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.