Staff photo by Tyler Heffernan Andre Berenzon, former professional Brazilian soccer player and founder of Mount Pleasant Futsal, shows off some ball handling skills. Here, he juggled the ball several times before kicking it and balancing it on his head.
Good news, everyone: I don't play futsal, a variation of soccer, at the level of an 8-year-old girl.
“Nah, man,” Andre Berenzon, founder of Mount Pleasant Futsal, said when I asked if my skills could be challenged by an elementary school kid. The former Brazilian professional soccer player had led me through a series of drills for about a half hour.
“You could hang with the older group,” he said. Phew.
Futsal was developed overseas and is different from soccer in many ways. The ball is slightly smaller than an adult regulation size soccer ball, but it's a little heavier. The court is smaller and has similar dimensions to a basketball court. Teams are five versus five. And, it's played indoors.
But, unlike indoor American soccer, which is commonly played on hockey rink-like courts, you can't use the walls while playing. Berenzon has set up shop in Park West on 3400 Turgot Lane inside a gymnasium sharing space with a basketball clinic and Crossfit training area.
Wando won't add futsal as a varsity sport anytime soon – if ever – but the idea of training with futsal is to complement existing soccer practice. Because of the smaller court with fewer players, futsal causes athletes to become better at ball handling, quickness, conditioning and footwork, among other skills.
“With your size, you could push some other players around,” Berenzon said, maintaining that I shouldn't call myself Nancy while kicking a ball.
I'm about 6-feet-1- or 2-inches tall. “But, it's not American indoor soccer, so I can't check anybody into the boards,” I said, half joking.
“No, no,” he replied, laughing.
With the territory of sharing tighter space with your teammates and opponents, Berenzon admitted the game is more physical than what traditional soccer players are used to. I'm a lover, not a fighter – right, Mom? – but I have developed into a more aggressive athlete now than I ever was.
Part of the reason for that is my birthday is in July, so I was always young for my grade when paired up with kids without summer birthdays. My body is more mature now. But, this explanation is getting awkward, so let's turn back to futsal.
Berenzon signed his first professional contract at age 17, but technically started playing professionally at 14, because he played on an academy team in Brazil. The team practiced every day, he lived with his teammates and got paid. His professional resume includes futsal for one year, outdoor soccer for five years and indoor soccer in the United States for six years.
Look Berenzon up on YouTube and you'll find an impressive display of footwork, striking and ball control. Last year, he played in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) for the Wichita Wings. He was traded to the Wings from the Syracuse Silver Knights in November.
Berenzon began his career in the MISL in 2008 as a midfielder for the Rockford Rampage, according to the Wings' website. He spent two seasons with the club, racking up an All-Rookie Team selection and leading the team to a championship appearance.
After that, Berenzon played for the Chicago Riot and then signed with Syracuse a year later. He scored 20 goals in five games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
“Honestly, I enjoyed playing futsal more,” he said, when asked about his professional preference. “I had a great contract offer to play outdoor, so that's why I went for it.”
On the outdoor field, his position was striker and midfield. In the indoor realm, he described himself as “very versatile.” His strength, thanks to a heavy dose of futsal training in Brazil, was ball handling. He can juggle a ball until his legs begin to cramp and do the kinds of tricks you find on the internet, while making them seem routine.
“I am actually still under contract with the Wichita Wings,” he said. “But, I've had this dream to open this academy for a while. I had it set in my mind that once I made it happen, I would stop (playing). As hard as it is, I would say, yes, I'm done playing.”
Berenzon added that he can break his contract.
What if Mount Pleasant Futsal doesn't work out the way he hopes it will, though? “Regardless of the way it's going to go, I'm so positive it's going to work out,” he said. Less than 15 minutes ago, he talked on the phone with a parent intending to sign his or her child up for lessons.
“So, you're done?” I asked.
“How hard is that to say?”
“For me, it's different,” Berenzon, 29, said. “I've been playing professionally for so long. This is going to be my full-time from now on.”
“You wouldn't play for the Battery?” I said.
“Nope, no Battery.”
With Wando, Academic Magnet and Bishop England as some of the top soccer programs in the state and country, Berenzon is hoping that helps attract people who turn to him to improve their game. “As long as there is a lot of soccer around here, it helps. What I'm offering, no one else is. I am willing to take kids from all over, from any school, from any clubs; I am open for them to come and train with me,” he said.
“I'm not trying to compete or take them away from any clubs.”
He emphasized that his futsal training is meant to complement existing training. Eventually, he plans to select elite futsal participants and take them to compete in tournaments. For now, though, it's about getting players through the door.
Participants train for an hour, going through four segments: warmup, skills training, small-sided game and a full scrimmage. I went through the first three – at about one/third speed – and it made me regret not continuing to play recreational soccer at least until I became a teenager.
Ya know, when your team name is called something slightly more credible than Chuck-E-Cheese and you don't break team huddles by chanting “Have fun.”
Berenzon said my techniques were solid, but mentally, I was struggling to keep up with a new frame of mind. I'm most comfortable using my hands, not my feet, in athletics. Not only that, but futsal requires players to use different techniques than soccer. I couldn't draw from my Chuck-E-Cheese glory days; I had to use the outsides of my feet, not the insides to trap the ball, in order to keep the ball closer to my body, among other things.
Soccer for me was just a way to stay in shape for when basketball season arrived. I had the blinders on all through soccer season, unaware of any opportunities I could have had on the field.
The kids I grew up with on the soccer field were slight and unintimidating. Sure, they could run fast, but they couldn't bang around on the court with the basketball guys. That wasn't appealing.
And here I was, on a basketball court playing a variation of soccer, which is regarded as a physical game, that is played with the same amount of players in basketball games.
Count me in. But, I'm not so great at it. So maybe, sign me up with the 10-year-old kids.