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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports, Disciplines and Events

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

Athlete Quotas and the Challenges of Hosting an Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

Slicing and Dicing to Get Two Disciplines

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

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

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

Laying Down a Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-18 EHF Champions League Season: Odds and Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round of 16 Predictions

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

QF Predictions

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

Final Four Predictions

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

For the Record…

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

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

Summary of Results:  Korean Friendly Tournament

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

 

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

USA Results

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

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

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

22 August USA 27, Australia 9
Video: Link

23 August USA 23, Taiwan 13
Video: Link

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

Final Tournament Standings

 

Analysis

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean going forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Pan American Championships (The Numbers)

Tournament Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Tournament Website: Link

 

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

The Importance of Goal Differential and Some Very Debatable Coaching Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA vs Paraguay:  Video Link

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

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

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

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

Are the Stars Aligning for a 2028 LA Olympics that could Transform Handball as We Know it in the USA? 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: “My dream is not so much just to bring the Olympics here, but is to bring youth sports for free to every zip code.” (Did Mayor Garcetti just set in motion the transformation of handball as we know it in the USA?)

Several recent news reports are signaling that the International Olympic Committee will likely be awarding host city rights to both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics.  Initially, reporting indicated that it was a tossup as to which city, Paris or Los Angeles, would host first in 2024 with both cities insisting that they go first.  Earlier this week, however, the Wall Street Journal indicated that the IOC was leaning towards Paris in 2024 and L.A. in 2028.  And, just yesterday LA Mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed that the IOC had asked both Paris and LA what it would take to entice either city to consider delaying Olympic hosting to 2028.  Mayor Garcetti’s response:  Funding now from the IOC to develop youth sports in Los Angeles.

Why I prefer a 2028 L.A. Olympics

While I’m generally inclined to take a sooner than later approach to most things here’s why (from a parochial handball viewpoint) waiting 11 years to host an Olympics is greatly preferable:

  • 7 years isn’t enough time to build competitive national teams. If you’ve read a few of my commentaries and analysis this should be painfully obvious.  The current talent pool of available players in this country is ridiculously thin and our grass roots programs are too small to create a talent pool of world class athletes in 7 years.
  • A 2024 Olympics will force spending towards the top of the pyramid. Because the U.S. can’t possibly build a competitive national team through its current talent pool and grass roots in time for the 2024 Olympics an inordinate amount of resources will be spent at the top of the pyramid.  In other words an aggressive campaign will be launched to identify, recruit and train talented cross over athletes in the 22-25 age range.  As, I’ve written ad nauseam this is an outdated, short sighted strategy that is currently working very poorly for USA Team Handball.  A guaranteed Olympics, though, should improve recruiting and change “very poorly” to either “poorly” or “passable.”  The U.S. won’t win any medals, but it’s possible that teams that won’t embarrass too greatly could be built.
  • 11 years provides more time to work grass roots and potentially transform the sport in this country. Eleven years might be just enough time to implement a targeted plan to develop a talent pool, fan base and set the sport on a trajectory of further growth.  Of course, more time will be needed for a soccer or lacrosse expansion across the U.S., but 11 years could set things in motion.
  • The stars may be aligning to push USA Team Handball in the right direction. With near term Olympic qualification unlikely and 2028 qualification guaranteed it becomes even more logical to focus on grass roots efforts that will support efforts to build a quality 2028 team.  Herculean efforts to qualify near term simply won’t make sense.  Further, with the LA Mayor calling on the IOC to provide funding for youth sports in exchange for delaying to 2028 grass roots efforts just got further impetus.

The Outline of an 11 Year Plan

It’s early yet, but I can already see the outline of an 11 year plan to transform the sport in L.A. and eventually the rest of the country.  Here are some elements that might make up such a plan.  (And, if this looks familiar that’s because I’ve outlined similar possibilities before:  The Iceland Strategy)

  • USA Team Handball aggressively moves on Mayor Garcetti’s youth sports dream and a plan to develop youth handball in the Los Angeles area is adopted. It won’t be idle talk to talk up the possibility of LA’s youth eventually making an Olympic handball team for an LA Olympics.
  • IOC support is used as leverage to secure additional funding from the USOC, Olympic sponsors, the IHF and other handball entities
  • Youth leagues are re-established with the Boys & Girls Club of Southern California
  • The LA Unified School District agrees to sanction team handball as an official sport
  • Middle School and High School leagues are funded and established
  • A Southern California college league is funded and established
  • Partial scholarships are awarded to encourage high school athletes to continue playing handball
  • Top players from around the U.S. move to the L.A. area to further their development as players
  • A regional training facility is established in Southern California. Top players from each age group receive additional training to supplement their club/school practices.
  • Top players are given assistance in the placement of clubs in Europe (The first batch of players arrive around 2022)
  • The U.S. Men and Women close the gap with Argentina and Brazil such that they start qualifying for the WC, but fall sort of Olympic Qual for 2024
  • A handful of top players advance toward the upper professional ranks
  • The U.S. fields rosters at the 2028 Olympics with roughly half their athletes as full time professionals

And, I haven’t even included what might be done regarding beach handball…

Yes, this is an ambitious strawman plan for eleven years time. Yes, it can’t be done without substantial funding.  But, I don’t think it’s a pipe dream because thanks to Mayor Garcetti’s dream it just might be doable.

Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 9: Youth and Junior Teams Emphasis: Fund up and coming athletes first

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve worked on my analysis of alternative strategic options USA Team Handball might want to consider.  The recent participation of U.S. Team in 2 Jr and 1 Youth competitions was a good reminder to assess whether a youth movement makes sense and how the U.S. might go about it.

 Background

Recently the U.S. participated in 3 Jr and Youth team competitions.  While this isn’t the first time the U.S. has played in age based tournaments, historically it has been fairly infrequent.  There are a number of reasons for this to include the cost of attending such tournaments and conflicts with school calendars, but the biggest reason has simply been a lack of players in the requisite age groups.  And, we’re not talking just about not having enough players in the player pool from which to form a competitive roster.  We’re talking about not even having enough players in the entire U.S. to form a 16 player roster.

Today, the situation has improved somewhat with the effective identification of dual citizen athletes and fledgling youth programs in Chicago and San Francisco, but our talent pool is still ridiculously small.  I don’t have exact numbers, but I’ve put together a rough estimate as to how many athletes the U.S. has in some different categories.

  • Lower Tier Pro (Men-1/Women-0)
    Residency Program (M-10/W-5)
    Clubs/Post College (M-40/W-20)
    College (M-170/W-40)
    High School (M-50/W-5)
    Youth (M-40/W-10)

A few notes on the number of athletes in each category

Dual Citizens Not Included:  It’s great that USA Team Handball is effectively identifying and recruiting these athletes, but they are limited, finite quantity.  There’s not much we can do increase this pool short of setting up some military bases in Scandinavia.  More importantly, the U.S. doesn’t have to develop these athletes.  Other countries are doing it for us.
Lower Tier Pro: I’ve classified a lower tier pro as someone who is a full time or near full time professional, Gary Hines, who is the best player on his 3rd Division German club team, is the only U.S. talent developed in the U.S. that meets that criteria.
Residency Program Numbers are in Flux:  USA Team Handball does not highlight or promote where it’s “elite” athletes are playing their handball.  The most recent information is the player pool info (Men, Women) on the website that hasn’t been updated in over 2 years.   I would theorize that it ebbs and flows, but based on social media posts it’s been more ebb for quite some time.  The women for sure don’t have enough athletes to scrimmage and I suspect the men’s program is also thin on numbers.
Expats Not Included: I only considered passport carrying Americans, so expats that are USA Team Handball members aren’t included.  This dramatically reduces the number of club members the U.S. has.
Only the “truly dedicated” are included:  While it’s great to introduce kids to the sport, having touched a handball at a clinic or P.E. Class, doesn’t qualify as truly dedicated.  The youth and highs school numbers are guesstimates based on discussions with Craig Rot and Martin Bilello on the programs in Chicago and San Francisco.

These numbers are ball park and for illustrative purposes: They are wide open to debate. It would be very interesting to take some time to fully define the categories and quantify the numbers.  And, for sure, I would be a huge advocate for USA Team Handball doing such analysis because staring at such stark numbers might very well lead to different resource allocation decisions.

A Tower, Not a Pyramid

Most sports have a development pyramid by which thousands are introduced to a sport at younger ages and as athletes get older the level of play gets higher and correspondingly the number of athletes participating gets smaller.  In the U.S. this pyramid is primarily based on school grade as most sports are intrinsically tied to schools.  Those major pyramid steps are middle school, high school, college and professional leagues.  There are some cracks in the school-sport connection with the growing popularity of travelling club programs, but for the most part school based sports dominate.

And, if your sport is not a school based sport?  Well, then it’s really tough to build a pyramid.  It might even seem impossible.  And, the end result is a tower, not a pyramid and a very thin talent pool.

Ways to Address the Tower Reality and a Thin Talent Pool

There are a number of ways a sports federation can address this tower and thin talent pool

1) Don’t even address the talent pool. Just focus on the Tip.
Rationale:  The National Team is the primary purpose of a sports federation.  Creating the pyramid is an impossibility.  The athletes in the “tower” while dedicated, for the most part, lack the raw athletic talent.  The best solution is to identify and recruit cross over athletes and train them to be world class handball players.
Historical Perspective: This is the strategy USA Team Handball is currently implementing and has primarily implemented for the past 45 years or so.  It drives me batty that smart people, despite a pile of evidence to the contrary still think this is the way to go.  All of the resources spent in those 45 years with almost nothing to show in terms of the sports development in the U.S.  It’s so frustrating…  But, before we send those folks directly to the sanitarium let’s look at the alternatives.

2) Don’t focus on broadening your talent pool; Make your thin talent pool the best it can be.
Rationale:  Expanding the sports tower to create a pyramid is a daunting challenge.  While the talent pool is thin it’s what we’ve got to work with it, so let’s devote resources toward making these athletes the best handball players we can.
Historical Perspective: This strategy has been implemented to some extent in the past, but for the most part athletes that rose up the tower were bested by superior athletes.  Essentially, it all depended on how successful recruitment at the tip was.  To a great extent, it could be argued that due to recruiting struggles it is actually the de facto current strategy.  Yes, good (not great) athletes are having quite a few resources directed toward their development of handball skills.

3) Focus on broadening your talent pool and the rest will take care of itself.
Rational.  The U.S. can try all the quick fixes it wants, but the reality is that the only way the U.S. is ever going to be competitive in handball is to create a pyramid with a broad talent pool.  It won’t be easy and it will take years, maybe decades for the strategy to bear fruit, but it’s the only sustainable path.  And once you have a healthy sized talent pool fielding a quality national team will become far easier.
Historical Perspective:  Outside of the very brief Dieter Esch Era from 2008 to 2011 this strategy has been given lip service.  Everyone wants a larger talent pool, but when push comes to shove, very few resources have been allocated towards initiatives aimed at broadening the talent pool.

None of these 3 options is the no brainer that its proponents might think it is.  Some will also surely argue that it’s a false choice to say that only one of these options can be chose.  And, I could certainly see that argument if resources weren’t so scarce.  But resource are scarce and tough choices have to be made.  In the next part I’ll take a closer look at options 2 and 3 in terms of pros, cons, cost and timing.

Team USA Youth and Jr Teams: Data, Observations and Analysis

The U.S. recently competed in 3 international competitions (2 Jr and 1 Youth) in South America.  A flurry of activity pretty much unheard of for USA Team Handball.  All of the competitions were web streamed and I’ve been sifting through the data, reflecting on what I visual saw and what it all means.

First some data on the 3 tournaments

Pan-American Jr Championships

The Pan-American Jr Championships took place in Paraguay. This event is held every two years and is for athletes 21 years and younger.  The U.S. put together a solid roster with 9 dual citizens with several years of experience playing in Europe.  Additionally, several of the players had previously played together in Partille and IHF Trophy events.  The U.S. narrowly missed out on qualifying for the World Championships when they lost the 3rd place match to Chile, a team they hadn’t previously beaten in Group play.  This loss was certainly, not without controversy as Team USA lost their leading scorer, Sam Hoddersen to a red card in the first half.  Hoddersen had scored 17 goals in the first match against Chile and his absence in the 2nd half clearly tipped the scales towards Chile.  Overall, the U.S. compiled a 2-3 record and finished in 4th place out of 7 teams.

Pan-American Youth Championships

The Pan-American Youth Championships took place in Chile.  Youth players are 19 and younger and 11 teams from Pan-America participated.  The Youth team roster was not nearly as strong as the Jr team roster and was really hamstrung by injuries to key backcourt players Amir Amitovic and Paul Skorupa.  Further several of the U.S. based players were just 14 or 15 years and too young and inexperienced for this U19 tourney.  Lacking depth at backcourt the U.S. really struggled to score at times. Still, they did pull together a big victory in pool play against Mexico, a team that went on to take 5th and qualified for the World Championship.  Overall the U.S. compiled a 1-4-1 record and finished 11th out of 11 teams.

Pan-American IHF Trophy Championship

The Pan-American IHF Trophy Championship was another Jr competition that took place in Colombia.  The IHF Trophy competition was established by the IHF to provide developing handball nations additional competition opportunities to improve their level of play.  The U.S. had won the North American championship last year and this event was the Continental Phase Championship with the winners from North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South American meeting to determine which side would advance to the Inter-Continental Phase.  The U.S. won the tournament avenging their earlier loss against Martinique with a thrilling come from behind victory in the gold medal match.  While this tournament is intended for “developing nations” it should be noted that Martinique is actually a Department of France with a fairly strong handball tradition.  Beating Martinique was a solid accomplishment for Team USA.

Now here’s my analysis based on my observations of the team and the data above:

What a great group of fine young men representing our nation.  These teams faced a significant amount of adversity.  Player injuries, matchups against greatly superior opponents, days long travel (often paid for out of their own pocket) and at times questionable officiating.  Sometimes adversity was overcome like the youth team’s surprising victory over Mexico and the Jr’s team gold medal win in the IHF Trophy.  Other times there were heavy losses on the scoreboard and disappointing losses like the Jrs 3rd place match vs Chile.  I really don’t know any of these players personally, but I sort of feel like they I do now from social media posts and watching them during the national anthem and after big victories.  Sometimes my commentaries regarding dual citizen athletes are construed to mean that these Americans are somehow less American.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps, I’m simply stating the obvious, but to a man, this a great group of fine young men representing our nation.

The U.S. can field competitive Jr or Youth National Teams… if the roster mostly consists of dual citizens.  The U.S. Jr teams won the IHF Trophy event and with a bit of luck or some different officiating calls they would also be headed to the World Championship.  It seems strange to say this about an American team, but, this success can mostly be attributed to superior handball skills and technique. Against the likes of Puerto Rico, Colombia, Chile and Mexico the raw athletic talent was roughly equal, but the U.S. clearly had an advantage in tactics and technique.  And, the obvious reason behind this was that the dual citizen athletes had received better training and were clearly more experienced than most of their Pan-American opponents.

Even with a roster laden with dual citizens the U.S. can’t compete against Brazil and to a lesser extent Argentina.  Against Brazil in the Jr PHF Championships that technique advantage, however was nullified and Brazil had better athletes to boot.  With Argentina, the same applied to a lesser extent.  For all practical purposes beating Brazil is like beating a European country.  They’ve got the training and they’ve got a healthy sized pool of athletes to draw from.  Meanwhile, the U.S. has a small finite pool of dual citizen athletes to draw from.  Basic math logically dictates that the chances of multiple world class athletes arising from such a small pool are pretty low.  And, in turn that means that a dual citizen heavy team will lose to Brazil and Argentina the same way a lower division club team can’t compete against a European national team.

If the U.S had sent teams without dual citizens the USA teams would have been totally uncompetitive.   One just has to look at the top level numbers to reach this conclusion.  Each roster was over 50% dual citizen and for the most part those athletes played the bulk of the minutes, handled the ball at the skill positions and did most of the scoring.   On top of that, German-American Rene Ingram played around 90% of the time in the key position of goalkeeper.  An American based goalkeeper might have the raw talent, but becoming a good goalkeeper takes years of training and match experience.

Teams comprised solely of U.S. based players would have lost every single match by double digits.  Yes, I assess that there would have even been double digit losses to teams like Puerto Rico and Costa Rica and score lines against the better teams would have been in the neighborhood of the 60-7 pasting that Brazil put on the U.S. Youth team.  This is not (I REPEAT NOT) to besmirch the efforts of American based players and the outstanding work being done by Craig Rot, Martin Bilello and a few others.  Just a cold hard acknowledgement that we have a lot of work to do in the grass roots department.  A lot of work.

Team USA has found a good, possibly great goalkeeper.  18 year old Rene Ingram is easily the best young goalkeeper to wear a USA jersey.  And, in my opinion, he is the best current goalkeeper in the U.S. talent pool.  He played in all three tournaments and was worth, on average, at least 5 goals a game.  At least.  I will be amazed if he is not starting for the U.S. Sr. Men’s team the next time they play competitive matches.  18 years old.  He could be our national team goalie for the next 20 years.

Team USA has found a quality Circle Runner.  Antoine Baup is, in my opinion the best young circle runner to ever play for the U.S.  It’s not as overwhelmingly obvious of a statement as it is with Ingram, but he will likely be a mainstay for years to come.  He’s currently playing in the German 3 Division and he has the size and athletic ability to play professionally in Europe at a higher level.  How high of a level is TBD, but the potential is there.  I would also not be surprised to see him crack into the Sr. Team starting lineup very soon.

There are several other players with Sr. Team potential.  Outside of Ingram and Baup, there are a number of players with potential, but, in my opinion, projecting their future Sr. National Team contributions is less clear.  This includes just about every single European/Overseas athlete. All very solid handball players for their age, but I don’t see them as can’t miss for a number of reasons.  But, the biggest reason, is that it can be challenging to assess how much of their individual success can be simply be attributed to applying their greater handball experience against relatively inexperienced Pan-American handball competition.

Of note, Sam Hoddersen, led the Jr team in scoring for both tournaments, but primarily because he’s got top notch handball skills that simply abused inexperienced Pan-American defenders.  Against Sr. Team athletes I’ve got my doubts as to whether he will have the same success in the backcourt.  I’ve been told he normally plays wing so that might be a future position for him.

William Kennedy, who is a Freshman at Texas A&M had a pretty solid tournament for someone who has only been playing the game for a few months.  Easily, the best performance by a U.S. based player and this international experience should pay dividends both for him and the Texas A&M program.

So, that’s my top level analysis.  In my next commentary I’ll try to assess what it all means for the U.S. if it ever wants to get serious about developing a talent pool of younger athletes.

Dainis Kristopans, the Tallest Elite Player in the History of the Game?

 Dainis Kristopans currently plays for Meskov Brest, but the Latvian giant will play for Veszprem next season.


Dainis Kristopans currently plays for Meskov Brest, but the Latvian giant will play for RK Vardar next season.

I’ve been catching up on the videos for the Champions League round of 16 and the Final Four and one player that literally stands out is Meshkov Brest’s Dainis Kristopans.  He didn’t have the best performance in the SEHA Final Four, but he was a force to reckon with in the Champions League, and finished the season as the 7th leading scorer with 76 goals.

At 7’1” and 298 lbs it is certainly hard to miss him.  I’m not sure if someone is keeping height stats of professional handball players, but he’s got to be one of the tallest to have ever played the game.  And, in my opinion, he is the tallest elite handball player to ever play the game.  I’m sure there have been taller players, but it’s less doubtful that they could be considered elite.  All too often as players approach 7 feet tall their effectiveness as handball players diminishes.

This seems counterintuitive, but the physical nature and pace of the game starts to negate the height advantage.  In particular, the prototypical back court play of either breaking through the defense or shooting over it can be harder to execute for the taller player.  Sure, the taller player can shoot over, but without the credible threat of beating the defense for a breakthrough, a good defensive player can rough up the player and make that 9-10 meter shot ineffective.  There’s a reason why the typical back court player is in that 6’3” to 6’8” height range and it’s not just because everybody taller decided to take up basketball.  A combination of height, quickness, jumping ability, toughness and throwing ability is needed.  Not to mention smart passing skills.  There’s just not a whole lot of 7 footers out there with that combination.

And, what makes Kristopans interesting is that he doesn’t have that full complement of skills, but has developed a playing style to maximize his height/weight advantage.  He’s never going to out quick his opposition for a breakthrough at 6 meters, but he knows how to position himself for a quality shot at 8 meters. At nearly 300 lbs the defense has to be directly in front of him to stop him.  Finally, he’s also not blessed with great jumping ability, but it doesn’t matter.  He smartly uses his height advantage to wind up and get his shot off over the opposition.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the fact that he’s left handed.  At age 26, RK Vardar was wise to sign him up.  Paired with a quality center back that can set him up on attack, he could inflict some real damage.

A personal side note for some perspective on  height and size.  Back in 1989 at the U.S. Olympic Festival, while standing in line at the cafeteria I had the opportunity to stand next to a 17 year old basketball phenom that everyone was talking about.  His name was Shaquille O’Neal and to this day it is the only time in my life where I just felt puny.  Not just merely shorter, but puny.  I’m 6’5”, about 215 lbs and I’ve stood next to lean 7 footers and it’s just slightly unnerving for a tall guy not used to looking up. But Shaq had a 100 lbs on me, roughly half my body weight and that was totally unnerving.  (And, back then Shaq wasn’t overweight.)  Kristopans isn’t quite 3 bills plus like Shaq was, but he’s approaching it.  Something that defenders have to contemplate when he’s on attack.

That’s my take on this giant of handball, but I’ve only been following the sport closely for 15 years.  If you know of a taller player that still passes muster for “elite” status chime in on Facebook or Twitter to set me straight.

ESPN: The Body Issue:  Handball Style   

Argentina's Antonela Mena strikes a handball pose

Argentina’s Antonela Mena strikes a handball pose

Team Handball News likes to take and thoughtful and introspective look at all the major issues facing the handball world and keeping with that role here’s a link to ESPN Argentina’s “The Body Issue” featuring Argentinian handball player, Antonela Mena.

ESPN Argentina Magazine Video: Link

Mena, 29, has been with the National Team for several years and is the team captain.  She also plays for club team, CID de Moreno.  In an interview with the El Universo website, she discussed her reservations with posing:

“The truth is that it was a tough decision, because I was embarased … but then I said why not, if important athletes have already done so, it could mean an opportunity for handball.  I had a good time and little by little I was less uncomfortable as they were professional and made me feel comfortable. I recognize that it is difficult, but with the support of my partner, family and companions I was encouraged and I was fine with it.”  (Note: Rough translation via Google)

While some might be put off on this expose as a novelty stunt, promotion like this can really help increase a sport’s awareness quotient.  At least there’s little doubt in my mind that this post is going to get a few more clicks than another commentary on how to better develop handball in the U.S.

Also, a bit of equal time.  Here’s a link to Frederico Pizarro from last year’s issue: Link

 

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.