In Part 1, I highlighted how historically, in terms of Jr players graduating to Sr team contributions, USA Team Handball has had very limited returns. In Part 2 I look at why it might be different this time around and how sending dual citizens to Jr and Youth competitions can be considered a different kind of development.
Past Performance is no Guarantee of Continued Failure
Just because we’ve got little to show from past Youth and Jr National Teams doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to form teams for competition. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the future can’t have a different outcome.
Last November I had a podcast interview with Craig Rot regarding his efforts to build youth teams in Chicago. Craig has done some great development work there and has convinced a number of kids to practice and compete on a regular basis. They’ve played Illinois St, Chicago Inter and Milwaukee in a series of mini tournaments and have more than held their own against older and more experienced competition. Several of these athletes will be participating later this spring in the Pan American Youth (U19) and Jr (U21) team competitions. I can’t speak to their future Sr Team potential, but these current athletes are clearly more committed to the sport than most Youth and Jr team athletes that we’ve had in the past. Certainly, they’ve practiced and played more games together.
But, while these kids have clearly worked very hard and made significant progress we’re still talking about a very, very thin talent pool. It all depends on how you want to define who’s playing handball, but I’m guessing among the “very committed” were talking 2 or 3 dozen players at most. That’s better than zero, for sure, but we’ve got a long hard slog to get to the point where several hundred, let alone thousands of players are vying for 16 coveted slots. If the U.S. were to send a team composed entirely of U.S. based players we’d probably be lucky to even win a game at the upcoming Jr Championship in Paraguay and the Youth Championship in Chile.
But, the roster of the U.S. teams traveling down south won’t be populated entirely with players who’ve just been playing the game for a couple of years. No, the U.S. has effectively scoured Europe and identified pretty much every dual citizen handball player living there. And, more importantly convinced them to play for the U.S. and to even fork over their own money for transportation to competition. Why, one athlete even travelled all the way to Chicago to participate in the XPS Tourney games against Alberta. That’s an impressive recruiting pitch! Sort of like selling ice cubes to Eskimos. And, then the team captain called me out on Facebook for a perceived slight. Yeah, these guys are bonding as a team.
None of these players are full time professionals, but most are playing in quality competitions and they have the right mix of age and technical skills that could see them progress to the professional ranks. Take a look at the video footage of some of these players on this fundraising site and you’ll come to the conclusion that this is a pretty decent nucleus for a competitive team.
Assuming all these players show up for the upcoming Pan American competitions the U.S. has a solid chance to qualify for the World Championships. With the Jr program the U.S. could field an entire team of European based players. This might not be enough firepower to beat Brazil and Argentina, but I won’t be surprised at all if they take the 3rd ticket. The Youth team is not as European laden, but the challenge is less stiff with 5 tickets available for the Youth World Championships.
As I highlighted in my podcast interview with Craig and in this commentary post from 2011 I’ve got some mixed sentiment when it comes to dual citizens making a U.S. roster. To be clear for Sr teams, particularly for qualification events, there’s no mixed sentiment whatsoever. You’re there to win; Not to develop talent. Take the players that will provide the USA with the best chance to win. Period.
With Youth and Jr competitions, however, I’m more inclined to favor American based players as they are starved for meaningful competition. For an American based player an overseas trip could be very well be transformational in terms of their development and commitment to handball as a sport. With USA Team Handball’s limited budget, I’d have even a harder time justifying the expense of flying a European based player to the U.S. and then on to South America when that player is already training and competing in a superior environment. There’s just too many other needs in a cash strapped budget. My understanding, though, based on the social media funding sites, is that Federation funds aren’t being used, so if the players and their friends/family want to pay for their ventures, than who am I to complain?
Time to Start Planning for 2024 or even 2028
Further, one can make the case that it makes sense to start planning now for the real possibility of a 2024 LA Olympics. Seven years may seem like a lot of time, but the reality is that we are already behind the power curve if we want to put together a team that won’t embarrass, let alone be competitive. It’s not enough time to fully build up a grass roots program and I’ve got my doubts as to whether our residency program is chock full of great athletes who will be reaching their prime 7 years from now. In fact, in a hypothetical match between the U21 side and the Auburn Residency Program I would make the U21 team a solid favorite. Maybe the Residency Program has some great new recruits, but the U21 Team clearly has the advantage in terms of training and match experience.
And, if that’s an accurate assessment of our current talent pool than you can make a solid case to start expending funds on athletes that could very well form the nucleus of our 2024 Olympic Team. Get them used to playing together as a team and have them experience what it’s like to head down to Latin America for competition. Such experience might even set those athletes up for a realistic opportunity on down the line to qualify for a Sr World Championships.
A Different Kind of Development
Essentially, this would require looking at development similarly to the way a European Federation looks at development. European Federations aren’t primarily looking at Youth and Jr National Teams as an opportunity to further develop the handball skills of promising young talent. I’m sure some of those skills do get sharpened a bit, but there’s simply not enough time for skills training. That’s primarily left to club coaches. National Team Coaches have to focus more on team preparation related to bringing together a bunch of players that don’t train together regularly. For these European sides, the “development” is the opportunity to evaluate promising players in terms of their prospects for the Sr National Team. For the opportunity to assess their skills and attitude in a National Team setting. To find out if a player that might dominate at the club level can also figure out what it’s like to be a role player on a team of stars.
While this perspective unquestionably makes sense for European nations and probably Brazil and Argentina in Pan-America I’m not so sure the U.S. is ready to go that route yet. There are only so many passport carrying, handball playing young Americans training in Europe and we might have just had a lucky confluence of quality players conveniently grouping their births together. A golden generation (by American standards) if you will.
And, we just don’t have enough programs in the U.S. like the one Craig Rot has set up in Barrington, Illinois. Such efforts (traditional development if you will) take time to grow. We’re nowhere near the numbers we need for a healthy sized talent pool. A pool so deep that clubs can expect that only 1 or maybe 2 of their star players will get invited to a national team tryout. Let alone make the team at the tryout.
Answering the Question: Waste of Time?
Well, in terms of return on investment the jury is out. Certainly the Federation could establish a few key metrics like Jrs that have moved on to the Sr Team. One huge possible metric could be how many become future Olympians. If the 2024 Olympics are in LA I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the players taking part in the upcoming competitions find their way to the 2024 Olympics. That alone means this trip is not an exercise in futility.
That being said, the question then becomes is it the best use of limited funds. Here, the answer isn’t so clear cut. With a really thin talent pool, I would argue that it would probably be better to first look at establishing and supporting programs that would broaden the talent pool of athletes that are under the age of 21. But, then again the U21 team looks like a team with real potential and perhaps warrants greater support so that is a question without a clear cut answer.
And, while right now this is an argument about how to spend funding that does not exist that could very well change with sponsorship support tied to being an Olympic host hopefully coming in to Federation coffers. Regardless, I’m sure folks will be watching these upcoming trips to South America to see what the future might hold for Team USA.