Beach Handball at the Olympics? (Part 1):  Understanding the Math behind a Terse IHF Memo

IOC President Thomas Bach andIHF President Dr Moustafa in 2015 at a Beach Handball demonstration near IOC HQ. Beach Handball could be a welcome addition to the Olympic, but at what cost to the traditional, indoor court game?

All of the drama was removed from the IOC meeting last week in Lima, Peru, as it had been pretty much already decided to award the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games to Paris and LA, respectively.  On social media and at the Handball-World site I was surprised and a bit puzzled, though, to see discussion regarding a decision by the IOC to add Beach Handball to the 2024 Olympic Sports Program.  Puzzled, because I could find nothing anywhere in multiple online media sites regarding a possible IOC decision for the dozens of other sports that would also like inclusion in the Olympics.

So, when the IOC did discuss the 2024 Olympic Sports Program it was with very little fanfare that they simply announced that the 28 core sports approved for 2020 were also approved for 2024 and that additional sports and sporting disciplines for 2024 would be decided in the 2019-2020 time frame.  First, the Paris Organizing Committee will propose their Sports Program and then the IOC will review and approve it.  So Beach Handball could still possibly be included, but so could a number of other sports.

Following the IOC meeting, the IHF released a short memo highlighting this, but also tersely stated the following:

“Furthermore, in case beach handball should become an Olympic sport at some point, the IHF will not tolerate any reduction of the indoor handball quota at the Olympics as was stated in the media.”

What’s behind this statement? And, what does it mean for the likelihood of Beach Handball ever being added to the Olympics?

Sports, Disciplines and Events

To answer this question it’s important to first understand the definition of sport, discipline and event when it comes to the Olympic movement as they are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably.  For context, there are “sports” like Handball, Volleyball, Aquatics and Athletics.  And, then underneath those sports are “disciplines” which are distinct sub-sports that fall under the umbrella of the “sport”.  Aquatics, for example, has swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and water polo all under its umbrella.  Some sports like athletics and field hockey have just one discipline.  But, sports can also add disciplines like volleyball, which added beach volleyball to go along with the traditional indoor court game.  Finally, there are “events” which are competitions that result in a medal.  A sport can have very few events like handball, which simply awards a medal for Women’s and Men’s team competitions or it can have a lot of events like Athletics which has 47 medal events.  For more information, see this Wikipedia article: Link

Athlete Quotas and the Challenges of Hosting an Olympics

Secondly, it’s important to understand issues related to hosting the Summer Olympics.  In particular, the sheer size of it.  28 sports and around 10,500 athletes.  Venues for all those events and housing for all those athletes can be an enormous expense that only a few cities either want to or are capable of handling.  It’s also the most marquee sporting event in the world and every sport wants in and the opportunity to showcase itself on the world’s biggest stage.  The IOC recognizes this and that’s why they’ve put a cap on the total number of athlete participating at 10,500.

On the plus side, handball is already on the program.  It hasn’t had to fight its way in like baseball and rugby have.  Further, handball already has a pretty good sized contingent of athletes.  Currently, handball has 336 athletes (168 Men, 168 Women).  Or to put it another way, 12 Men’s and Women’s teams each with 14 athletes on the roster.

If beach handball were added to the program, though, about how many athletes would that entail?  Well, it depends on how many teams and the roster size of those teams.  Currently, the most commonly sized roster for international competition is 10 athletes.  So, if the beach competition was added with 12 Men’s and 12 Women’s teams that would mean adding another 240 athletes.  Combined with the 336 athletes for court handball that would push the total handball athlete contingent to 576.  Only Athletics (1900) and Aquatics (1410) would have more athletes.  Hey, I love the sport of handball, but I don’t think the rest of the sporting world and the IOC would be on board with that, because all those athlete slots would have to come from some other sport.

Reducing the numbers of teams and/or the roster size could reduce the number of athletes added for Beach Handball.  Perhaps the bare minimum would be 8 Men’s and 8 Women’s teams with roster sizes of 8 athletes.  That would add 128 athletes and raise the overall handball total to 464 athletes.  Such a plus up, though, would still give handball the 6th largest contingent behind Athletics, Aquatics, Cycling (528), Rowing (526) and Soccer (504).  Not as glaring, but still likely problematic.

More indicative of what might be accepted by the IOC would be a comparison of what volleyball and basketball plussed up when they added beach volleyball and 3 on 3 basketball respectively.  Beach Volleyball has 96 participants and 3 on 3 basketball has 64 athletes.  Both sports also top out at relatively lower numbers over all.  Volleyball at 384 and basketball at 352 athletes.

Slicing and Dicing to Get Two Disciplines

So, how could one solve this numbers problem if the IOC is not on board with a significant increase in the total number of athletes under the Handball “sport” umbrella? Well, it can only be solved by shuffling the numbers in the 2 “disciplines” under the said umbrella.  And, this would mean reducing the number of teams and/or the roster size of those disciplines.

Such a slice and dice combination could be done a number of different ways.  One possibility would be to reduce the Men’s and Women’s court tournament to 8 teams each with rosters of 13 athletes for a total of 208 athletes.  Then beach handball could also have Men’s and Women’s court tournaments with 8 teams each and rosters of 8 athletes for a total of 128 athletes.  And, that would result in an overall handball contingent of 336 athletes, the same that is allocated currently.

Such an allocation would be a “transfer” of athletes that would not require a reduction of athletes from any other sport.  There would still be some issues with the approval for a new venue, but one could envision simply expanding upon the already existing beach volleyball venue.  Regardless, there would be no cries from another sport that they are losing athletes, which is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to address.

Laying Down a Marker

So, that’s the math behind the IHF memo.  Loosely translated, the IHF memo essentially states,

“We like beach handball.  We’d love to see it in the Olympics.  But, only if absolutely nothing is done to change the size and structure of the currently existing court handball Olympic tournaments.”

So, the cry isn’t from another Olympic “sport”.  The cry is from the other “discipline” within the same Olympic sport.

I guess Beach Handball could be added to the Olympic Sports Program with no reduction to Court Handball.  Maybe the IOC will approve a significant plus up to the overall handball contingent at the expense of some other sport on the Olympic Program.  Or maybe the IOC will shrug off its stated overall quota and let handball and other sports add more and more events to the Olympics.  Hey, it’s a big party.  What’s another 100 athletes here and another 200 there matter when an event already has 10,500 athletes?

Regardless, the IHF has laid down a marker stating their position.  It’s not clear, though, whether that’s merely the view of the current IHF President or a position that has been vetted by the IHF Executive Committee or Congress.  Further, one might cynically ask why the IHF has been aggressively promoting the inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics if it hadn’t fully considered the possible repercussions doing so might have on the traditional court game.

At least one nation, Germany, is expressing its view that the IHF should perform an evaluation on the two sporting disciplines so that strategic decisions can be made going forward.  Not surprisingly, from my automatic translation of the German Federation posting, German President, Andreas Michelmann, appears to support in principle not sacrificing any court slots for beach handball, but would still like a full review of the matter.

And, for good reason.  Regardless, as to one’s own personal feelings are concerning both disciplines this is a potentially a big opportunity for the sport that deserves further review. In part 2, I’ll do my own top level review and take a look at some of the pros and cons as it relates to the possible inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics.

Handball Makes ESPN Sports Center Top 10:  13 Hours Later: A Million Views, 140,000 likes and 2,600 Comments; Here’s One More Commentary

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet gets over a million views for his spectacular goal vs Metalurg

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet had quite the goal yesterday vs Metalurg in their opening match of the 2017-18 EHF Champions League campaign.  The EHF posted a video highlight of the goal and it was promptly reposted by ESPN’s Sports Center Instagram account.

13 hours later the video highlight had been viewed over a million times, liked 140,000 times and had received 2,600 comments.

From time to time I’ve written a few commentaries about handball’s very limited exposure in the U.S. and how increasing that exposure via TV isn’t just something that would be kind of nice to have, but that it is very most critical need for the sport in this country. I know I’m just “some guy” with opinions, but my goodness could anything more demonstrably show how valid that opinion is?

A million views in just 13 hours! Peruse the comments and the broken record of “what is that?” and “why isn’t that played here in the U.S.?” that’s asked over and over and over.

Now sit back and reflect that this is just one highlight posted to an ESPN Instagram account.  It’s not even clear to me whether the highlight made the TV Sports Center.  At least it wasn’t in the Top Ten Plays on the broadcast I saw Saturday night.

Now just imagine if ESPN showed handball on TV or even just on their digital “Watch ESPN” platform.  As I wrote 5 years ago from that day forward just about every discussion about handball in the U.S. would be preceded with either, “Well, before handball was on ESPN” or “Well, since handball’s been on ESPN.”  I’m not kidding.  It would be a monumental game changer.  Such a development would make everything USA Team Handball might want to accomplish easier and more effective be it fundraising or youth club development or national team recruiting.

And, before you “pooh pooh” such talk as simply wishful thinking look back at this post back in 2012 when arguably ESPN’s most prominent personality, Scott Van Pelt, wore a USA Team Handball shirt (that he had to make on his own) during the Olympics.  He and others had discovered the new sport, and perhaps with the right facilitation maybe a deal could have been brokered for U.S. broadcasts on some TV network.  Maybe, I wouldn’t be having this whimsical could of, would of, should of discussion.

It took a couple of years, but handball did land on a network in the U.S.  Unfortunately, though, it was beIN Sports US, which has very limited distribution and doesn’t promote the sport effectively.  I highlighted my frustration with beIN Sports, the EHF, USA Team Handball and other entities (including myself) in this commentary in 2015.

Two years later, things are actually worse as beIN Sports now doesn’t even bother to show the EHF Champions League Match of the Week on TV.  Although, you can view it on its digital beIN Sports Connect platform.  If you can figure out what’s channel the match is on.  For yesterday’s match between Barcelona and Rhein-Neckar the online beIN Sports TV guide said Ch 8, but I eventually found it on Ch 9.  I even watched for a bit until in the 2nd half the transmission got so garbled I gave up and watched NFL football instead.  Sigh…

I always like to think that it’s always darkest before the dawn.  That this crazy situation where handball can’t even be seen in the U.S. is just a temporary situation that will pass.  That ESPN or perhaps the new NBC Olympic Channel will pick up some handball rights.  Or that the digital TV revolution will bypass TV altogether and handball will have its own Roku or Over The Top (OTT) viewing options.

With the 2028 Olympics in LA now a certainty one can only think that it’s just a matter of time before handball finds a home in the U.S. Sports scene.  That the opportunity to promote the sport effectively will be such a win-win for everyone involved with the sport that this frustrating situation will seem passé and quaint.  I’ve been saying that now for decades, but sooner or later, I’m going to be right.  Let’s hope for sooner.

Commentaries on Handball’s lack of exposure and the importance of TV broadcasts.

  • 2009 commentary on Rugby TV broadcasts in the U.S.: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary on how few people in the U.S. are fans of the sport: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding the Catch 22 TV paradox: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding Europe’s lack of engagement with the U.S. market: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding new European efforts to engage the U.S. market: Link

Side Note:  Back in 2013 I wrote an article on Diego Simonet’s debut with Montpellier and I speculated as to whether he might be the best Argentinian player ever.  I’ll go on record now that he is.  Sorry Eric Gull.  Question now, is whether he might be eventually recognized as the best player to come out of Pan America.  A much higher honor considering the number of Cubans that have made their mark.

2017-18 EHF Champions League Season: Odds and Predictions

Paris SG has the highest paid roster, but has yet to secure a Champions League Title. Is this their year?

The EHF Champions League gets underway today and without a doubt it provides the very best opportunity to watch top flight professional handball on a regular basis.  Fans in the U.S. can see most of the matches live and all the matches on a delayed basis at ehftv.com.  And, if you have beIN Sports you can catch the Match of the Week live on their digital platform beIN Sports Connect.

Last year I wrote a commentary highlighting that while the games are great to watch the format has a lot to be desired in terms of drama during the Group Phase.  This is because in Groups A and B (the top two groups) 6 of 8 teams advance to the Knockout Phase.  And, not only do too many teams advance, each of these groups also includes 2-3 clubs that are, on paper, substantially weaker.  It’s practically ordained that the top 5 clubs will advance in each group.

About the only drama, such as it is, is the jockeying for seeding position in the Round of 16.  1st place teams receive a bye to the quarterfinals while 2nd and 3rd place teams, in theory, have an easier matchup.  This leaves the 4th and 5th placed clubs with a challenging knockout pairing that could go either way.  Finally, there’s often a battle for 6th place and a shot at beating the 3rd place team in the other group.

As far as Groups C and D go, these clubs fight for the right for 2 spots in the knockout tournament where they get to take on the 2nd place clubs from Groups A and B.  For the most part they are comparable in terms of strength to the bottom clubs in Groups A and B.  But, there are exceptions and apparently some problems with the seeding formula.  In particular, the French League has gotten stronger recently and Nantes and Montpellier were both misplaced resulting in the 2nd place finishers in Groups A/B actually having tougher matchups than the 3rd place finishers.  This year Nantes has been given a slot in the upper groups, but Montpellier is still there looming as a likely tougher than deserved Round of 16 opponent.

Here’s how each of the Groups should play out based on the published odds at betbrain.com

Based on these odds, there’s a pretty big gap in quality between the top 6 and Zagreb and Kristianstad.  Zagreb recently signed Zarko Markovic, who’d been playing in Qatar, though, and might be able to crack its way into a Round of 16 slot.  At the upper end of the group, Barca and Vardar are expected to fight for the R16 bye, while R-N L will try to hold off Nantes and Szeged for 3rd.   I’m thinking Nantes is more than capable of doing so and with R-N L playing in the competitive Bundesliga they may be hard pressed to give 100% in all of the CL matches

According to these odds Paris is a heavy favorite to finish first and secure a bye.  While Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel will all jockey for positions 2-5.  This makes sense to me and overall Group B appears to be stronger than Group A.  This means that on paper, the top 5 sides of Group B will make the QF with the most competitive QF being their 5th place finisher being the favorite against Group A’s 4th place team (R-N L or Nantes)

Groups C and D should be pretty much a yawner with only Montpellier being seen as a serious threat to win an R16 matchup.

Round of 16 Predictions

I see no reason to buck the odds listed except in one case.  I’ll go with Zagreb over Wisla Plock in Group A.  In Group B I’ll predict the top 6 listed and for C&D I’ll go with Leon and Montpellier respectively.  I also am OK with the Group A and B favorites, Barca and Paris, winning their groups.

QF Predictions

Here the predictions are a bit fuzzier, but I’ll go with 5 teams from Group B (Paris, Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel) advancing and 3 teams from Group A (Barcelona, Vardar and R-N L).  Potential party crashers again will be those pesky French sides Nantes and Montpellier.

Final Four Predictions

For the Final Four it’s a real shot in the dark as it’s hard to project matchups and who’s playing well next spring.  But, I’ll pick Barcelona, Paris, Kielce and Flensburg.  And, as I’ve been saying for the past couple of years, it’s Paris’ turn.  I’m going to be right one of these years even if Omeyer’s time as an elite goalie is running short.

For the Record…

Last year my predictions about how things will materialize wasn’t exactly right.  Hungary’s Szeged surprised me and finished 3rd in Group Play ahead of Rhein-Neckar.  This gave Szeged an easier route to the QF vs Silkeborg and resulted in Rhein-Neckar losing to Kiel.  Further, Montpellier knocked out Kielce in the Round of 16.  That being said, I had said that if anyone was going to crash the party it would be Szeged and Nantes.  I should have added Montpellier to that list.

But, I will always have my 2013-14 preseason prediction where I nailed the Final Four and the eventual champion, Flensburg, Exactly.  It’s documented on youtube.  See for yourself at the 27:20 and the 30:25 mark.  I don’t care how many horrible predictions I’ve made over the years I’ll always have that.

Podcast: Team USA and Aulnay’s Julia Taylor (Part 2): Reflections on Different Training Environments

Julia Taylor’s handball development journey has seen stops in a collegiate program, an overseas residency, a U.S. based residency and now an overseas club. Arguably, no U.S. player has ever experienced it all quite like the way she has.

Julia Taylor’s handball development journey has seen stops in a collegiate program, an overseas residency, a U.S. based residency and now an overseas club.  Arguably, no U.S. player has ever experience it all like the way she has.

In part 2 of my interview with Julia Taylor we discuss the different training environments that we experienced as handball players.  Both Julia and I played in college, participated in a U.S. National Residency Program and played overseas.  Julia’s overseas club experience is at a much higher level and she also spent a semester at the Aarhus Academy in Denmark.

The different topics we tackle include

  • The lack of collegiate competition, particularly on the women’s side
  • Whether a residency program should focus on national team prep or preparing individual athletes for overseas opportunities
  • Division 1 athlete crossover recruitment and training
  • Challenges and rewards of playing with a European Club

Here are some links regarding some of the topics discussed:

Collegiate Handball Commentaries:
– Overview of College Handball Challenges: Link
Success at UNC and possible implementation steps to further develop the college game:Link

Foreign Based Residency Program
– Aarhus Academy Website: Link
– Aarhus Academy Podcast Interview: Link
– Commentary on European Based Residency Program: Link

U.S. Based Residency Program Commentaries
– Commentary on shifting to development: Link
– Recruiting Challenges: Link

This podcast episode was sponsored by Hummel.  Check out their Handball Portal for sales in the U.S. and Canada.

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

Podcast: Team USA and Aulnay’s Julia Taylor (Part 1)

Team USA and Aulnay’s Julia Taylor

Julia Taylor, has been playing handball in 2010 for the University of North Carolina.  She is now a Left Wing on the USA Women’s National Team and for the Aulnay Handball Club in France.  In Part 1 of my interview with Julia we discuss how she started playing handball and the career path that led to her playing in France.  We also discuss the different tournaments that the U.S. Women have played this year including this past Summer’s Pan American Championships and the recent friendly tournament played in South Korea.

Links
UNC Handball: Link
Aarhus Academy: Link
Aulnay Handball: Link 

This podcast episode was sponsored by Hummel.  Chectk out their Handball Portal for sales in the U.S. and Canada.

 

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

The Next Olympic Hopeful: NBC with a Reality Show on Cross-Over Athletes: Handball not Included

The 8 athletes selected for NBC’s Next Olympic Hopeful. Rugby 7s, Bobsled, Skeleton and Track Cycling were the chosen sports. (Handball Not Included… this time around)

As previously reported, NBC was considering the possibility of a handball based reality show that would see former athletes in other sports try handball with the hopes of making the U.S. National Team and eventually the Olympics.  Unfortunately, the handball reality show has been shelved for the time being, but NBC and the USOC have given some air time to a similar concept: a scouting combine focused on identifying athletes for Rugby 7s, Boblsed, Skeleton and Track Cycling.

I saw the 2 hour show this past weekend and a rebroadcast is scheduled for the NBC Sports Network on Tuesday night at 8:30 PM ET.  90 athletes were identified for participation through multiple channels to include a partnership with 24 Hour Fitness.  Over 3 days the USOC conducted a series of physical tests to measure raw athlete performance, as well as introduce athletes to the basics of the sports involved.  These tryouts/sporting combines appeared to be somewhat similar to what USA Team Handball periodically conducts at Auburn.

As entertainment, I found the show lacking, as it’s pretty hard to manufacture much drama out of such tests of speed, strength and endurance.  Old timers might find it nostalgic as it takes place at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, even if it’s hard to recognize the place.  About the only drama I found interesting were the end of the day conferences which featured coaches and representatives from each of the Sport NGBs discussing the athletes and in one instance trading a prospect from Rugby to Bobsled.  In the end 8 athletes were selected, 1 male and 1 female for each sport.

As to why handball wasn’t included, Mike Cavanaugh, the CEO of USA Team Handball indicated to me via email that just about every other NGB had asked the USOC the same question.  The USOC response was that they wanted to maximize the chance of success and that’s why the 4 sports, 3 of which are already medal producing were selected.  Indeed, one of the athletes chosen for Bobsled even has an outside chance for making the 2018 Olympic Team.

The good news is that the USOC is already planning for another edition in 2018. And, who knows, maybe the USOC and NBC will throw a bone to USA Team Handball and include Handball next time.  Interested hopefuls can apply here: Link

Summary of Results:  Korean Friendly Tournament

Kathy Darling and the U.S. Women had a solid performance at the Korean Friendly Tournament in Busan. Darling had 9 goals vs Danish Club Aalborg and was selected for the tournament all star team.

 

The USA Women recently participated in a friendly tournament hosted by South Korean Club, Busan BISCO.  Overall, they had a solid tournament, highlighted by two easy victories over Australia and Taiwan, as well as relatively competitive matches against Busan Bisco (S. Korea), Erd (Hungary) and EH Aalborg (Denmark).

USA Results

19 August Busan BISCO (S. Korea) 32, USA 19
Scoring: Jence Rhodes 5, Kathy Darling 4, Nicole Andersen 4, Liz Hartnett 2, Ashley Van Ryn 2, Shani Levinkind 1, Zoe Baird 1
Video: Link

20 August Erd (Hungary) 26, USA 17
Scoring: Kathy Darling 3, Nicole Andersen 3, Ashley Van Ryn 3, Jence Rhodes 2, Liz Hartnett 2, Ashley Butler 2, Zoe Baird 1, Lisa Dunn 1,
Video: Link

21 August EH Aalborg 23, USA 19 Video: Link
Scoring: Kathy Darling 9, Nicole Andersen 2, Sarah Gascon 2, Jence Rhodes 2, Julia Taylor 2, Zoe Baird 1, Shani Levinkind 1,
Video: Link

22 August USA 27, Australia 9
Video: Link

23 August USA 23, Taiwan 13
Video: Link

Note: If the video links don’t work for you, you may want to try different platforms and/or web browsers.  I couldn’t get them to work on my Chromebook for some reason, but had no problem with my Microsoft desktop.

Final Tournament Standings

 

Analysis

I’ve had an opportunity to view parts of all 5 matches, but I’ve focused primarily on the first 3 matches vs the club teams.  For the most part in those 3 matches the U.S. played pretty good defense.  Things got out of hand a bit while playing BISCO, but that was often due to fast break opportunities.  Sophie Fasold had an outstanding tournament with several saves helping to keep the U.S. in contact with its opposition.

The highlight, in my opinion, was their performance against Erd, the eventual tournament winner and 3rd best pro team in Hungary.  I wouldn’t classify them as an elite club team, but right below the highest tier with a few players on their roster also playing for their National Teams in Europe.  While the outcome of the match was never in doubt, the U.S. stayed within striking distance most of the match.  Yes, a moral victory, but a significant one if you compare it to the uncompetitive matches the U.S. played this past January against French Club sides with less pedigree than Erd.

This surprising performance had me thinking that they could beat EH Aalborg, which is an average team in Denmark’s 2nd Division.  Unlike Erd, the Danish club team features several young players and could be classified as mostly semi-professional.  Unfortunately, the U.S. did not have a particularly strong performance with turnovers and inconsistent play, losing 23-19.

Overall, I would assess this tournament as an improvement over their efforts this past June at the Pan American Championship.  In my opinion, if they had played this well in June they could have well secured 3rd place and World Championship Qualification.

Looking Ahead

The U.S. Women have no important qualification events until December, 2018 at the earliest.  At which point there will be several events related to Olympic and World Championship qualification.  Olympic qualification will start with PANAM Games Qualification, which will likely be 2 to 3 matches vs Canada and assuming that goes well the PANAM Games in late July/early August.  World Championship qualification should with a North American & Caribbean (NORCA) Championship in the spring followed by the Pan American Championships in June.

In the intervening time, I suspect the USA Women will try to play some friendly matches vs Puerto Rico and other Caribbean teams as well as a training camp in Europe.  This lean time could be problematic as a lack of residency program athletes and infrequent competition could see player skills atrophy.  I personally would like to see some players that have developed stateside head to Europe for more frequent and better competition.  Additionally, the U.S. can’t afford to lose any players as there is no real depth at any position.

I’ll have more to say on the current player pool and residency program recruiting in the coming weeks.

USA Women Participating in Friendly International Tourney in South Korea

Busan International Friendly Tournament: USA Women to take on 3 club teams and 2 national team sides.

The USA Women are in Busan, South Korea where they are 1 of 6 teams participating in an International Friendly Tournament.  Korean club teams are sponsored by companies and the Busan Infrastructure Corporation (BISCO) sponsors a club team that plays in Korea’s top league.  Other teams participating including ERD HC from Hungary, EH Aalborg from Denmark and the national teams from Taiwan and Australia.

Based on pedigree ERD and hosts BISCO should be the two top teams.  ERD HC placed 3rd in Hungary’s top league and qualified for the EHF Cup (Europe’s 2nd level competition below the Champions League).  EH Aalborg finished 7th last season in Denmark’s 2nd Division and should be a notch below those 2 teams.  As these clubs are professional or semi-professional they will likely present stiff competition for the U.S.

The two other national teams participating, Taiwan and Australia, however, should be teams the U.S. can match up with as neither side has performed particularly well recently in International competition.  Taiwan’s most recent Asian Championships appearance was in 2012 where they placed 7th out of 12 participants.  I’m not very familiar with Taiwan handball and it’s not clear as to why they haven’t participated since then.

Australia has been the dominant team in Oceania and regularly qualified for the World Championships until their automatic slot was eliminated in 2015.  That being said, they never won a match at the World Championships and often lost the 23rd place match to the weakest Pan American side participating.

The tournament is scheduled to take place over 5 days and will be a full round robin with 3 matches played daily.

USA Match Schedule (Korea is 13 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time)

Saturday, 19 Aug 1700 (Local) / 0400 ET USA vs Busan BISCO (South Korea)
Sunday, 20 Aug 1500 (Local) / 0200 ET USA vs ERD HC (Hungary)
Monday, 21 Aug 1300 (Local) / 0001 ET USA vs EH Aalborg (Denmark)
Tuesday, 22 Aug 1300 (Local) / 0001 ET USA vs Australia
Wednesday, 23 Aug 1400 (Local) / 0100 ET USA vs Taiwan

2017 Pan American Championships Review (Part 2): The Best Performance in Years- A Sign of Progress or More of the Same?

Which projected trend line makes more sense for the USA Women?

In Part 1, I provided a summary of the results, questioned some coaching decision and highlighted the average age of the women’s team.  In Part 2, I take a look at what this recent result portends for the future.

The Best Performance in Years.  The Beginning of an Upward Trajectory?

The 5th place finish at the 2017 Pan American Championships was the best performance since the women finished 4th in 2003.  In those intervening 14 years the results can only be described as disappointing with several “Did Not Qualifies” or near the basement finishes.

If we simply plot out these results one could possibly surmise that after 3.5 years of Residency Program training at Auburn the hard work is starting to pay off.  That things are looking up for Team USA and that if we were just to add a couple of more quality players we could soon challenge Argentina and Brazil for Pan American titles.

A Better Performance than 2015 (How Did that Happen?)

For sure the 2017 performance and final placement was way better than 2015’s 10th place flame out.  But, if you’ve been following the Women’s program it should have you scratching your head a bit as to how that happened.  Here’s why:

  • It’s essentially the same team, just a couple of years older. 10 players returned from the 2015 roster and while the U.S. added Nicole Andersen as a scoring threat they were missing Karoline Borg (2015’s leading scorer) due to injury.
  • Many of the players have been training in subpar circumstances. The U.S. still has a residency program, but I’ll diplomatically state that it hasn’t been very “robust” for the past 2 years.   Many players, and even the coach, departed Auburn in 2015, leaving just a handful of players to train in less than ideal circumstances.  Best I can tell the women’s roster featured only 4 players who had been training at Auburn, 4 U.S. based players that weren’t practicing regularly at all, 6 dual citizens and 1 stateside developed player practicing with a club team in France.  So, over half of the team wasn’t scrimmaging on a regular basis, let alone honing their play with regular competition.  And, I don’t care how hard you are working individually and in small groups, if you’re not playing 7 on 7 regularly you are not in a good training situation.
  • It continues a puzzling trend of better performances when the team isn’t practicing together on a regular basis. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the residency program model, but I still think it should work better than nothing.  Bizarrely, however, that hasn’t been the case.  When the program was in full swing in Cortland, NY the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2007 PANAM Games.  Then four years later without the benefit of a program the team managed to qualify for the 2011 PANAM Games.  And, most recently in 2015 with a solid year of training, competing and living together as a group the U.S. Women failed to qualify for the PANAM Games and placed a disappointing 10th at the Pan American Championships.  And, now with essentially the same team they have their best performance since 2003.  Huh? Go figure.  The available data points even suggest that a robust residency program is somehow detrimental to performance.

How did it happen?  Answer:  Too few data points and a whole lot of parity

I’ll take a stab at answering my own question.  Here’s why the results look a little backwards:

  • The USA Women haven’t played enough competitive matches to establish a definitive trend. In terms of official tournaments the USA Women are pretty much limited to World Championship qualification tournaments every two years and Olympic qualification events every 4 years.  Teams don’t always perform on the same even keel and they can have good tourney and bad tourneys.  And, if you don’t have enough data points it’s hard to know what’s a fluke (bad or good) and what’s to be expected.  Personally, I think that the 2015 performance was on the bottom end of the scale and that 2017 might have been average.  Those are just educated guesses, though, because there’s just not enough games.
  • Once you get past Brazil and Argentina there’s a whole lot of parity in Pan America. If one looks at the results from the past few Pan America Championships and throws away Brazil, Argentina and the Central American entrant you’ll notice that the match scores between those teams are remarkably close. That the gap between the 3rd best team and the 11th best team isn’t very great.   It’s possible in any one tournament that a team can exceed expectations (Paraguay this year) or fail to meet expectations (USA in 2015).  Generally the best team wins, but luck, injuries, matchups, group placement all factor into the actual result.  Because these teams are so closely matched it doesn’t take much to have wild swings in performance.  Maybe some side will emerge to challenge Argentina, but right now it appears that teams are just taking turns in WC qualification.

And, keep in mind that for the past several World Championships that the 3rd or 4th place team which joins Argentina, Brazil (and sometimes Cuba) at the World Championship has been consistently non-competitive.  Puerto Rico was thrashed by double digits in all of its matches except its surprising win over Kazakhstan.  Argentina’s only victories were over Congo and Puerto Rico.  Cuba could only manage a win over the Congo.  Going to a WC is a great opportunity and experience, but right now and for the past several years it’s basically been a participation award.

What does it mean going forward?

Back in 2015 after the U.S. women failed to qualify for the PANAM Games and placed 10th place at the Pan American Championship I wrote a commentary that it was time to reassess the future of the Women’s Program and look for a new coach and a new High Performance Manager.   Well, needless to say if there was any assessment done by USA Team Handball, it concluded everything was just fine and that staying the course was the best option going forward.  And, if that’s what was decided in 2015 with totally disastrous results one can only assume that with better results now 2 years later it’s unlikely there will be any changes this time around.

So, if past is prologue one can assume similar results going forward the next few years.  In 2015 several athletes left the Residency Program.  There have been periodic tryouts, but it has yet to repopulate the program there.  Best I can tell is that in the past 2 years the U.S. has added just one new stateside athlete to its player pool, 26 year old Maria Vallone.  That’s pretty dismal recruiting especially when one considers the publicity boost that the 2016 Olympic TV broadcasts should have provided.  And, while it’s always smart to take advantage of dual citizens competing in Europe, there’s only a small, finite number of such athletes available. Perhaps recruiting will start to pick up, but even if it does it’s hard to see any newcomers having a significant impact in time for the next series of qualification tournaments in 2019.

In terms of World Championship qualification the U.S. will get another crack at qualifying.  As discussed, if they play well they will have a shot at one of the 3 WC slots for Pan America.  For the Olympics there’s only one Pan American slot and that will go to the winner of the PANAM Games which will be staged in Lima, Peru.  Last time around the U.S. failed to qualify for the PANAM Games, losing a two game series to Uruguay. This time around the U.S. will play Canada and as they are an easier foe qualification for the final tournament is more likely, but by no means guaranteed.   And, of course, Brazil and to a much lesser extent Argentina will stand in the way of Olympic Qualification.

To sum up, not surprisingly, I pretty much see the U.S. Women getting similar results for the next couple of years.  We should qualify for the PANAM Games and with a bit of luck maybe we’ll see a WC qualification.  Hopefully, we’ll add a few more players that can contribute to the team for years to come.  I know such projections of mediocrity aren’t what people what to hear, but I just don’t see much right now to support a different conclusion.   And, as always, don’t interpret this to be a critique of the hard working, dedicated athletes making big sacrifices to represent the U.S. International competitions.  To a player they are all athletes that we can be proud of.

That sums up my review of the most recent qualification tournament.  In the coming weeks I’ll have a commentary that assesses the prospects for future Olympic qualification and whether a change in national team development strategy makes sense.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with a Reference to Team Handball on National TV/Radio:

Long Beach Arena: The planned venue for 2028 Olympic Handball

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti was interview on the Dan Patrick Radio Show yesterday and during the interview he referenced Team Handball
 
“If we just get over having 15,000 people watch team handball you can have 2-3 thousand in a great arena that probably exists in great cities and then you don’t have to build things.”
 
Essentially Mayor Garcetti was pointing out that big arenas are not really necessary for every sport. So, if cities aren’t expected to build so many arenas than more cities would sign up to bid. That being said, 2-3 thousand capacity, though, would under serve handball, even in the U.S.
 
Have no fear.  Handball is planned for the Long Beach Arena which has an 11,200 seat capacity for Ice Hockey and 13,600 for basketball.  For sure, not the fanciest arena in Southern California, but there should be plenty of seats available. More likely than not it will be one of the cheapest tickets available and should have decent crowds.  Many in attendance will be newcomers to the sport looking to attend an Olympic Event at a reasonable price.  This was the case in 1984 and to get a sense of that type of fan, watch actor Ty Burrell, the real estate agent father on Modern Family, talk about his family road trip to attend the Olympics when he was a kid.
 
Garcetti references handball around the 6 minute mark. Earlier in the interview he talks up funding for youth sports which he indicates will start be used next year.  Video: Link

Podcast: Americans Qualify for Olympic Handball for the First Time in Over 20 Years!***

American Samoa’s U17 Beach Handball Team: Headed to the Youth Olympic Games next summer in Argentina.

While this title sounds like epic news there are a few asterisks that have to be explained.  Still really great news, just not epic.

Asterisk #1:  The handball in question is “Beach Handball”
Asterisk #2:  The Olympics in question is the Youth Olympic Games
Asterisk #3:  The Americans in question are American Nationals from the U.S. Territory of American Samoa

Yes, the American Samoa Women’s U17 Beach Handball team has qualified for the Youth Olympic Games to be staged next summer in Argentina.  With only 55,000 inhabitants and, believe it or not, not enough sand on the islands to play beach handball properly, American Samoa was able to put together a team in a few short months to first win the Oceania championships and participate in the U17 Beach Handball Word Championships.  While they were beaten soundly by some of the game’s traditional powers they still qualified for the Youth Olympic Games by defeating Australia twice and thus securing the Oceania slot to the Youth Olympic Games.

To find out more about handball and beach handball in American Samoa I spoke with the U17 Women’s coach, Carl Sagapolutele Floor.  Carl fills me on the challenges of starting a handball program on a remote Pacific island, learning how to play beach handball without sand, and the road from no program to the Youth Olympic Games.

References:
Curt Flood (not to be confused with Carl Floor): Link
60 Minutes video on American Football in American Samoa: Link
American Samoa Handball Association Facebook Page:  Link

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

2017 Pan American Championships Review (Part 1): Women Bounce Back to Take 5th; but Did Coaching Decisions Cost the U.S. a Chance at World Championship Qualification?

2017 Pan American Championships (The Numbers)

Tournament Review

Heading into the tournament I assessed (as did probably anyone else who follows Pan American Handball) that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Brazil and Argentina would take 1st and 2nd in the tournament.  True to form, both sides dominated their groups and waltzed to the final where Brazil again showed their total dominance with a 38 – 20 pasting of Argentina in the gold medal game.  Brazil is simply in a class by itself with no other team posing a serious threat.  Argentina has also created some separation between itself and the rest of Pan America, but it is at least conceivable that they could lose to another team besides Brazil.

As far as the prediction that at least 6 other sides had a legitimate shot at taking 3rd place it wasn’t too far off the mark.  I figured that Uruguay and Puerto Rico were the strongest of the little 6, but it was Paraguay that seized the opportunity and qualified for the World Championships.

The USA Women had their best Pan American Championship placement since 2003, finishing 5th overall in the field of 10 teams.  The tournament started out poorly for the U.S. as they were first blitzed 42-10 by Brazil and then suffered a 29-25 goal loss to Puerto Rico.  They rebounded after an off day with a 31-17 victory against Colombia and then saw Paraguay beat Puerto Rico giving them a chance to qualify for the semifinals with their last Group Play game against Paraguay.  The U.S. needed a 5 goal victory to advance, but ended up battling from behind most of the game to an eventual 29-25 loss.

To the U.S. Women’s credit they didn’t hang their heads, but finished the tournament strong in consolation play.  They first had a relatively easy 27-20 win over Chile and then got some revenge against Puerto Rico (27-26) to finish up in 5th place.

The team had some solid individual performances.  Kathy Darling led the team in scoring with 30 goals.  It’s clear that playing in France has helped her understand how to best maximize her size and strength advantage.  Sarah Gascon played a key role on defense and as a utility player on offense.  Together, those 2 veterans continue to provide leadership for the team when some (myself included) would have figured they would have been retired from international play a few years ago.

Nicole Andersen, just 20 years old, added some very welcome scoring punch in the backcourt.  Jence Rhoads has developed into a solid center back and did a good job of distributing the ball.  Wings Julia Taylor and Zoe Lombard were reliable scorers on the wing and fast break.  Finally, Sophie Fasold had a good tournament in goal and her steady play helped keep the U.S. in contact with the opposition when the score might have gone further south.

All in all, this is a team that from all appearances stuck together through some tough situations.  No superstars, just some hard nosed women battling together and playing to the best of their abilities.  Coach Christian Latulippe deserves credit for bringing them together as a group despite just a couple of opportunities for the team to train together prior to the tournament.  And, for keeping them motivated to finish strong in consolation play.

Official Tournament Website: Link

 

Now here’s some further reflection on the Women’s Team performance and future. (Yeah, time for some analysis that’s less warm and fuzzy.)

The Importance of Goal Differential and Some Very Debatable Coaching Decisions

While finishing 5th is our best performance in years I can’t help but think that a semifinals berth and a chance to play for World Championship Qualification was well within reach for the taking.  It’s easy to sit back in the comfort of your own home and yell at the screen, but not so easy to make the actual decisions.  But, one thing I kept yelling over and over was:

“OMG.  Please stop playing with 7 offensive players and no goalie!  It’s not going to work… Can’t you see that it’s not working. Put your goalie back in.  Just stop it. Stop it.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I actually love the 7 player offensive strategy and the dynamic it has added to the game since being introduced last summer.  Why, I even wrote a nice ode to Belgium’s use of it against France.  With the right team and the right situation it’s a strategy that should be implemented more often than it is by risk adverse coaches.  It speeds up the game, creates more possessions and can help a team catch up quicker.

While it arguably may have been the right situation at times to implement, the USA Women, quite frankly just don’t have the right personnel.  They are too prone to turnovers on offense and they don’t have the team speed.  The USA Women, as currently constituted, play better when the game is at a slower pace and they can set up defensively.  Doesn’t mean they can’t fast break, just means that it needs to be done when the opportunity presents itself in a controlled manner.

The U.S. used this 7 vs 6 strategy towards the end of the Puerto Rico match and it resulted in a couple of empty net goals for Puerto Rico.  Maybe, it was a wash, but my assessment is that it didn’t really help the U.S. offense that much and it took away the opportunity for the U.S. to shut down Puerto Rico defensively.  In the end I think it cost the U.S. a few goals and turned a 1 or 2 goal loss into a 4 goal loss.  And, that 4 goal deficit would later have a huge impact in that it necessitated a 5 goal victory vs Paraguay instead of perhaps 2 or 3 goal margin.

In the Paraguay match the U.S. used the 7 player strategy pretty much the entire game.  I counted 3 empty net goals and 3 empty net misses (whew).  Again, I don’t think it helped that much on offense and that the strategy played right into the hands of the quicker and younger Paraguay team.  Further, the U.S. decided to defensively mark Paraguay’s Center Back most of the game.  This had the effect of the U.S. essentially playing 5 vs 5 handball defensively against Paraguay.  While Paraguay’s Center Back is a quality player it was pretty clear to me that the other 5 players were more than able to compensate for her absence.  This is because the smaller, quicker Paraguay team had more room along the 9 meter line to operate and score on breakthroughs.  Honestly, the hallmark for the women the past decade or so has been their solid 6-0 defense.  It’s a wall that hardly anyone in Pan America can shoot over and requires a lot of side to side movement for the offense to find holes that can be penetrated.  And, if you turn a 6-0 defense into a 5-0 defense those holes just get bigger.

Combined, the 7 player offensive strategy and the defensive marking really played up Paraguay’s strengths and the U.S. weaknesses.  Again, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but I would love to see the U.S. play Paraguay straight up and see what happens.  Unfortunately, we likely won’t get that opportunity for another 2 years.

USA vs Paraguay:  Video Link

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (A Very Important Number)

I’ve written on numerous occasions that for the past several years the U.S. Women’s teams have been populated with far too many athletes that are mismatched in terms of age and technical skills.  That essentially we have a developmental team that runs the risk of losing too many players due to “life issues” prior to them becoming world class athletes on a competitive national team.  Here’s a closer look at some of those age numbers.

  • U.S. Side Gets Younger (with the help of Dual Citizens). I’m pleased to report that the U.S. actually fielded a team with a younger roster (26.9) than it has had at the previous 2 Pan American Championships.  The caveat, however, is that this is due to the addition of some dual citizens.   Nicole Andersen (20) and Ashley Butler (19) not only bring that average down, they also have potential.  As with any player, they may or may not pan out in terms of further development, but time is on their side.
  • Our Comparative Rivals are Still Quite a Bit Younger. The average age of the Paraguay and Puerto Rico rosters were 22.8 and 23.4, respectively.  Again, who knows which players will pan out, but time is on our rivals’ side.  Brazil is around the same age, but their older players are also full time professionals.

So, that’s a top level overview.  In part 2, I’ll take a big picture view and assess whether this “better” performance can be interpreted as a sign of progress.

Can the USA Qualify for the Semifinals?  Yes, the Math Allows it, but Can the Team Meet the Challenge.

Team USA picks up their first win vs Colombia. A 5 goal win tomorrow vs Paraguay would let them sneak into the semifinals.

Earlier this evening Team USA got the exact results they were looking for.  First, they took care of business easily beating Colombia 31-17 to pick up their first win in the tournament.  The U.S. played their most complete game playing solid defense and scoring readily on the fast break.  Then afterwards, Paraguay handed Puerto Rico its first loss of the tournament to set up a possible 3 way tie on points for 2nd place in Group A.

Assuming Brazil beats Puerto Rico tomorrow, Puerto Rico will finish with 4 points.  And, if the U.S. can muster a win over Paraguay tomorrow, both Paraguay and the U.S. will also have 4 points.  And, those 3 teams in head to head competition will each have 2 points a piece with 1 win and 1 loss, meaning that tiebreakers will come into play.

Here’s the current standings.

Head to Head Standings (Current)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
Paraguay 1 0 0 2 4 28 24
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA 0 1 0 0 -4 25 29

First the simple math:  If Paraguay wins or draws with the U.S. it’s all over.  Paraguay takes 2nd place.

But, here’s the more complicated math and the possible scenarios.  Keep in mind Puerto Rico is done as far as this head to head competition goes since they’ve already played their matches against the U.S. and Paraguay.

The first tie breaker is head to head goal differential

USA wins by 5 (or more)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD
USA (Qualifies for SF) 1 1 0 2 1
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 -1
USA wins by 3 (or less)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD
Paraguay (Qualifies for SF) 1 1 0 2 1
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0
USA 1 1 0 2 -1

If, however, the USA were to win by 4 goals, there would be a tied Goal Differential, meaning the next tiebreaker, Total goals head to head would break the tie.

USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 29 (or more)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
USA (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 54 54
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 27 (or less)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
Puerto Rico (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA 1 1 0 2 0 52 52
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 0 51 51

And, finally, if the U.S. were to win by the score of 28-24, there would be a tie in total head to head goals

USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 28 (exactly)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
USA 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Paraguay (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 52 52

And, while you might think that Paraguay would drop out since they can’t match the 53 total goals, that’s not how the tiebreakers work.  Even if a tie is just between two teams the other teams don’t drop out, but continue to the next tie breaker which Goal Differential in all matches where Paraguay has a sizable lead.

Forget the Math Lesson, Can the USA win by 5 goals tomorrow?

Well, the answer to that question really depends on which USA team shows up tomorrow.  If it’s the team that got run out of the building by Brazil 42-10 the answer is clearly no way.  If it’s the team that was inconsistent against Puerto Rico, again, no chance.  But, if it’s the team that played solidly earlier today against Colombia, there’s a chance. Sure, Paraguay is a better side than Colombia, but the Paraguay team I saw today against Puerto Rico, while athletic is pretty young and inexperienced.  Their set offense is anything but fluid and a solid defense effort could fluster Paraguay and create some turnovers and fast break opportunities.  Create a little lead that could be expanded upon.  The U.S. has dug themselves in a bit of a whole, but it’s possible they could dig their way out.  Game time tomorrow is 1330 ET.