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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A Basketball – Handball Comparison

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

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

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

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

Historical U.S. Basketball Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Question Answers and Why this is all Relevant to Handball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Team Handball’s Slow Adaption to the Changing Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Team Handball Reality TV Show in Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Championships Final Four:  A French Coronation in Paris?

World Championships Final Four: A French Coronation in Paris?

The Perils of Prediction

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

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

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

A French Coronation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could France Beat France?

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

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

Preview and Odds for the 2017 Men’s World Championship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projecting the Semifinals and Champion

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

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