From Heart Surgery At 14 To A World Cup On The Beach: An Exclusive With US Beach Soccer Goalkeeper Chris Toth

By Tim Ellis

News • Mar 25, 2024

From Heart Surgery At 14 To A World Cup On The Beach: An Exclusive With US Beach Soccer Goalkeeper Chris Toth

Having a congenital heart condition was never going to stop Chris Toth from becoming one of the best indoor and beach soccer goalkeepers in the world. 

Header Image - US Soccer 

Seven years after winning the official World Cup in 1998, France claimed another global tournament which had just received the official FIFA branding. The green grass took a back seat as Eric Cantona’s team defeated Portugal after a penalty shootout at the Copacabana Beach Soccer Arena.

It might be a myth that the sand is the training ground for the stars of the future, but it’s no accident that Brazil have just claimed their sixth title as world champions in beach soccer.

The United States didn’t make it past the group stage in the most recent edition in Dubai, but one of their star players celebrated a special century of appearances in the format before flying home. That man was goalkeeper Chris Toth who has defied pretty much all logical odds to reach the elite level in two versions of the beautiful game.

Toth is now regarded as one of the very best on the sand – a game which Cantona described in an interview as “very demanding physically and technically.”

The 34-year-old’s continued excellence and longevity are remarkable because of the physical limitations he was born with. 

Toth recounts his story with a calm retrospective: “I was born with something called transposition of the great arteries where your pulmonary and aorta are reversed.” Put simply, not enough oxygen was getting to his heart. “My mother says she wasn’t even allowed to hold me at the time,” he says.

“There was a surgery being done that was quite established. It was functional and the outcomes would lead to a relatively normal life for a child. The problem was that sports were way out of the question.”

This threatened the strong lineage in nets. Chris’s grandfather, Gyorgy, played for Hungary alongside the great Ferenc Puskas. His father Zoltan was a hall of fame indoor keeper for the San Diego Sockers, a club that his son also played for in the Major Arena Soccer League. To complete the triangle, Chris’s grandmother was a handball goalkeeper.

The genes were gearing up one way but the path to medical clearance was complex. The riskier and less tried surgery available could lead to a more active life and give the Toth trilogy another sequel. It turned out to be the right choice.

The procedure put the two arteries back where they were supposed to go although, in his high school years, the green light for sport was still a split decision for the doctors when another problem emerged. The pulmonary artery had not grown in line with age. “They had to take a piece out of that artery and replace it with someone else’s,” he recounts.

This was successful but the 14-year-old was told there was no chance of playing out in the field. “Four of them (doctors) said yes to being a goalie, and four of them said no. And at that point, it was like, ‘It's in your hands, Chris.’ So I just sat and rolled with it.”

Twenty years later, Toth’s early love of being out in the field while being a total action hero in goal has become a reality.  He made 18 saves against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai and also scored in normal time. That’s the beauty of beach soccer, a sport that is now embraced by over 200 nations. It needs players with all-round skill sets and he’s cool with that.

“When I was an outdoor player, I used to play striker, centre-mid, on the wing, and at centre-back. I played left-back and right-back. So I understood all the components of what you need to do in these certain positions.”

Toth concurs that sand has a special allure: “You're not on a flat surface anymore. If anybody knows the beach or has run on the beach, it is not easy by any means. It's very difficult. And normally goalkeepers have to defend the goal as the first and foremost thing. But now in beach soccer, from where it was and where it's going, the goalkeepers are very, very involved in the attack.”

It’s the constant involvement, the 'keeper-as-footballer that makes the game rounded for Toth, a world away from the “long eagle” image of Vladimir Nabokov. There isn’t much opportunity to be tortured by thoughts when the ball is rotating back and forth at such speed.

Certainly, the statistical data from the recent tournament in the Middle East and other analytics show that goalkeepers are the players with the most touches.

Beach soccer isn’t as popular in America as it is in Europe and other continents at the moment. Shots on goal once every 30 seconds should theoretically draw in a U.S. market that craves the constant drama not always provided by the established game. Technically, the rules also test the mental as well as the physical limitations.

Toth reels off some of the rules: “The goalkeeper has four seconds on the ball (same as indoor football), whether it’s in your hands or at your feet.  You can pick the ball up off a back pass from your own team, but only one per possession. So, if you were to pass the ball back to me with your head, your foot, whatever, I could pick it up in the box. 

"But if I throw it back to you, and you kick it back to me again, I can no longer pick it up unless the other team touches it.” There’s other stuff, but it’s as breathless as the game.

The traditional trope of beach soccer is that it is some kind of fun escapade with a few Club Tropicana drinks and a party of players who are just waiting to show a ripped torso when the sun goes down. Nothing could be further from the truth. The training is intense and as professional as it could be.

The matches are three periods of 12 minutes each which may not sound a lot but are challenging on a viscous surface.

“I do a lot of high rep type drills because the game is very fatiguing. We weigh ourselves before and after the game. You come out afterwards losing five, six or seven pounds. It’s crazy. So my exercise is pretty intense. If I was with a goalie coach with one versus one, we would do 50 mins to an hour.”

Shots can also be unpredictable when bouncing up off the sand or coming from the air rather than the surface. The ball is slightly more padded than a normal version but can be as problematic as the Jabulani.

“A lot of the shots are from bicycle kicks. And the one thing I can tell you about the bicycle kick is when it comes from a spot right out of the air, that is the highest point of where they can get the ball at their foot. A lot of times you think the ball would go down but there's times when it just goes up and whips.” Now we know how Pepe Reina felt at the Stadium of Light in 2009

Toth spends the other half of the season playing the indoor format of the game. The Major Arena Soccer League is now getting to the business end of the season. The highest form of indoor competition is professionalised in the States and has a longer cycle than the sand dunes as it runs for six months. Toth currently plies his trade with the Tacoma Stars and has been named MASL goalkeeper of the year three times in a 16-year career.

“I fell in love with indoor, for two reasons. One was my dad's name. He was probably the best goalkeeper to ever play indoor back in the day when it was huge in the USA and secondly, the outdoor versus indoor goalkeeper comparative in terms of actions is different.” There’s no time to take a swig from the back of the net.

“The amount of shots that are coming your way is insane. I mean, in one game in indoor, I would say it's like somewhere between 13 to 16 saves per game whereas in outdoor it’s much less”. True enough. As I write, Toth has just pulled off 19 stops in a game against the brilliantly named Chihuahua Savage. He also received a blue card that takes the player off the field for ten minutes.

The analysts go into overdrive when a Premier League goalkeeper makes two or three worldies. Three custodians have reached a magic figure of 14 saves in an EPL match, David de Gea being the most memorable one in Manchester United’s game against Arsenal in 2017. As for World Cups, Toth remembers being inspired by Tim Howard’s heroic efforts against Belgium in 2014 too.

Nick Perera, a teammate and former coach of the Stars has called Toth the “most athletically and technically dominant goalkeeper I have ever seen.” It is a remarkable achievement.

How long can he play without slowing down? Annual checks on his heart are still a crucial part of life.

“I want to get into my 40s, maybe to 42 and then call it then. I'm 34 right now. So that would give me like six to eight more years. That would be pretty remarkable for somebody with the condition I have to do that. So that's probably my biggest goal. I also want to be on the team that gets out of the group stage for the World Cup on the beach.”

The Fallbrook graduate from California also wants to win another indoor Championship. His father won five. His son wants six. That is the competitive spirit that keeps the blood flowing.

When biology tried to stop the next netminder from branching out in the family tree, it hadn’t reckoned with the titanium mind of Toth. It’s an amazing legacy to leave. “What I try to do is get my story out there and show people I’ve had these difficulties in my life with my heart. I say don't lose hope in achieving what you want to do and from what you want in life.”

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