Youth National Handball Teams: A Waste of Time? Part 2: Looking at “Development” from a Sr Team Planning Perspective

Could the USA Men’s Jr Team side beat the Residency Program athletes currently training at Auburn? Based on the European club experience many on that Jr Team roster have I’m thinking the answer is yes and probably pretty easily. Why this Jr team’s roster has me looking at development from a different perspective.

Could the USA Men’s Jr Team side beat the Residency Program athletes currently training at Auburn? Based on the European club experience many on that Jr Team roster have I’m thinking the answer is yes and probably pretty easily. Why this Jr team’s roster has me looking at development from a different perspective.

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.

Mixed Sentiment

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.

Youth National Handball Teams: A Waste of Time? Part 1: The Perilous Problem of Projecting Future Talent

Canyon Barry’s top claim to fame is his emulation of his father’s underhand free throw shooting style. Somewhere further down the claim to fame list is that he is perhaps the most famous American ever to try out for USA Team Handball.

Canyon Barry’s top claim to fame is his emulation of his father’s underhand free throw shooting style. Somewhere further down the claim to fame list is that he is perhaps the most famous American ever to try out for USA Team Handball.

As March Madness (the end of season knockout tourney for college basketball for those not living in the States) gears up the local paper here in Colorado Springs has a short feature article on a local product with some very strong genetics.  Canyon Barry is the son, Rick Barry, of one of the top 50 NBA players all time and his mother Lynn was an All-American in college.  Despite the genes and 3 half brothers that played in the NBA he was lightly recruited out of high school and played his first 3 years at a smaller school, the College of Charleston, before moving to Florida for his last year of eligibility.  The article highlights how his parents wary of the pressure having famous parents might bring didn’t push him to basketball and actually encouraged him to try other sports…  like team handball.

Indeed, back in 2009, Canyon Barry, tried out for an U18 team that USA Team Handball was putting together for a trip to Germany.  Just 15 years old and according to the newspaper article, only 5’11’’ and 98 lbs, I’m thinking he didn’t make a huge impression at the time.  Eight years later, he’s now 6’6’’ and 215 lbs and would surely be a player that could work his way on to a USA handball roster.  Problem is, though, is that he has a professional basketball career if he wants one.  Maybe not the NBA, as his dad thinks, but one in Europe.  Most likely he will bounce around for a couple of years in the NBA Developmental League and then get a shot at the NBA.  And, if that falls through he could head to Europe or pursue other ventures.  He had a 4.0 GPA undergrad and is now studying nuclear engineering so he’s got options.  Perhaps, he could eventually be enticed to pursue handball with the prospect of a 2024 Olympics in Los Angeles.  Possible, but more likely I suspect as he would be in his mid to late 20s he will decide to pursue other goals.

Projecting Future Talent: A Futile Task?

In reading this article about the tryout from 2009 I was struck at how comments projecting a bright future for the U.S. then are so similar to comments I’ve read more recently regarding the latest youth and junior teams that are gearing up for competition later this spring.  In hindsight, there’s little validity to the 2009 comments.  It looks like there were some quality athletes and from this report it appears they were competitive against the German club sides.  But, the reality is that out of the 28 athletes that made the trip only a handful still wear a U.S. uniform.  Of that men’s team, not a single athlete is listed in the player’s pool and I suspect most haven’t played handball in several years.  On the women’s side a handful of players remain.  Abou Zeida Farida has been at Auburn for the past few years, but has seen only limited action in national team competition.  Sophie Fasold, a dual German/American citizen continues to play club handball in Germany and for the USA.  Several other players played for a few years and contributed to successful PANAM Games qualification in 2011, but have since left the program for a number of reasons.  Most notably, Taylor Proctor, after a successful collegiate career at the Univ of San Francisco was highlighted last year as a potential returnee to the U.S. program.  For the time being, though, she has opted for a professional basketball career in Sweden.

Analytically, if one wants to focus on how national youth and junior teams have led to improved U.S. senior national team performance you’ll be hard pressed to find much historical data backing up such a claim.  And, this is true for a number of reasons.

  • A very, very small talent pool. It depends on how you want to define “the talent pool” but, rest assured, it’s a really low number.  Tryouts for these teams have often been simply about showing up.  Or, showing up with a willingness to pay for your own travel.
  • A talent pool that is not handball focused as their primary sport. Not only is the talent pool really small in most cases the athletes at these ages are just checking out this handball sport as an opportunity.  As soon as the trip is done it’s back to their primary sport.
  • The “too good” athlete. This might seem crazy to a European, but athletes like Proctor and Barry are problematic.  They’ve had good basketball careers and can make a living playing the sport if they so choose to.  Whereas, if they had been just a bit more mediocre they might be looking at playing handball right now or even a bit sooner.  Instead, if they do play again it might be in their mid to late 20s.  Where, I would project that they could become good enough to play for the USA at a 2024 LA Olympics, but not good/young enough to merit playing handball professionally.
  • Natural attrition. Regardless of the unique challenges handball must overcome, all sports have a significant number of athletes that don’t make the jump from Jr to Sr level representation.  In some respects the Jr competition serves as the testing ground to identify the future stars.  In other respects, it just points out to the challenge in projecting future talent.

All of these factors have contributed to a very modest return on investment in terms of future Sr Team contributions.  Olympian wise it’s surely a really small number.  I’m not sure about the Women, but I think Denny Fercho (96) might be the only male athlete to play as a Jr and Sr.  We didn’t compete in those events very often in the 70s, 80s and 90s, though, so that factors in.  But, even if one looks at any Sr National team athlete who’s played for the U.S. I’m guessing the percentage of prior Jr participation is around 10% or less.

But, just because we’ve got little to show from past Youth and Jr National Teams doesn’t mean future outcomes couldn’t be different.  In Part 2, I will look at the current Youth and Jr teams gearing up for Pan American competition and how they may be different from the past.

 

Kielce and John Denver’s Legacy Pick up Wins on Sunday

Fans in Kielce, Poland celebrate their impending victory with waving scarves and a rousing chorus of

Fans in Kielce, Poland celebrate their impending victory with waving scarves and a rousing chorus of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” John Denver is surely looking down with a big grin.

A while back I was flipping through channels and the local public station was airing a documentary on singer/songwriter, John Denver.  I thought that I would watch a couple of minutes, but I ended up watching the whole show.  And, in doing so I came to the conclusion that say what you want about the smiling musician with the saccharine music, but he had a crazy number of hit singles in the 1970s.  Belittled by many in his heyday, his music still lives on and sometimes can be heard in the most unlikely places.

Like Kielce, Poland, yesterday as the crowd celebrated a hard fought victory against Champions League foe Szeged with a rousing chorus of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  You can see and hear for yourself on ehfTV.com at the 1:23 minute mark of the on demand video.  Wouldn’t surprise me if not a soul in the crowd there has ever set foot in West Virginia, yet you can hear them singing it loud and proud as if it were a West Virginia University football game.  Not that it’s a requirement.  Supposedly, John Denver had never set foot in the state prior to the song being released.  I’ll even admit to doing a solo rendition a time or two when I’d left the pavement for the final stretch of gravel road towards the farm where I grew up in Iowa.

Truth be told, I’m frequently bemused at the American songs that are played in handball arenas around the world.  From the Notre Dame fight song in Kiel, to Sweet Caroline at the European Championship to Country Roads in Kielce.  The U.S. may not make much noise on any actual handball court, but our pop culture can still be heard over the arena sound systems where handball is being played.  Who knows what I’ll hear next…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but that success occurred when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil. Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher? Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil.
Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher?
Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

 

This is part of a series of commentaries which seeks to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.  In the last segment I used some personal experience to illustrate how a professional athlete can make short work of an amateur.  While relevant this experience still doesn’t tell the whole story because it happened nearly 24 years ago when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”.  The reality is that the pros now populating the world’s best national teams today are better athletes, better trained and even better equipped.  In other words, amateurs stand no chance whatsoever.

I’ve briefly highlighted on a number of occasions that the game of handball is more “professionalized” today, but I‘ve never offered a full explanation as to why this so.  I think most folks who’ve been around awhile and follow today’s game will acknowledge this.  But, it’s a little more complicated to come up with data that supports this notion.  It’s a simple truism that it’s pretty challenging to compare different eras.  Tactics change, rules change, training regimens change, the overall talent pool changes, etc., etc.  All those changes can make it pretty difficult to compare the teams of today to the teams of yesteryear.

Add in the biases one might have for either the good old days or the modern era and it can get even more complicated, heck maybe impossible for any definitive analysis.

A Basketball – Handball Comparison

All those caveats aside, what has transpired at the professional club and international team levels in the sport of basketball the past 40 years or so provides by proxy a window as to how handball has changed as well.

Let me be upfront:  It’s not a perfect comparison.  The sports have a number of similarities, but also some significant differences.  Still, if one were to compare major and even not so major team sports you’ll be hard pressed to find any 2 other sports with so many similarities.  Both are indoor court games that are generally played by tall and physical athletes.  The pacing of the games are also similar with an offense to defense transition and fast breaks.

In Europe, the sports are very similarly organized at the club and professional level.  In some countries basketball reigns supreme (Italy and Spain). In other countries handball takes precedence (Scandinavia).  And, in some (France, Germany) the sports have similar popularity.  We could argue about what metrics to use to determine primacy, but that’s not the point for this article.  No, my point here is to simply point out how the organization and structure for the two sports is remarkably similar in Europe.

Outside of Europe, though, there is no parity between the two sports. And, in the U.S. the difference in popularity, structure and organization is dramatic.  Basketball in the U.S. has a level of popularity and organization that approaches soccer in Europe.  While handball is mostly an unknown sport in the U.S.  The difference could not be greater.

Historical U.S. Basketball Performance

And, because basketball is treated in the U.S. roughly the way the rest of the world treats soccer, the U.S. has had unparalleled success on the world stage. Arguably, no nation has dominated a team sport the way the U.S. has dominated the sport of basketball.  There are some reasons for this.  For one, we invented the game.  Two, we place way more emphasis on the sport.   And, three, the USA is a huge country and when you couple that with the emphasis placed on the sport it creates an enormous talent pool of players.  The result is a slew of gold medals and a general consensus that anything other than first for an American team at the Olympics is a failure.  Why, even an embarrassment.

And, for sure there’s been some embarrassment over the years.  Here’s a condensed history of USA Basketball at the Olympics.

1936 – 1984 Olympics:  U.S. takes Gold medal at every Olympics except 1972 (controversial loss to the Soviet Union) and in 1980 (U.S. boycotted) U.S. teams consisted of college athletes, age 22 or younger, who would first come together as a team for the very first time a few weeks before the Olympics.  Why we could have sent 10 teams and probably taken spots 1 to 10, especially early on.

1988 Olympics: Soviets beat U.S. in semifinal.  Fair and square this time.

1992 – 2000 Olympics: U.S. starts sending NBA athletes to the Olympics.  Take that rest of world.  You might be able to beat a bunch of college kids, but you’ve got zero chance against our pros.

2004 Olympics: Team USA loses 3 games on the way to a bronze medal.

2008 – 2016 Olympics:  3 straight gold medals. USA Basketball revamps its national team planning.  More effort is placed on ensuring top pros and key role players participate.  Gone are the days of the U.S. team convening a few weeks before the Olympics.  Summer training camps are conducted each year and rosters now have a level of continuity.

Of course, this is just Olympic basketball history.  That’s all we Americans really care about anyway when it comes to International basketball.  But, the U.S. has been sending teams to the Basketball World Championships every time it’s been played since 1950.   Never pros until recently and at times USA basketball just sent whatever players they could find.  Check out this link for a history of the eclectic teams that were sent over the years:  Link

Trivia Question Answers and Why this is all Relevant to Handball

Now back to the photo.  The 1978 team was composed mostly of, Athletes in Action, a team of former college athletes that used basketball as a platform for Christian Ministry.  “Mostly composed” as the lone holdout was future 1984 Handball Olympian, Tom Schneeberger.  Scheeberger is one of USA Handball’s all-time greats, easily one of the top ten players to ever wear a USA uniform.  Also, an outstanding college basketball player at Air Force where he was a two time MVP and is 11th on the all-time scoring list: Link

This 1978 team was able to place 5th in the tournament, which was better than the worst ever ranking by a USA Team at the 2002 Men’s World Championships in Indiana.  That team featured an NBA roster, but lacked stars and could finish no better than 6th.   What the heck happened in those 24 intervening years?

So, here’s the answer and a parallel comparison with handball.

With, basketball, the U.S. could for many years win Olympic Gold with its best college athletes and could field a top 5 World Championship team with some decent former college players that weren’t good enough for the NBA.

With handball (in roughly the same time period), the U.S. could field respectable teams with athletes similar to the ones used to field those World Championship basketball teams.  (Or in the case of Schneeberger, the actual same athlete)  The Handball National Teams that were put together with only a few years of training in a sport that was entirely brand new to them.   Despite this enormous handicap solid teams were put together. Teams good enough to even take top European sides down to the wire at the 1984 Olympics.

From the context of today, some might ask how that was even possible.  Here are some top level reasons why the U.S. achieved a measure of respectability:

  • With few options outside of the U.S. Professional leagues (e.g. NBA) a sizable talent pool of athletes was available to choose from. In terms of raw physical ability the U.S. was rarely outmatched and often had an advantage.
  • Many of the athletes on the U.S. teams had played college sports which although amateur were more organized and professional than many club sports in Europe. Handball was new to these athletes, but they were experienced athletes used to playing on the big stage.
  • The residency programs while not perfect provided a quality training program where athletes could progress rather quickly.

But, the “good times” didn’t continue to roll for either USA Basketball or USA Team Handball.  With basketball, the wakeup call was the embarrassing 2002 WC on home soil.  USA Basketball learned they could just send any pros with little preparation.  It took 6 years to right the ship and since the 2008 Olympics the U.S. hasn’t lost an international match since.

Today, the U.S. is clearly on top of the basketball world again, but the domination isn’t as overwhelming as it used to be.  What happened? Well, in simple terms the rest of the world caught up.  The U.S. can no longer just put any 5 players on the court and expect to win.  Coaching, training, tactics, player skills, and the level of play in European pro leagues have all improved.  The U.S. still has the edge with its enormous talent pool, but the gap is not so huge anymore.  And, the number of foreigners now playing in the NBA is a stark indicator of that reality.

And, why is this all relevant to USA Team Handball?  Well, just as European basketball has improved dramatically, European Handball has done the same.  Handball and basketball are different sports, but the organization, training and professionalism have all marched forward at roughly the same level.  Good pro sports teams learn about what works in other sports and apply it to their sports.  Club teams like Barcelona even are structured with multiple sport disciplines all under one roof.

There’s very little doubt in my mind that if you took the top 16 International teams of 2016 and had them face off against the top 16 International teams of 1984 that you would have a clean sweep 16-0 victory for the 2016 teams.  And, this is true for either basketball or handball.

USA Team Handball’s Slow Adaption to the Changing Reality

USA Team Handball has been slow to adapt to this changing reality.  Heck, it’s pretty clear to me that most key decision makers are unaware that the reality has changed.  That the competition isn’t about at the same level or maybe a bit better, but that is a whole lot better than it was before.

To a certain extent it’s understandable.  Since the 1996 Olympics funding for USA Team Handball has taken a dramatic nosedive.  And, with that drop in funding the U.S. could no longer afford to train athletes with a quality residency program.  The U.S. wasn’t able to recruit and train the same types of athletes and this has been assessed as the primary cause for our dip in performance.

For sure the drop in funding didn’t help, but that shortcoming has obscured many from fully recognizing the steady improvement in our competition.  Many think that the problem of uncompetitive national teams can be solved by bringing back a residency program.  And, that if we improve upon the residency program model we could even do better than has been done in the past.

This, however, is simply wishful thinking that does not recognize the improvement in our competition, both in Europe and in Pan America.  The gap that could at one time be overcome with a superior talent pool and quality training is now a chasm.  The reality is that even if we could properly fund a residency program it couldn’t create a national team that could beat the top teams of today any more than USA basketball could still win Olympic Gold with a bunch of college kids.

This concludes my assessment of the premise that we should use a residency program model because it got us the best results in the past.  In the next installment I switch gears to take a closer look at the platform a residency program can provide to build sponsorship and grass roots development.

Team Handball Reality TV Show in Development

HBO's Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps.  Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

HBO’s Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps. Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

The latest USA Team Handball Board of Director’s Meeting Minutes from December 12 of last year include a short paragraph regarding a reality TV show concept centered around team handball.  Below is the text of the minutes:

Reality Concept – Bob (Djokovich) reviewed his attached document which goes back 20 months when the organization was approached by directors about a Reality Show.  The goal is to find ex-Pro and D1 athletes who learn the sport, win the Pan Am Games and then go on to do well at the Olympics.  The directors contacted USATH again six months ago and NBC also approached us about a similar process.  Since Rio, we have connected the producers and have pitched to NBC Execs and have a soft go.  We are currently looking for sponsors with the goal of starting to shoot the show in the February/March timeframe.  They want to attend our current events.  The Board received the original slides, which now have been updated and capture more of the intent.  When IHF President, Hassan Moustafa was given a preview of the slide deck on the project, he wanted the directors to come to Paris to see the finals of the Men’s World Championships in late January in Paris at his expense.  We are moving cautiously to make this happen and the USOC is aware of this project.

An NBC Executive Producer did in fact attend the recent World Championships and efforts are ongoing to get formal NBC approval to proceed.  The timeline, however, has been moved back to starting this summer at the earliest.  And, as with most TV projects, a number of steps are involved between the development of a concept and it’s airing on TV.  But, make no mistake:  This is a real effort with a solid chance of eventually making it on TV.

Commentary:  I, for one, am skeptical as to whether this show could accomplish the stated goals of winning the PANAM Games and qualifying for the 2024 Olympics.  Brazil, in particular, would be a really tough foe to beat for a bunch of handball newbies, even if they are very athletically gifted.  That being said this reality show would surely be very entertaining to watch.  If they get some good athletes they might not be able to beat Brazil, but given some solid training for a month or two they could beat every club team in the U.S. and probably our current national team.  It would depend on the athletes participating and it would depend on how seriously they take their training.

Setting aside the practicality of the show’s premise the real story is the potential impact the show could have in terms of promotional value.  A television show about team handball in prime time on a major TV network!  We get excited every four years during the Olympics when handball is discovered by thousands of people on secondary TV channels at odd hours of the day.  This exposure would dwarf that Olympic exposure and if the show is a success ratings wise it could trigger a grass roots explosion.

Preview of the 2017 Handball WC Semifinals:  A French Coronation?

World Championships Final Four:  A French Coronation in Paris?

World Championships Final Four: A French Coronation in Paris?

The Perils of Prediction

Well, let’s just say the Round of 16 and quarterfinals did not go as I expected.  In particular, Denmark’s and Germany’s departure at the hands of Hungary and Qatar busted my bracket pretty badly.  Qatar relied heavily on Capote and Saric and got just enough support from their supporting cast to send and a disorganized German attack packing.  Hungary got Nagy back, but it was the Dane’s lackluster performance was more to blame for their departure.  Finally, Spain survived a scare from Brazil only to be done in by a more determined Croatian squad.  So, of my final 4 only France (no big surprise) has survived.

All told, if one looks at the opening odds it’s a surprising final four. Here are those odds for the 4 remaining teams to win the championship and finish in the top 3

France: 1 to 1; 1 to 5
Croatia: 12 to 1; 9 to 4
Slovenia: 30 to 1; 11 to 2
Norway: 40 to 1; 8 to 1

A French Coronation?

Now, here’s the updated odds to win it all:

France: 5 to 12
Croatia: 5.5 to 1
Slovenia: 12 to 1
Norway: 4.5 to 1

In simple terms, or if you prefer percentages (like the website fivethirtyeight.com calculates) France should win this tournament about 70% of the time.  So, France is clearly a pretty big favorite.  That being said, here’s a case for each of the other sides to knock out France.

Slovenia lacks star power, but plays very well collectively. The players know their roles and they don’t try to do too much individually.  Several of the players have either played or are currently playing professionally in France.  They know the French players, know that man for man the French are better, but they also know their limitations.  If Slovenia can keep France from running off one of their typical 5 goal scoring blitzes, Slovenia can win a close game in the closing minutes through smart play.  The key, though, will be keeping in contact and not letting the game get out of hand.

Norway, has been the biggest surprise of the tourney.  Aside from rising start, Sandor Sagosen (headed to Paris SG next season) it’s a collection of no-name players, most of whom play in the Danish league.  Peter Bruun at Stregspiller.com gives much of the credit for the team’s performance to their coach, Chrisitian Berge: Link.  I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.  Much like Slovenia, Norway plays very well together collectively.  I’m not sure if they have the star power, but I think they can beat Croatia.

Croatia’s chances I think begin and end with the play of Domagoj Duvnak.  The 28 year old Kiel Centerback is the key linchpin in the Croatian attack.  If he plays well, he can shepherd a Croatian side that’s a bit thin in depth and reportedly ailing.  If he plays outworldly maybe they can spring an upset against France in the final.

Could France Beat France?

Ultimately, I think the only team that can beat France, is France themselves.  Clearly they are the best team in the tournament.  None of the other teams can even begin to match their depth at each position.  But, then again France hasn’t been fully tested yet.  Their depth is not as great as it used to be and they’ve got a new coach.  If a game comes down to the wire it’s at least conceivable that the pressure of being the host and expectations could do them in.

Conceivable, but I would have bet on a team like Denmark or Germany as being the side capable of keeping the match close for such a possibility.  And, those sides got bounced in the Round of 16.  My thinking now is that France’s superiority will show its face early on in both the semi and final and result in less than exciting games to watch.  But, if my past predictions are any guide we could be looking at some significantly different outcomes. I guess that’s why games are played on the court, and not on paper.

Preview and Odds for the 2017 Men’s World Championship

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world's dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I'm predicting they'll come up short.

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world’s dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I’m predicting they’ll come up short.

The 2017 Men’s World Championships starts this Wednesday with hosts France taking on Brazil in the opening match.  Here is some analysis and odds courtesy of the online betting site bet365.com: Link 

Odds to win the championship and odds to finish in the top 3

The Usual Suspects  
France                  1/1         1/5
Denmark             4/1         13/20
Spain                    6.5/1      6/5
Germany              8/1         8/5
Croatia                 12/1       9/4

These 5 sides are strong contenders for the title.  As the host France is an even money favorite and at 1/5 to medal they are a virtual lock to make the semifinals.  France would likely be the favorite if the championships were being staged in another country, but it certainly wouldn’t be as overwhelming.  Personally, I think France is the most vulnerable they’ve been in years.  They still are the best side, but they aren’t as deep as they used to be and the old guard is starting to show signs of age.  Perhaps newer players like Mahe and Remili will step up, but that remains to be seen.  And, this side will be under pressure with new coaches (Dinart and Gille) and the expectation that nothing other than gold will suffice.  Denmark, with an Olympic Gold Medal in its possession has the confidence to know that they can beat France as do Spain and Germany.

The Other Guys
Slovenia               30/1       11/2
Norway                40/1       8/1
Qatar                    40/1       8/1
Sweden                40/1       8/1
Hungary               60/1       11/1
Poland                  60/1       11/1
Russia                   60/1       11/1
Iceland                 70/1       13/1

These 8 sides are solid picks to make the round of 16, but making it to the semifinals could probably be considered a solid accomplishment for these 8 teams.

The Outsiders
Brazil                    200/1     30/1
Egypt                    250/1     40/1
Macedonia          250/1     40/1
Argentina            500/1     100/1
Belarus                500/1     100/1
Tunisia                 500/1     100/1
Japan                    1000/1  200/1

These 7 sides will  be looking to make the round of 16.  Advancing to the quarters would hinge on a major upset.  Making the semifinals would be a major achievement.

The Out-Outsiders
Angola                  2000/1  500/1
Bahrain                2000/1  500/1
Chile                     2000/1  500/1
Saudi Arabia       2000/1  500/1

These 4 sides have probably already booked their transportation to Brest and the President’s Cup.

Here a closer look at the odds (in parentheses) to win each group and my prediction as to the Final Standings

Group A
1) France (1/10)
2) Norway (8/1)
3) Brazil (18/1)
4) Poland (25/1)
5) Russia (14/1)
6) Japan (100/1)

I think Brazil will surprise here, taking advantage of a new look Polish roster and an inconsistent Russian team.  They also played well at the Olympics and the past few World Championships.

Group B
1) Spain (2/9)
2) Slovenia (7/2)
3) Tunisia (30/1)
4) Macedonia (20/1)
5) Iceland (15/1)
6) Angola (100/1)

Wael Jallouz and Tunisia will take advantage of the home crowd.  Expect more than a few Tunisian and French citizens of Tunisian descent in attendance.  Jallouz has shown at Barca how he can take over a game.  Expect him to do just that against Macedonia and Iceland.   Iceland might raise a cup at the WC, but minus Aron Palmarsson it may well be the President’s Cup.

Group C
1) Germany (19/20)
2) Croatia (21/20)
3) Hungary (13/2)
4) Belarus (50/1)
5) Chile (300/1)
6) Saudi Arabia (300/1)

I think this Group will simply follow the oddsmaker’s ranking.  Germany’s hard nosed defense will prevail over Croatia and Hungary.  Chile has an outside shot at upsetting Belarus for a round of 16 opportunity.

Group D
1) Denmark (1/7)
2) Sweden (7/1)
3) Egypt (30/1)
4) Argentina (50/1)
5) Qatar (7/1)
6) Bahrain (300/1)

Can Qatar with one of the world’s best coaches and goalkeepers continue their successful runs in international competition?  No, not with their depleted roster of court players.  Egypt and Argentina will pip Qatar and send them to the President’s Cup.

Projecting the Semifinals and Champion

A lot of handball will be played over the next 10 days so predictions at this point are real hazardous.  Still I’ll go out on a limb and project that France will come up short in it’s quest for a 5th title.  Followers of this website will note that this is quite a departure for me as I have consistently picked France to win every title for the past 10 years or so.  Not that was exceedingly brave.  As I declared over and over, if you have the best GK (Omeyer), best court player (Karabatic) and best defender (Dinart) you should win.  Throw in Narcisse, Fernandez and Abalo as a supporting cast and it was an embarrassment of riches.  But, father time is starting to kick in.  Dinart is now coach, Omeyer is 40 and Karabatic at 32 is starting to seem more human on the court.  Why Hansen and Duvnjak might even be better now.  Maybe the new supporting cast will step up, but I’ve got my doubts.  Maybe the home court advantage will give the old guard one more title, but again I’ve got my doubts.

Right now I’ll project Germany giving coach Sigurdsson a parting gift victory over France in the semifinals and Denmark knocking off Spain in the other. Then Denmark topping Germany in the Final.

USA’s Nico Mukendi Training with Spain’s #2 Club, Naturhouse La Rioja

Team USA's, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi is currently training in Spain with the professional club, Naturhouse La Rioja.  Naturhouse La Rioja, located in Logrono, is currently in 3rd place in Spain’s top professional league, the Liga Asobal and for the past few years has been considered the #2 club in Spain, behind perennial powerhouse FC Barcelona. La Rioja is also in 2nd place in Group C of the Champions League (Group’s C/D are a notch below the elite pro squads in Groups A and B.)

Mukendi, age 23, is a native of Hillsborough, NJ and has been with the Residency Program in Auburn since it was established in 2013.  He was identified in 2012 after he broke the record on a performance test conducted by Athletic Standard.  Since joining the program he has participated in several junior and senior national team competitions.  A back court player, he will be practicing with La Rioja informally for 3 days to help assess his development as a player.

Commentary:  This is a great development for USA Team Handball and hopefully he is just the first in a steady stream of players heading to Europe to be evaluated by top clubs.  More importantly, he is one of the few athletes that have joined the Residency Program straight out of high school.  This is important as it takes several years of training to develop technical handball skills and pro clubs are less interested in further developing athletes in their mid to late 20s.  More athletes with his combination of age/athletic ability are needed if the Residency Programs are ever to be successful.

Marca.com article (in Spanish): Link

Athletic Standard video on Mukendi: Link

Commentary on Handball Training Academies in Europe:  Link  (This commentary from 2014 includes a fake news story about Mukendi signing a professional contract in Denmark.)

EHF Magazine Features Brazilians in the Champions League

Brazil's 22 year old plays right back for Poland's Wisla Plock. 1 of 5 Brazilians featured in EHF Inside the Game feature.

Brazil’s Jose Toledo plays right back for Poland’s Wisla Plock. 1 of 5 Brazilians featured in EHF Inside the Game feature.

The European Handball Federation (EHF) weekly highlights show includes an “Inside the Game” segment which often includes behind the scenes interviews with players and coaches.  This past week’s segment focused on Brazilian handball players in the Champions League.  Currently, there are 5 Brazilians playing for Champions League Clubs.  They are:

  • Gabriel Jung, Barcelona, Right Back, 19
    Haniel Langaro, La Riolla (Logrono), Left Back, 21
    Jose Toledo, Plock, Right Back, 22
    Rogerio Ferreira, Vardar, Circle Runner, 22
    Thiagos dos Santos, Szeged, Left Back, 27

The video feature can be seen here: Link

Commentary: Four of those players are age 22 or younger and are playing and practicing with some of the top clubs in the world.  This is a testament to the grass roots programs that Brazil has established if they can develop talent that top clubs are willing to sign and further develop as players.

It will be very challenging for the U.S. to take athletes that are older than those players, that have barely played handball before, train them in the U.S. where there is not quality competition, and then beat Brazil in an Olympic qualification match.   And, trust me, “challenging” is a diplomatic choice of words.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  In the most recently posted USA Team Handball Board Meeting minutes it is noted that U.S. Men’s coach Javier Garcia would like to see the players do 1-2 years in Auburn and then head to Europe for competition.  And, that players need to improve in quality in order to facilitate their integration in teams overseas.

For me, this was a sign of a potential change in focus for the residency program at Auburn, away from National Team preparation and more towards athlete development.  Perhaps, not to dissimilar from my commentary two years ago suggesting that the national team residency program at Auburn be rebranded and as a development academy focused on younger athletes with greater potential.  The sooner we can get such a pipeline to Europe going the better our chances will be of competing against the likes of Brazil and Argentina.  Who knows?  Maybe, one day in the not too distant future we’ll see an “Inside the Game” feature on up and coming Americans playing on Champions League Clubs.

 

Trump’s Victory and its Impact on Handball in the U.S.

makehandballgreatagain

How will the trump victory impact USA Team Handball?

I could be wrong, but I would guess that the somewhat insular Donald Trump is not familiar with the sport of Team Handball.  Perhaps his Slovenian wife has educated him, but more than likely the only handball this native New Yorker is familiar with is the wall version more commonly known in the U.S.  One might think, therefore, that the Trump Presidency will have no impact whatsoever on the sport in the U.S.

But, that neglects taking into account the role that a U.S. President has indirectly or directly in the upcoming IOC host city selection for the 2024 Olympics.  And, should Los Angeles become the host city for the 2024 Olympics, make no mistake, that would be a huge deal for USA Team Handball.  For starters, the U.S. would automatically qualify both its men’s and women’s team.  Overnight this reality would improve recruiting dramatically.  Exposure for the sport would increase and sponsors that wouldn’t give USA Team Handball the time of day before would suddenly be interested in contributing to the sport’s bottom line.  Effortlessly, handball would get a nice little boost.  And with a smart strategic plan the Olympics could even be the catalyst that transforms handball from an unknown oddity to the next lacrosse or rugby.  This series of commentaries provides a broad outline of what that strategy might look like: Link

All well and good, but does a Trump Presidency help or hurt the U.S. chances?  Well conventional wisdom is that it has to hurt.  Donald Trump was able to surprise the pundits and the pollsters by energizing rural America to turn out in greater numbers than anyone expected.  The “coastal elites” were shocked with the result.  The IOC election, however, will hinge around the opinions of around 95 IOC Board Members.  A board that is top heavy with Europeans who probably can be considered to be a lot more coastal elite than salt of the Earth Midwesterner in their outlook.

But, that’s conventional wisdom.  A number of pundits like Olympics commentator, Alan Abrahamson, are more optimistic.  Here are some of the reasons supporting the notion that it doesn’t matter who the President is:

  • It doesn’t matter who’s in charge of a particular country and some pretty autocratic nations have won Olympic host city elections recently.
  • Obama was well liked, but the U.S was still humiliated when its 2016 Chicago bid lost in the first round of voting in 2009.
  • IOC electors know that the U.S. could very well even have another President in charge by the time 2024 rolls around.
  • France has its own Presidential election coming up and Marine Le Pen, if elected, might be even more unpalatable to an IOC voter.
  • Trump, if he does play an active role in the bid, is a better schmoozer than people give him credit for.

Still, I for one, have a hard believing that the reality of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States won’t be an overall net effect in the hearts and minds of IOC voters.  Certainly, I don’t see him working the room and changing votes come next September in Lima, Peru the way that Tony Blair did in 2005 for the London 2012 vote.

Betting Markets

Aside from punditry, there is also the betting markets where people can put money down on which city will win.  This site currently lists the odds as:

Paris .62 to 1
LA 2.25 to 1
Budapest 4.5 to1

So, Paris is a better than even money favorite and L.A. is a more than 2-1.  Since the election the odds have shifted a bit in the favor of Paris, but they aren’t much different than they were before the election.  And, strikingly these odds are quite similar to the U.S. Presidential election odds, which suggested that Trump would win 1 out of 3 times.  Maybe lightning will strike twice.  Let’s make handball great again.

 

Additional articles on LA’s prospects in light of the Trump victory:

LA Times: Link
Sports Illustrated: Link

 

France 38 – Belgium 37:  Huh? What?  How did that happen and what can be gleaned from that outcome?

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

ehfTV has a lot of matches available in its “on demand” bin and sometimes it takes me awhile to getting around to watching them. A couple of days ago I decided to check out the Belgium – France Euro 2018 qualification match.  I generally prefer to watch matches oblivious to the final outcome and I had avoided the final score of this match.  As if, it really mattered.  Belgium is one of the weaker teams in Europe.  Mostly amateurs and just qualifying for the Group Stage is a major achievement.  Meanwhile France has been consistently the best team in the world for the past 10 years or so.  I figured that I would watch a few minutes of this curiosity and then move along to the next match.  Well, that didn’t happen.  I kept waiting and waiting for a blowout that never happened. Why if Belgium hadn’t lost their team captain, Arber Qeremi, to a red card maybe they would have even won.  How did this happen and what can be gleaned?

The 7 Court Player Strategy for Huge Underdogs

Well, we’ve all seen the impact of the new rule allowing any court player to substitute for the goalie.  Most teams when down a man now empty the net and play with 6 on offense.  And, occasionally we’ve seen teams attack with 7 court players, but this was the first national team match where I’ve seen it pretty much used the entire game.  Most interestingly, it’s the first time I’ve also seen it implemented by an overmatched underdog.  And, Belgium player per player was clearly overmatched.  There’s no doubt in my mind that not a single Belgian player could make the French roster.  Heck, it’s doubtful that any Belgian player would make a roster depth chart that went 10 deep into the French national talent pool.

But, the 7 court player strategy evened out that lack in talent dramatically.  With the extra player Belgium was able to score consistently.  How else to explain 37 goals?  37!  And, they controlled the tempo and had France totally out of their game.  It’s a high reward, high risk strategy, but in this one game the rewards far outweighed the risks.

And, it’s surely a strategy to be duplicated (if, it hasn’t already) by overmatched squads everywhere.  What would Team USA have to lose against Brazil, for instance?  If you’re going to get scored upon anyway at the defensive end, you might as well dramatically increase your scoring percentage at the offensive end.  Sure, you might end up with an uglier score line than you would get with a more conventional game.  But, you also might take a good team down to the wire.

It will be very interesting to see how this tactic plays out in the years to come.  It’s surely to be tried again, but most likely top teams will be better prepared to punish this strategy.  Which leads to a big question mark regarding the French national team.

What’s Going on with France?

France’s inability to secure an easy victory against a team composed almost entirely of amateurs raises some big time questions.  Most notably, why wasn’t the team better prepared?  Why couldn’t the team adapt to the situation?  Here are a few possible answers to that question.

Answer #1) Coach Dinart and Coach Gille are not Ready for Prime Time

Let me go on the record and state what I think is a factual statement:  Didier Dinart is the greatest of all time defensive handball player.  In his prime, for sure, there can be no serious debate that anyone was better at clogging up offenses in the middle of the crease.  It doesn’t show up in a score sheet, but France’s success on the national level for a decade can be closely correlated to his presence.  Heck, to a large extent he created the position of defensive specialist.  Guillame Gille wasn’t quite the player that Dinart was, but he was a reliable mainstay in the backcourt for several years.

But, great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.  And Dinart and Gille have being given the reins to arguably the most historic national team dynasty without either having been a head coach before.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in my opinion.  Sure Dinart has been at Claude Onesta’s side for a couple of years, but that’s no substitute for striking out on your own at some club team and doing the day to day preparation and making the game time adjustments necessary to being a successful coach.  Additionally, and as a former defensive specialist myself I hate to say it, Dinart might well lack the expertise to make smart offensive adjustments.

I’m not sure how the French Federation came up with its succession plan, but I can guess that there’s a few head coaches in the LNH who’ve been plying their trade for years wondering why they didn’t get a shot.  Patrice Canayer of Montpellier certainly has a long track record.

Answer #2) Enough with the Co-Coaching Cop Out

Here’s a list of the great co-coaching duos from all major sports:  crickets, crickets, crickets.  There’s a reason for this:  It just doesn’t work.  There’s a reason virtually all teams have one head coach, businesses have one CEO and nations have one political leader.  You can have debate on the decisions to be made, but there can be only one decider.  And one person ultimately responsible for success or failure.  And, this person has to be clearly identified and given the authority to do their job.  France needs to pick one coach and go with it.

Answer #3) Maybe the New Additions to the Roster aren’t that Good

Finally, maybe the close game has more to do with the players, rather than the coaching.  France did a little experimenting with its roster mixing some newcomers with veterans.  Time was when it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot who was on the court as long as Karabatic was there to direct traffic and make everyone around him look better.  Heck, I’ve joked at times that I could be a decent left back on the French National team if Karabatic was at center.  Well, I think there are some cracks in this maxim.  Karabatic is still a great player, but at 32 he’s showing some signs of age and he’s not quite as unworldly as he has been in the past.  And, the new additions in the backcourt aren’t quite up to Jerome Fernandez and Daniel Narcisse quality.  Or even Accambray level for that matter.  Maybe they will be someday, but they’re not there yet.

Premature Obituary?

It’s usually a mistake to look at one match and to conclude that the house is on fire.  Still, a 38-37 win over Belgium for the defending world champs is a huge red flag.  For a decade or so, France has been the team to beat at every major tournament.  They’ll be hosting the World Championships in France in January, so surely they’ll be favorites again.  But, for once I’m not so sure that’s fully justified.

The EHF Champions League Group Stage:  Mostly Meaningless, but Still Entertaining

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”.  I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

ehfTV Commentator Tom O’Brannigain wrote an interesting commentary a while back taking issue with a German blogger Sascha Staat’s characterization of the Group Stage of the EHF Champions League as meaningless.  Staat’s commentary pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between placing 1st or 6th place, rendering many of the matches meaningless.  And, that this was particularly true for the German clubs that had to cope with the more competitive Bundesliga (HBL) while clubs like Barca and Kielce could coast along in their easy national leagues.

O’Brannigain, counterpoint was that it sure didn’t seem that way from his viewpoint watching the hotly contested matches.  He also pointed out that except for last season, the HBL has largely been dominated by Kiel.

Staat has followed up with a counterpoint which I largely agree with.  I hadn’t seen it, though until I was mostly finished with this commentary.  I’ll amplify some key points though as to why the matches are mostly meaningless, but still quite entertaining.

Round of 16 (if seeded after 5 rounds)

First off, as a reference point let’s take a look at what the Round of 16 matchups would be today after just 5 rounds of group play.  Below are the pairings and how the teams would be grouped for quarterfinal matches. (Barca and Kielce are in first place in Groups A and B respectively, so they would both get a bye to the Quarterfinals.)

Barca (A1) Bye
Szeged (B4) vs Flensburg (A5)

Kielce (B1) Bye
Veszprem (A4) vs Brest (B5)

Paris S-G (A2) vs the winner of Logrono (C1)/Besiktas (D2)
R-NL (B3) vs Bjerringbro (A6)

Vardar (B2) vs the winner of Nantes (D1)/Montpellier (C2)
Kiel (A3) vs Kristianstad (B6)

Taking a look at these pairings, I’ll say with around 95% confidence that the quarterfinals would be

Barca (A1) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) vs Veszprem (A4)
Paris S-G (A2) vs R-NL (B3)
Vardar (B2) vs Kiel (A3)

Honestly, I think the only 2 teams capable of crashing the quarterfinal party are Szeged and surprising Nantes.  But, even then it’s a long shot.  Of course, as Zagreb showed last year, anything can happen.  It’s just not likely, though, that an undermanned team will prevail in a 120 minute aggregate format.

While that’s the scenario for the current standings there’s sure to be some fluctuation over the course of the Group Stage.  Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that in Group A, there is a significant gap in quality between the top 5 (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg) and the bottom 3 (Bjerringbro, Plock and Schaffhausen).  At least I will be very surprised if any of those last 3 teams crack the top 5.

Group B is a little harder to read, and overall I think it is significantly weaker than Group A.  With this group I think the separation line is between the top 3 (Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) and the bottom 5 (Szeged, Brest, Kristianstad, Celje and Zagreb.  Maybe Szeged or Brest are above the line, but I’ve got my doubts.

With Groups C and D (also known as the little kids table) I think whoever gets matched up against the 2nd seed in Group B will have a puncher’s chance of making the quarterfinal, particularly if they play Vardar, but it’s still a longshot.

All told, shuffle the standings for the top 5 in Group A and the top 3 in Group B, however you want I’m betting those 8 teams (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem, Flensburg, Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) will make the quarter-finals.  But, unlike the round of 16 every single one of those quarterfinal clubs will have a realistic expectation of making the final four regardless of who their opponent is.  There won’t be a gimme matchup for any club.

So what’s the point of all this analysis?  Well Staat is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if you make 1st place or 6th place.  At least it matters, if you want a relatively easy round of 16 matchup.  If you’re a top team in Group A, you can be happy with 5th place, but you’ll want to avoid 6th place.  And, if you’re a top team in Group B, you’ll want to avoid dropping down to 4th place.  But, once you are firmly established in the top 5 of Group A or top 3 of Group B it doesn’t matter very much where you end up.  You’re going to get a Round of 16 match you should win and then you’re going to get a challenging quarterfinal.   But Staat has the right sentiment; Win, lose or draw doesn’t it matter a lot, as long as you don’t slip below the demarcation line.

Odds according to Nordic Bet

And, it’s not just me that’s come up with that analysis.  The oddsmakers also see a huge gap in quality as the odds of winning the title drop off dramatically after the top 8 teams.

Paris 2-1
Veszprem 3.4-1
Barca 4.5-1
Kielce 7-1
Kiel 7-1
Flensburg 11-1
R-NL 11-1
Vardar 12.5-1
Szeged 94-1
Plock 94-1
Brest, Celje, Zagreb, Nantes, Bjerringbro Silkeborg, Logrono, Holstebro, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen, Bucharest, Medvedi 249-1
Kristianstad, Metalurg, Elverum, Presov, Besiktas, Braga 749-1
Still Entertaining

But, I’ll give O’Brannigain his due regarding the competitiveness of the matches.  Despite the lack of meaning, so to speak, there’s been a lot of quality, entertaining handball being played.  Players are playing hard and they clearly want to win.  There’s even been a few surprise losses to the top 8 teams, but I still have a hard time believing that those top teams will slide below the demarcation lines in their groups.  For sure they won’t rest their best players in a CL match if that’s in danger of happening.

Other Formats to Consider

Staat also has a point regarding too many teams (6 of 8) reaching the knockout stages.  This all but ensures a team with a losing record will advance.  But, the old format with four teams qualifying wasn’t much better.  This is because the groups had more 2nd tier teams, again ensuring that a top team would reach the Round of 16 unless they suffered a total meltdown.  So, basically the only real difference in the format is that the group stages have more matchups between elite teams.  Overall, this is a good thing even if there aren’t any real consequences to these showdowns.

There’s no perfect format for a league, but in principle when the match outcome has significant consequences you’re going get a more compelling match.  This is why the knockout stages of the CL are so compelling.  And, it’s why the Group Stage matches are not.

If you want to make the Group Stages more compelling you will need to have fewer clubs advancing, but the EHF would also need to make the groups stronger top to bottom.  And, right now the only way to do that would be to add some more German Clubs, which wouldn’t make very many people happy.  The German clubs don’t want more challenging matches in the first place and here you would be adding even more German teams to the fray.  Scandinavia and other leagues are already not happy with the creation of Groups C and D and under this scenario they would be totally pushed out.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you really wanted to get radical you could make the knockout stages more compelling by having more matches of consequence between the elite clubs. Why just play two in the Quarterfinals?  Why not a best of 3 or best of 5 NBA format?  Or better yet skip the Final Four weekend and give handball the full NBA treatment:  play a best of 7 for the semis and finals.  That would be phenomenal!

But, I know that won’t be happening anytime soon due to the number of matches that would have to be played and for how it would mess up the domestic league schedules.  Still, I can dream, can’t I?

Flashback Friday: A look back at past USA Team Handball meetings and some optimism going forward

club-symposium

Yes, We’ve been here before… As USA Team Handball gears up for what has unintentionally become a quadrennial meeting to discuss the state of handball in the U.S. here’s a bit of history regarding the past two meetings. And, a bit of sunshine optimism going forward.

USA Team Handball is holding a Club Symposium next weekend “to share the vision and programs being planned and for clubs to know that they are the pillars of the organization and your input is most valued in this planning process.”

Meetings similar to this were held in 2008 and 2012.  In June 2008, Dieter Esch hosted a Team Handball Summit meeting in St Louis which was essentially an open forum opportunity to educate him and newly hired General Manager, Steve Pastorino on issues related to handball in the U.S.  I attended and here’s my summary of that meeting: Link

The meeting was a positive sharing of information and I was optimistic about the future.  Alas, 3.5 years later both Esch and Pastorino were gone: Link

Jeff Utz replaced Dieter Esch as Board President and Dave Gascon took the reins as the interim General Manager. Working with the USOC they held a Strategic Planning Meeting in April 2012.  This meeting included a professional facilitator and was designed to be the kick off for the development of a comprehensive strategic plan for the organization.  There was lots of good discussion at the meeting and in my podcast interview Jeff Utz discussed the major focus areas for follow on work: Financial Stability, “Pipeline” Athlete Development, Promotion/Marketing and Governance/Management Structure. (This podcast interview is available for download  at the top of this post) These areas were later expanded to the following committees:  Link

Again, I was optimistic about the future of the sport in this country as USA Team Handball was finally beginning to think strategically about its future.  But, as I’ve pointed out before this effort never continued.  The committees were not empowered to do anything and were simply told to submit their brainstorming ideas to the Board of Directors.  In 2013, most of the committees were quietly removed from the federation website as if the strategic planning meeting had never occurred.  (For some reason, promotion/marketing and fundraising are still identified even though the individuals listed haven’t been involved with the sport for a couple of years.) For sure, no strategic plan was ever written.  My overall thoughts are summed up here: Link

And, so now we come to 2016 with a new meeting and new opportunities to move the sport forward in this country.  I know I come off as a real pessimist sometimes.  (Hey, if you attended both of those previous meetings and saw the outcome you likely would be too.)

But, it’s time yet again for a little optimism.  USA Team Handball’s new leadership, Board President, Dr Harvey Schiller and CEO, Mike Cavanaugh have now had a few years to take stock of the current state of affairs.  The Olympics have recently provided some added buzz to the sport.  There’s a solid possibility of a 2024 Olympics in L.A.  And, if not 2024, then surely 2028 is in the cards.  Some solid youth programs have been established in Chicago and other locales. Our Men’s Beach Handball team won a Pan American Championship and played in a World Championship.  Maybe there’s even a good TV deal on the horizon.  All these developments and possibilities could lead to what I think is an inevitable tipping point for handball in this country.  A tipping point by which the sport moves from quadrennial, marginal niche sport to a solid niche sport with a significant fan and player base.

I hope to be a part of the planning that speeds up the timetable for that inevitable tipping point.  Yes, time for a little optimism.