Kicking it on a different scale

  • Merrill Doherty poses for a photograph during this summer’s international youth futsal tournament in Buenos Aires. Doherty, who spends her summers in the Upper Valley, was one of 12 athletes on the U.S. Youth Futsal National Team that went 2-2 during the tournament.  Courtesy Photograph

  • Merrill Taylor Doherty, right, poses with her U.S. Youth Futsal National Team teammates during this summer’s international tournament in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was Doherty’s second time competing internationally. Courtesy Photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/11/2019 9:32:13 PM
Modified: 9/11/2019 9:32:05 PM

Merrill Doherty found futsal the same way most kids her age in the United States find it: by accident.

She had been playing club soccer in Charlotte, N.C., three years ago, extending a lifelong love for the sport that began at an early age. Her coach at the time recommended futsal — a combination of soccer and hockey played on an indoor court with two nets and a harder, smaller ball — as an indoor alternative during the winter offseason and signed the team up.

Little did Doherty know that she was about to find her calling.

Three years later, Doherty, 15, who has family in Woodstock and now resides about 45 minutes outside the South African city of Johannesburg is a national standout. She has twice represented the United States in international play, most recently in Buenos Aires with the U.S. Youth Futsal Girls National Team in late July. She was with the U.S. national team in Medellin, Colombia, in 2018, one of 12 athletes — 10 position players and two goalies — on the roster out of 150 candidates from across the country.

“I didn’t know what it was beforehand,” said Doherty, a sophomore at the American International School in Johannesburg, earlier this month. “We were practicing in an actual futsal club, and the director invited me to join one of his teams. After those practices, I definitely started to become more invested.”

Doherty’s mother, May Taylor, works for the U.S. government. The family previously lived in South Africa during Doherty’s early years and later moved to North Carolina before Taylor’s job moved them once again overseas. Doherty said she and her family spend their summers in the Upper Valley.

A love for soccer, she said, has followed her around.

“I love using my technical skills (on the soccer field),” she said. “In futsal, you have to have technical skills a lot. I got to show what I was really good at on the field.”

Futsal originated in South America and has blossomed into an international indoor alternative to outdoor soccer. In the United States, futsal has been supported by the U.S. Soccer Federation since 1994, tagged at the youth level as a developmental tool for the nation’s top players to hone their skills on a fast-paced surface that favors ball skills over any physical advantages.

Doherty said an introduction to futsal has expanded her understanding of the game.

“Futsal really helps me outdoors,” she said. “The touches, the speed of play … I think it’s a really helpful thing for all players developing into playing soccer. Everyone should do it.”

Mary Rae, Doherty’s coach with the international squad and her coach with her club team, Barefoot Futbol, has seen that development first-hand.

“Merrill is more of a tactical player than a physical one,” Rae said from Charlotte, N.C., this week. “Her strength is in her technical ability, her vision, how she sees the court and field and what she’s able to do with the ball. She’s grown a ton. … I would put her up there with some of our best athletes, our smartest players.

“That’s why she’s so successful at futsal. It caters to her game.”

Barefoot Futbol has 50 kids full-time between 5 and 12 years old and about 150 part-time athletes from 9 to 19 years old in a broad skills program that prioritizes futsal. But the game, Rae admitted, is still in its early stages here.

“I think it’s growing,” said Rae, who has coached with the club for seven years. “It hasn’t had that explosion where 90 percent of the kids are playing it. Tons of kids try soccer; some play competitive soccer. Futsal is just not there yet. I see it more where players who are very competitive at soccer also do futsal. It’s important for their game.”

Rae added that she believes Doherty is doing it the right way.

“Merrill has just been really lucky to have an opportunity to go abroad,” Rae said. “With the travel, she’s been able to absorb it. It’s shown through in the way she plays and the person that she is.”

This summer, Doherty’s U.S. national team went 2-2 in Buenos Aires with both losses to host Argentina. She scored her first goal and got to do some color commentary from the broadcast booth for a game featuring her older peers. More importantly, she was able to continue to grow in a sport she’s adopted as her own.

“It’s opened so many doors for me,” she said.

One of those doors may be college soccer one day, an option that Doherty said she’d be open to if the opportunity presented itself. With her futsal background and some international exposure, Doherty believes she’s put herself in the right place to perhaps get that chance.

“I think a lot of college coaches are starting to recognize it more,” Doherty said. “It’s a really important thing for young soccer players. It helps with technical skills. I think it’s definitely going to start becoming a bigger thing than it is now.”

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