The sport of futsal, a version of soccer played on a hard surface with a smaller ball, has spread from its native South America to Europe, Africa and Asia. Today, it has a new home: Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.

On Friday, the city held a ceremonial opening for its first court specifically designed for futsal. Ethan Hipple, Portland’s director of Parks, Recreation & Facilities spoke at the event at Fox Field before members of Kennedy Park Football Club christened the court with a demonstration of the fast-paced game.

“Portland is a global city,” Hipple said to a small crowd that included community organizers and over 35 local players. “This is a global neighborhood. We wanted a global sport recognized in this neighborhood.”

Futsal is played by teams of four field players and one goalkeeper. Due to cramped playing quarters, dribbling skills are even more important in futsal than soccer, said Jon Cross, the program manager for the Kennedy Park Football Club, a grassroots organization aimed at providing free games and mentorship for high school and college-age soccer players.

The sport has become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past decade, particularly in major cities. But it also has attracted players in Portland for several years.

“It’s quicker, it’s faster, it’s more technique based,” said Cross, who also coaches at the University of Southern Maine. “You’ve really got to know how to hold the ball, control the ball and dribble the ball.”

Goalkeeper Jake Statires attempts a save during a demonstration of futsal after an opening ceremony for the newly constructed Futsal Court at Fox Field on Friday morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Many soccer players use futsal as a training game. But for some of the dozens of athletes who routinely show up to pick-up games in Portland, the small-sided game is home.

“A lot of the players that are from different countries actually grew up playing futsal – and some only futsal, because (the courts are) cheaper to put in places,” said Cross, who noted the Kennedy Park squad has a mix of players from around the world. “The group is like a very big melting pot.”

The result is a mix of styles and flavors on the court, said Muntasir Ahmed, a 2021 Deering High School graduate who will play soccer at Bridgton Academy this fall.

“All these players play different,” said Ahmed, 18. “We’ve got some Brazilian kids who are just filthy. We’ve got some fast African kids; we’ve got this and that. It’s so exciting to see. It makes the game more spicy.”

Chris Irakoze, 19, said futsal reminds him of the street soccer he played in his hometown of Bujumbura, Burundi, before he moved to Westbrook. Now a midfielder at West Virginia Wesleyan College, he said he’s enjoyed the inclusivity of the Kennedy Park community.

“It kind of brings people together,” Irakoze said of the frequent pickup futsal games. “You get to meet a lot of new people.”

Futsal has been played in Portland for several years, with pickup games often played on basketball courts. Now those players have a court of their own at Fox Field in East Bayside. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The court at Fox Field has been in the works for about three years, said Hipple. Futsal players were outnumbering basketball players on local basketball courts, so the parks department decided to build the athletes a better venue.

“We just wanted to have another facility in the city that can appeal to the widest array of people who live in Portland, including new immigrants to Portland,” Hipple said. “Our hope is that this new facility and something that’s maybe familiar to them can help the community feel even more welcome in Portland.”

The project, which cost $174,000, was largely funded through federal Community Development Block Grants, according to Hipple. An LED lighting system allows players to play until the park closes at 10 p.m., and the unpainted asphalt can be easily cleared of snow so community members can play year-round.

“If it’s not 10-below, kids can still go use that in the wintertime,” Hipple said. “It feels great to see it complete, and we’re just incredibly excited for it to be available to the neighborhood.”

Ellen Bailey, the president of the East Bayside Community Organization, said the court was yet another improvement in a neighborhood “on the rise.”

“I look at this whole area and I see a lot of really great things happening,” said Bailey, who noted that improved lighting around Kennedy Park has helped attract a mix of children and adults to public spaces. “This whole area has changed because of efforts by the organization and the city.”

Though she hadn’t heard of futsal before the project began, Bailey has quickly become a convert to the sport.

“I think this is perfect for our neighborhood,” she said. “Absolutely perfect.”

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