Six-man pro soccer, indoors: high-scoring hybrid draws fans

Even if you've never heard of six-man soccer, which is played professionally indoors on a synthetic surface the size of most ice hockey rinks, don't go away.

This is for all you skeptics (like me) who found it difficult to fallow the ball in regular soccer, didn't want to spend time learning players' names, and was always turned off by a lack of scoring.

Although it is much too early in the game to know whether six-man soccer will eventually attract enough new, old, and sophisticated fans to make this sport financially secure, it clearly seems headed in the right direction. And its ticket prices shouldn't upset anybody, generally ranging from $3 to $6.

What this indoor game probably needs more than anything else at this point is to get its two best teams into a prime-time spot on network television, with enough cameras and instant-replay equipment to cover it like a pro football game.

Six-man soccer, as played by 19 teams in the North American Soccer League (and other groups across the country) is not brand new. Back in 1974 a Red Army team from the Soviet Union played an exhibition in this country against the Philadelphia Atoms. But until the last couple of years there haven't been many serious attempts to popularize this brand of soccer in the United States.

"Although we're still a long way from getting crowds of 10,000 or more, I think we've finally got a game in six-man soccer that the average American can understand and enjoy," said English-born Bob Sibbald, the player-coach of the Los Angeles Aztecs. "If we can just get people out to watch us, I have the feeling that we can keep them coming, especially when they see how much scoring there is."

"Basically six-man soccer is a combination of basketball and ice hockey, consisting of four 15-minute periods, plus the use of a penalty box," be continued. "For example, when the referee sends a player off the field for a tripping infraction [punishable with a two-minute penalty], the opposing them suddenly gets the change to exploit a one-man advantage."

When playing with the full complement of six players, each team has a midfielder, two forwards, two defenders, and a goalie, who, according to the Aztecs' coach, can often be credited with 60 to 70 percent of his team's success.

The outdoor net minder may face less than 10 shots all afternoon, while his indoor counterpart is generally kept busy with 40 shots or so. As a result, scores of 7 to 5 are not uncommon.

With no free throws to interrupt things (a la basketball), six-man soccer provides a chain of almost continuous action, even though most teams do use a number of set plays with options.

The ball is often banked off the boards to create a shot in front of the net. Players are substituted on the fly and are rarely on the floor for more than 3 1 /2 minutes at a time. With the artificial playing surfaces confined to a maximum length of 200 feet and a maximum width of 100 feet, there is a constant closeness that simply isn't there in the outdoor game.

"In putting together a six-man indoor soccer team, I think most coaches are looking for relatively the same thing -- a blend of youth and experience that you instinctively feel will fit well together," Sibbald said. "And with so much substituting, players can't just sit there and day-dream on the bench. Mentally they have to stay in the game, and this is good."

"Again you look for the same speed and quickness that you need to play basketball or hockey," he continued. "You're constantly trying to get the ball out quickly on the break; you want players fast enough to fill the lanes; and you also want people who know instinctively where they should be on the floor.

"Otherwise you end up getting in each other's way or, worse yet, opening up a lane for one of your opponents."

One of the few things Sibbald doesn't like about indoor soccer is the unforgiving synthetic surface that it's played on and what it does to legs, knees, and feet.

"Even though there is usually wood underneath the artificial turf itself and you are protected by high-quality shoes, the natural cushion that you get with grass simply isn't there," Bob said. "This is why I always give my players two days off following a game."

Asked why soccer outside North America sometimes generates so much violence among fans that riots result, Sibbald replied:

"What you have to understand is that soccer is taken much more seriously elsewhere in the world than it is in the United States. Rivalries often go back for generations, and where there is an important national or world match it is not unusual for thousands of fans to travel hundreds of miles for the occasion.

"Obviously when you get that many people together who feel so strongly about a team they often consider their own, arguments over players or situations on the field can sometimes lead to whole pockets of violence. It's stupid, I know, but sometimes it happens."

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