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.