USA vs. Puerto Rico Series:  Men’s Results and Analysis:  A Developmental Side (for the Most Part) Showing Some Signs of Progress

A bright spot for the U.S. Men's Team:  E.J. Udu-Udoma is developing into a decent left wing.

A bright spot for the U.S. Men’s Team: E.J. Udu-Udoma is developing into a decent left wing.

The USA Men’s and Women’s National Teams played a 3 game series against Puerto Rico from 17-19 October, 2014. Here’s a top level assessment of the Men’s Team performance and the state of the Residency Program as it nears its one year anniversary.

The Results

Friday 17 October
USA – PUR 24-24 (11-11)Goals – USA: Pickett (7), Inahara & Morgan (6), Mustafa (3), Udo-Udoma & Howes (1)

Saturday, 18 October
USA-PUR 24-23 (12-12)
Goals – USA: Morgan (6), Udo-Udoma (5), Pickett (5), Inahara (4), Howes (1), Recker (1), Dyke (1), Mustafa (1)

Sunday, 19 October
PUR-USA 29-24  (14-9)
Goals – USA: Morgan (7), Inahara (6), Udo-Udoma (3), Recker (2), Pickett (1), Mustafa (1), Evans (1)

Extrapolating Team Progress

To provide some context to those results, here’s how Puerto Rico, the U.S. and Uruguay have performed in recent competitions.  (Uruguay is included since that’s whom the U.S. Men must beat next March just to qualify for the PANAM Games.)  And, it’s also important to note that prior performance is no guarantee of future performance.   Teams can improve or decline substantially and rosters often vary quite a bit from competition to competition..

2011 PANAM Games
Puerto Rico: Did not Qualify (Finished 4th in Central American and Caribbean Qualifier)
USA: Finished 7th of 8 teams
Uruguay: Did Not Qualify (Finished 2nd to USA on Goal Differential in 2nd Chance Tourney Qualifier) Head to Head Result:  USA-URU 23-23 Draw

2012 Pan American Championships
Puerto Rico: Did not participate in qualification
USA: Finished 7th out of 9 teams
Uruguay: Finished 4th out of 9 teams  (No head to head match up with USA)

2013 Caribbean Cup
Puerto Rico: Finished 3rd out of 5 teams and qualified for the Central American and Caribbean Games (Puerto Rico’s qualifier for the PANAM Games)

2014 Pan American Championships
Puerto Rico: Did not qualify (Finished 5th at North American and Caribbean Championships (February)) Head to Head Result:  Lost to USA 29-26
USA: 6th out of 8 teams
Uruguay: Finished 4th out of 8 teams; Head to Head result: Beat USA 27-23 (15-5 at halftime) Also of note:  Narrowly lost to Chile, 25-24 in Bronze medal game; Tournament was hosted by Uruguay

If there was any doubt, these results from the past 3 years should make it fairly clear that Puerto Rico is a step below the USA in terms of quality.  On the surface one might look at USA’s 29-26 victory over Puerto Rico this past February and conclude that the 1-1-1 results this past weekend on home soil as a sign of regression.  This, however, neglects the fact that USA was playing without arguably its 3 best court players, Adam El Zogby, Gary Hines and Martin Clemons Axelsson.  All 3 are experienced backcourt players who play professionally in Egypt, Germany and Norway, respectively.  While Puerto Rico hasn’t qualified for a Pan American Finals event in several years their 3 goal loss this past February to a stronger, more experienced U.S. team might have signalled real trouble for the U.S.  Instead the U.S. held its own despite playing with a pretty inexperienced backcourt.

The Visual Evidence

While the inexperienced U.S. side fared well, it was alas, Puerto Rico.  A team, the U.S. in the past would dispatch by 10 goals or more.  After viewing the matches my assessment is that neither the USA or Puerto Rican teams were technically sound and the play was pretty sloppy.  Plenty of silly turnovers and the defenses were pretty porous.  Going further, I would assess that aging USA Club Teams, NYAC and NYC would both have been beaten the team wearing USA jerseys this past weekend had they been the competition instead or Puerto Rico.  Although, after playing 2 matches I would given the edge to the younger USA team in the 3rd match.  Old legs have a mighty hard time getting up on the 3rd consecutive day.

Near Term Lens:  Focusing on the near term and in particular, a March 2015 showdown vs. Uruguay to determine the 8th and final spot for the PANAM Games there are a few positives to take away.  It would appear that the U.S. has developed a couple of wings that can contribute in Greg Inahara and Ebi Udo-Udoma.  They may not yet be the first options for those positions on the depth chart yet, but come March they could be.  At the goalie spot both Moritz and Goodreau show promise.  I’d still go with veteran Danny Cappareli, but that may change at some point.

On the downside, help in circle position and the backcourt won’t be coming anytime soon from the program in Auburn.  Circle play with the backs was pretty limited and this could be chalked up to inexperience at both positions.  Veteran, Jordan Fithian, has little to worry yet regarding his playing time.  Regarding backcourt play, Chris Morgan, was the only Auburn based player to make any significant contribution.  He led the team in scoring with 19 goals in the 3 matches played, but he’s still a couple of rungs below El Zogby and Hines in terms of ability. Good progress on display against Puerto Rico, but he’s got quite a ways to go before he can be effective against better competition. The shortcomings at backcourt are so pronounced that the U.S. brought in a 3 U.S. based players that are not training at Auburn to bolster the lineup.  Ethan Pickett, who lives in Chicago scored 13 goals and is also a work in progress.  Notably, what skills he does have were mostly the result of a year in Denmark at the Aarhus Academy.  Rounding out the backcourt was 38 year old, Shkumbin Mustafa  and 29 year old Lewis Howes.  Mustafa, who learned the game in Kosovo only scored 5 goals at center back, but played a big role in the organizing and setting up the other backcourts.  Howes helped shore up the defense and scored 2 goals.  It doesn’t take much analysis to quickly conclude that  if the U.S. had relied solely on Auburn based players the backcourt would have been woefully ineffective and the results of all 3 matches would have been ugly double digit losses for the U.S.  This is to be expected, though, as it has always been the most challenging for the U.S. to find good prospects to play backcourt.  And, then they are the hardest positions to learn and master.

All told, USA qualification for the 2015 PANAM Games will have little to do with the athletes training in Alabama.  Instead it will hinge on Hines, El Zogby and Axelsson and whether this trio of athletes can muster some consistent backcourt scoring punch and extract some revenge for Uruguay’s 27-23 victory over the U.S. this past summer.  And mind you, that’s just to qualify for the PANAM Games.  Truth be told, the U.S. doesn’t have the guns to realistically beat Argentina should they somehow make it to a pivotal match against them in the semifinals.

Long Term Lens:  Peering out further into the future (Post 2015 PANAM Games) and the picture is pretty murky.  Assessing how raw talent will pan out is never easy and even more difficult via internet streaming, but I for one didn’t see any knock your socks off talent on display.   Instead, I saw a bunch of hard working athletes taking advantage of an opportunity presented to them to wear their nation’s colors.  How many of those athletes will be around 5 years from now when the U.S. seeks qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games?  That’s a long ways out, but I suspect that natural attrition and hopefully, a constant stream of new recruits will mean that only a few of the players taking the floor this past weekend will still be around when the U.S. makes another run at qualification.

To sum up, after nearly a year in Auburn, the Men’s program has made some modest progress.  The players there have shown steady improvement, and a few players can now even be counted on to contribute to qualification matches next year.  The program does, however, still seem to be a little thin in terms of recruits.  I suspect it’s tough to conduct a full scrimmage at Auburn without bringing in a few newbies at Auburn to fill out the sides.  This surely limits the quality of the practices and I can’t help but contemplate how some of the Auburn based athletes would probably be better off if they were based in Europe playing regularly in club competitions.   Goodreau and Moritz, in particular, would undoubtedly be better off with more time in goal under game conditions.  But, then if they left, who would play goalie at Auburn?  Inahara, Udo-Udoma and Morgan, in my opinion would also be excellent candidates for a program like the Aarhus Academy.   To it’s credit the Residency Program has developed their game to the point where a move to Europe can be contemplated.  The question is now, whether that will happen or not.  Or whether, they will remain at Auburn, reach a certain skill level and plateau out.

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