifetime, competing in the 32-team international tournament in Dubai, United Emirates. He played on a team that boasted the likes of several MASL standouts - Kansas City Comets defenders Chad Vandegriffe and Zach Reget, Milwaukee Waves' forward Ian Bennett, Utica City FC forward Frank Tayou, and Ruggles.
"Man, it was the most amazing thing ever in my career, being able to play for USA, wearing the USA colors," he said. "I was born in Germany, but the USA has given me so much since I've been five years old. I was happy to be able to rep the USA colors in what better place in the world and Dubai? Dubai was amazing. Different than any city I've been to ever, not soccer-wise, but just the technology, and how up to date they are. Soccer-wise, it one of the best moments of my career, for sure. You always dreamed about playing for the USA or your country. It was amazing man. No words can describe the feeling."
The U.S. was eliminated in the Round of 16 in a 4-2 defeat to the Czech Republic. Mijatovic scored his first international goal in the waning moments of the match.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to come back and tie the game and or win it," he said.
But …"You can't get better than that scoring in the World Cup for your country.," he added.
The next challenge for Mijatovic and Morgan and their teammates will come Thursday night.
"We're trying to grow this league every day," Mijatovic said. "The owners across the league, they work every day trying to grow this league. I think it's on the come-up."
Mijatovic noted such former Mexican internationals Marco Fabian and Miguel Ponce recently had signed with the Strykers.
"There's a lot of big names coming into our league," he said. "It's only going up from here. To do something like this to get a different crowd, a different audience at the coaches convention, just to get the MASL out there so people can see how much action and see how much fun it is, it's good for everybody."
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.