In Part 1 I addressed the basic question as to whether Residency Programs were a good strategy for our National Teams. I concluded that if the programs were focused on developing younger athletes it could be a good thing, but if the program had too many athletes in the tail end of their careers it was a highly questionable strategy. This installment, however, sets aside that conclusion and assumes that Residency Programs are definitely the way to go. Instead, the question under consideration is simply, does it make sense to start these programs now?
Why don’t we already have Residency Programs in place?
To assess whether now is the right time to start Residency Programs it makes sense to first explore why we haven’t had programs for several years. In fact, the last time the U.S. had a full-fledged residency program was 1996. Following that Olympics, USA Team Handball’s budget dropped precipitously. There simply was no way that Residency Programs could be maintained at the same level they had been maintained in Colorado Springs or Atlanta, so it was discontinued. Later in 2004 a residency program was established for the women’s team in Cortland, NY, but it was an austere setup that was only a shadow of earlier programs and it closed down in 2007.
In 2008, a new federation was certified by the USOC and with substantial seed money being contributed by its primary backer, Dieter Esch one of the first questions I asked him and the newly installed General Manager, Steve Pastorino was whether they had any plans to restart Residency Programs and hire full time coaches. The answer then and in subsequent years was always along the lines of “No plans at this point in time; Maybe on down the road.” And, as we all know, “on down the road,” never materialized during the Esch-Pastorino era. My informed speculation is that it was never started due to three primary reasons:
- Olympic Qualification considerations: It was assessed that qualifying for the 2012 Olympics was highly unlikely.
- Financial considerations: There simply wasn’t enough funding to establish a credible program and it was decided that resources would be better focused on grass roots efforts.
- Planning considerations: There were tentative plans for Residency Programs contingent on Chicago being selected as the host city for the 2016 Olympics. When that didn’t materialize there was no backup plan readily in place.
In hindsight, those reasons actually appear to have been pretty valid for the most part. The U.S. didn’t come close to qualifying so there’s little to suggest that a Residency Program for either the Men or Women would have put them over the top. Funding could certainly have been diverted from some grass roots effort, but it still would have been a pretty austere setup that would have probably looked a lot like the Cortland program. Finally, while Chicago didn’t get the Olympics the positive opportunities of setting up shop in a host city surely merited the decision to wait and see what would happen.
But, that was the decision 4 years ago. Let’s take a look at each of these three considerations now in the context of the Federations decision to pull the trigger on residency programs.
Olympic Qualification Considerations
While Residency Programs aren’t necessarily established solely with the intent of Olympic Qualification it nevertheless is something that factors into the equation. How much so is open for debate, but the Federation’s own words stating that the program is aimed at 2016 Olympic Qualifications suggest that it’s the major reason for the program. If this emphasis is true, that carries lot of implications in terms of the program’s structure and how quickly it will need to move from a developmental program to one more focused on winning now or at least very soon. Time is of the essence as the next PANAM Games, the most likely path for Olympic qualification are now less than 2.5 years away (July, 10-25, 2015). Depending on the qualification format that means Team USA could be playing in qualification matches as early as December, 2014. Here’s a quick look at the prospects for both the Men and the Women.
U.S. Men Prospects: Can they beat Argentina?
Based on recent national team performances there is a lot to be done if the U.S. is going to be a serious contender for Olympic qualification. The Men finished 7th out of 8 teams at the 2011 PANAM Games and lost 36-19 to Argentina, the Pan American qualifier. This past June they faced Argentina again and lost 33-13 on their way to finishing 7th out of 9th at 2012 Pan American Championships. With better training and more opportunities to play together the U.S. would have done better, but it’s hard to see them making up 20 goals without some quality additions to the roster.
In theory, those quality additions could be new crossover athletes from other sports that would get their training through a Residency Program. The best case scenario I can envision is the Men’s Residency Program starting up this fall and having a half dozen players developing rapidly in to raw, but decent handball players. Those players would then mix with the more experienced players playing in Europe to field a team at the summer 2014 Pan American Championships that still isn’t strong enough to beat Brazil and Argentina, but can upset Chile for 3rd place and qualification for the World Championships. That same team would then parlay that World Championship experience in Jan 2015 to field a team on top of its game by July 2015. I still think it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. would be good enough to beat both Brazil and Argentina, but with Brazil already qualified as Olympic host, it’s possible the U.S. could play Argentina in a semi-final match that decides the Pan American qualifier. And in a one match scenario it is at least possible to envision a big upset.
But, let’s keep in mind this all assumes quite a bit. For starters, with Argentina having several of their top players playing in top leagues in Europe they are likely to improve as a team. Chile, likewise and don’t forget that Canada will have the home court advantage. Not to mention the wildcard of a Cuban entry. No, the reality is that even making the semifinals at this point in time is less than a 50-50 proposition. And then actually beating Argentina? Anything is possible 2.5 years out, but it’s hard not to look at it as anything but a long shot (perhaps 20-1) at this point in time.
U.S. Women: Can they emerge as the best of the also rans?
The performance of the U.S. Women in recent years at first suggests there is no hope whatsoever for qualification. They didn’t even qualify for the 2009 or 2011 Pan American Championships and while they squeaked into the 2011 PANAM Games they finished 8th out 8 teams, including a total defeat by the eventual champion Brazil, 50-10.
Sometimes, however, it’s not how good you are, but who you’re playing against. Beating Brazil in 2.5 years is a near impossibility, but Brazil’s hosting of the Olympics throws them out of the equation. At the same time Argentina which has been the consistent #2 has conveniently regressed back to the pack of the also rans. While they’ve been able to hold on to second place in the past two competitions they’ve been trounced by Brazil and have had to fight off teams like the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the semifinals. So if one uses the following logic from the PANAM Games results: Argentina beat the Dominican Republic 19-18 and the Dominican Republic beat the U.S. 33-26 then the U.S. only has to get around 8 goals better.
While such logic if often faulty it does suggest that an improved women’s team would have a decent chance of qualifying. But, before we get our hopes up too much let’s keep in mind that all of the also-ran teams have been beating the U.S. in recent competition and it would be foolhardy to assume that they won’t also improve with an Olympic bid on the line.
As I see it the best case scenario for the women is significantly different from the men. In particular, I would assess that they don’t need just a few new players, but instead could use a significant roster overhaul. This assessment is based on the results of the past few years and what appears to be several players in the player pool who are older and unlikely to improve significantly in another 2.5 years. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion and it will better to just take a look at the results at next month’s North American qualifier in Mexico and at the 2013 Pan American Championships this summer in the Dominican Republic. In particular, these two events should paint a pretty good picture of where the U.S. stands among the also rans.
And if a roster overhaul is seen as necessary this is where a full-fledged Residency Program with some top notch cross over athletes could make a difference. Comparing different eras can be a shaky proposition, but I think if the U.S. brought in some raw talent similar to what they brought into the program in the 80s and 90s, they could assemble a team in two years time that is capable of taking 2nd place in Toronto. Certainly, there’s little doubt in my mind that the U.S. Women’s team from 88, 92, or 96 would take 2nd if they could magically time travel to participate in the event.
It wouldn’t be easy, though, with just two years to work with. The U.S. would need to do some phenomenal recruiting and it would require sufficient funding so that it was a full-fledged program. A program that could entice the right athletes to commit and provide them a training environment in which they could improve quickly.
So, if one looks at Residency Programs primarily with a focus on 2016 Olympic Qualification prospects it appears that it will do little to enhance the Men’s teams prospects, but could, in theory, give the Women’s team a chance to qualify. But, is the U.S. currently capable of establishing and supporting full-fledged Residency Programs? Or, can all we expect at this point in time is an austere setup that can’t quite do the job? In the next part of this series, I’ll look at the funding considerations inherent in managing Residency Programs and try to answer those questions. Part 3