Growing up in Wichita, Kan., Braeden Cloutier's only chance of becoming a world-class soccer player would be playing different versions of the sport as the seasons changed.
Otherwise, he wouldn't be playing at all during the frigid winter months.
Fortunately, North America had already taken the world's most popular game indoors--a welcome sight for players like Cloutier, who live in cold-weather areas of the United States and Canada.
"We played indoor year-round in Wichita," said Cloutier, a 14-year professional who played five seasons as a midfielder in MLS.
While most of the world prefers futsal in the cold months, North America favors indoor soccer. It's a scaled-down version of the outdoor game that incorporates parts of ice hockey into its rules and regulations.
The big differences?
• Walls. Indoor soccer has walls around the field that are in play. A player can still kick a ball out of bounds by booting one over the six-foot walls. But if they keep the ball low, the wall can be used for nifty passes, rebounding shots and other tricks the outdoor game can't do.
"You can use the walls to your advantage," Cloutier said. "When the defenders are trying to push you out of bounds, you can play the boards and use the boards to get around your guy. Defensively it's a little bit different. Offensively it's more to your advantage."
•The field of play. It's significantly smaller, usually about the size of a hockey rink. The goals are smaller, too, and typically built into the walls. Add to it the artificial turf that makes the ball travel faster, and indoor soccer can sometimes resemble a game of pinball. That makes things hard on goalkeepers.
"I mostly played outdoor growing up," said Tim Edwards, a keeper who plays indoor professionally. "It's a little more fun from my point of view because I get more shots."
Added Cloutier: "Being a goalkeeper in indoor is crazy."
•The players. There are only six players per team in indoor soccer, including the keeper. In some parts of the world the game is called six-a-side soccer.
•The rules. Among the rule differences: No offsides calls, no throw-ins, unlimited substitutions, a "blue card" and a penalty box.
Historical accounts of indoor soccer vary, and the game probably was tried in many different forms before settling into the version it is today. There are reports of indoor soccer being played in Canada in the late 1800s, and the game evolved from there.
Indoor soccer really exploded in North America in the 1980s, when the success of pro leagues such as the MISL and NPSL brought up to 10,000 fans out to watch teams like the Baltimore Blast, Cleveland Crunch and Kansas City Comets. The appeal of indoor soccer trickled down to youth players, and millions started playing in recreational leagues during the winter months.
The San Diego Sockers are considered the United States' most successful indoor soccer team. The franchise dates back to 1974 and has played in several different leagues, including the popular MISL. After five years of being dissolved, the Sockers are being resurrected as part of the Professional Arena Soccer League. Cloutier, who played for past Sockers teams, is back for another round.
Cloutier, who also coaches, has played enough indoor soccer to know some secrets to success. And to him, it's not necessarily banging balls off the walls or cherry-picking with no offsides.
It's in your own technical skills.
"I think the key to indoor soccer is the sole of the foot, how you receive the ball," Cloutier said. "The floor is a little bit hard, so if you receive the ball with the inside of the foot, it rolls away. I tell kids that the sole of the foot is the key to indoor soccer."
Considering the popularity of the game during the winter months, it's a tip millions of kids could benefit from.