OCEANSIDE, Calif.-- Ball in hand, Marc Koehler demonstrates how a free kick works in beach soccer.
"Watch this," he said.
He proceeds to bend down and nuzzle the ball into the sand. He then scoops sand out all around the edges, basically putting the soccer ball on a sand-made tee. It would be hard not to strike it solidly.
"This is allowed," Koehler said with a grin.
It's one of the intriguing quirks of beach soccer, a rapidly growing sport that differs from the traditional grass game mainly because the surface forces it to. While pickup soccer is recreationally played on beaches all over the world, the structured format is gaining popularity in the United States.
Koehler is the director of the The Southern California Beach Soccer Championships, a huge event held annually in Oceanside Harbor. The tournament features age groups ranging from young kids to seasoned professionals all in one setting, and how a typical game is played depends directly on the skill level of the players.
First thing's first, though: you quickly realize that this isn't your typical outdoor game with the giant fields and offside calls and 1-0 scores. Beach soccer gives the world's most popular sport an edge that attention-span-deprived Americans could fall in love with.
"It's a very exciting game," Koehler said. "Eleven goals are scored per game (on average). There's an average of 65 or 66 shots per game."
How does it vary so much from the grass game? Well, it's mostly in the rules:
- The size of the field for adult players is 30 yards wide by 40 yards long in the sand (grass fields can be three times that size). This makes the whole field in play for a shot.
- Goalkeeper boxes extend from sideline to sideline and nine yards out. Because of the short field, goalkeepers are a dangerous offensive weapon in beach soccer.
- Throw-ins can be thrown or kicked in beach soccer.
- A 5 v. 5 format in most age groups allows for more space.
- Free kicks are required to be unobstructed, so kickers have a one-on-one shot with the goalkeeper after every foul. And as mentioned earlier, players can prop the ball up by digging around it in the sand, making their shots more crisp.
As huge tournaments in places like Oceanside and Virginia Beach can attest to, beach soccer is a game that's growing among youth players. The 2008 Southern California field had 270 teams. Many were from California, but many were also from inland areas that don't even have beaches.