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.

Can the USA Qualify for the Semifinals?  Yes, the Math Allows it, but Can the Team Meet the Challenge.

Team USA picks up their first win vs Colombia. A 5 goal win tomorrow vs Paraguay would let them sneak into the semifinals.

Earlier this evening Team USA got the exact results they were looking for.  First, they took care of business easily beating Colombia 31-17 to pick up their first win in the tournament.  The U.S. played their most complete game playing solid defense and scoring readily on the fast break.  Then afterwards, Paraguay handed Puerto Rico its first loss of the tournament to set up a possible 3 way tie on points for 2nd place in Group A.

Assuming Brazil beats Puerto Rico tomorrow, Puerto Rico will finish with 4 points.  And, if the U.S. can muster a win over Paraguay tomorrow, both Paraguay and the U.S. will also have 4 points.  And, those 3 teams in head to head competition will each have 2 points a piece with 1 win and 1 loss, meaning that tiebreakers will come into play.

Here’s the current standings.

Head to Head Standings (Current)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
Paraguay 1 0 0 2 4 28 24
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA 0 1 0 0 -4 25 29

First the simple math:  If Paraguay wins or draws with the U.S. it’s all over.  Paraguay takes 2nd place.

But, here’s the more complicated math and the possible scenarios.  Keep in mind Puerto Rico is done as far as this head to head competition goes since they’ve already played their matches against the U.S. and Paraguay.

The first tie breaker is head to head goal differential

USA wins by 5 (or more)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD
USA (Qualifies for SF) 1 1 0 2 1
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 -1
USA wins by 3 (or less)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD
Paraguay (Qualifies for SF) 1 1 0 2 1
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0
USA 1 1 0 2 -1

If, however, the USA were to win by 4 goals, there would be a tied Goal Differential, meaning the next tiebreaker, Total goals head to head would break the tie.

USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 29 (or more)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
USA (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 54 54
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 27 (or less)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
Puerto Rico (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
USA 1 1 0 2 0 52 52
Paraguay 1 1 0 2 0 51 51

And, finally, if the U.S. were to win by the score of 28-24, there would be a tie in total head to head goals

USA wins by 4 exactly and scores 28 (exactly)
Win Lose Draw Pts GD GF GA
USA 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Puerto Rico 1 1 0 2 0 53 53
Paraguay (Qualifies) 1 1 0 2 0 52 52

And, while you might think that Paraguay would drop out since they can’t match the 53 total goals, that’s not how the tiebreakers work.  Even if a tie is just between two teams the other teams don’t drop out, but continue to the next tie breaker which Goal Differential in all matches where Paraguay has a sizable lead.

Forget the Math Lesson, Can the USA win by 5 goals tomorrow?

Well, the answer to that question really depends on which USA team shows up tomorrow.  If it’s the team that got run out of the building by Brazil 42-10 the answer is clearly no way.  If it’s the team that was inconsistent against Puerto Rico, again, no chance.  But, if it’s the team that played solidly earlier today against Colombia, there’s a chance. Sure, Paraguay is a better side than Colombia, but the Paraguay team I saw today against Puerto Rico, while athletic is pretty young and inexperienced.  Their set offense is anything but fluid and a solid defense effort could fluster Paraguay and create some turnovers and fast break opportunities.  Create a little lead that could be expanded upon.  The U.S. has dug themselves in a bit of a whole, but it’s possible they could dig their way out.  Game time tomorrow is 1330 ET.

Preview and Analysis: Women’s Pan American Championships

USA Women celebrating their 2nd Place NORCA result. Can they take 3rd and qualify for the World Championships at the Pan American Championships?

The Women’s Pan American Championships start on Sunday with 10 nations from North, Central and South America participating.  This tournament held every two years also serves as the qualification for the World Championships and the top 3 teams will be awarded tickets to the 2015 in Germany.

Analysis

It’s a real good bet that perennial favorites Brazil and Argentina will each win their groups, win their semifinal matches and then play each other in the final.  Brazil will then be favored, but with the home crowd Argentina might have a shot of an upset.  But, thanks to Cuba’s decision to not participate in the tournament that battle for third place could be real interesting and at least 6 teams can realistically talk about making the semifinals and taking the 3rd World Championships qualification slot.

I’m a huge fan of the website fivethirtyeight.com and their statistical projections for a variety of sports.  The model they use relies on past results, but because there simply are not enough matches between the teams involved it wouldn’t make sense to run it through their algorithm.  That being said, here’s my assessment based on relevant recent results for each team reaching the semifinals and qualifying for the World Championships (3rd Place or higher)

Group A Make Semifinals WC Qualification (3rd place)
Brazil >99+% >99+%
Puerto Rico 40% 20%
USA 30% 15%
Paraguay 25% 10%
Colombia 5% 2%

Group B

Group B Make Semifinals WC Qualification (3rd Place)
Argentina >99+% >99+%
Uruguay 50% 25%
Chile 30% 18%
Dominican Republic 20% 10%
Guatemala  <1%  <1%

 

U.S. Prospects

It’s a bit of déjà vu for the U.S. as the situation for the 2017 Championships somewhat mirrors what took place in 2015.  In 2015, the U.S. performed well at the North American & Caribbean (NORCA) Championships and we’re given a favorable draw that set the table for them to qualify for the World Championships.  Alas, that didn’t happen as Greenland and Puerto Rico, two teams the U.S. had beaten at NORCA turned the tables on the U.S. and they ended up finishing in a disappointing 10th place.

Now two years later the U.S. has had another strong performance at NORCA, winning all their group play matches and just narrowly losing in the final to hosts, Puerto Rico.  And, the draw is again favorable with all of their group matches winnable with the exception of its first opponent, Brazil.  For the USA, its 2nd match of the tournament against Puerto Rico will be pivotal.  A win there will put one foot in the door to the semifinals.  On paper, the U.S. and Puerto Rico are very evenly matched having split their last 4 matches in qualification competitions with no side winning by more than 4 goals.  I give Puerto Rico the edge as they stepped up in 2015 to take the last qualification spot available, but the U.S. surely can field some confidence having beaten Puerto Rico recently in Puerto Rico.  Also, not to be dismissed is Paraguay which beat the USA 23-20 in 2015 and played Puerto Rico close, losing 33-29.  Even Colombia, which hasn’t played recently in qualification events shouldn’t be discounted.

In the other pool, Uruguay is the favorite having beaten Chile twice in 2015 competitions and having placed 3rd at the 2015 PANAM Games.  They also beat the U.S. twice in the 2015 Last Chance Qualification matches and had a convincing 21-15 victory over the U.S. in a friendly match played just this past Thursday.  It would be a sweet, sweet revenge opportunity for the U.S. should they meet in a 3rd place bronze medal game, but let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves.  There’s a lot of handball to be played in the coming week.

Results from Recent PHF Competitions

2017 NORCA Championships
April 3 (Gold Medal) Puerto Rico 28, USA 27
March 30 (Group Play) USA 28, Puerto Rico 26

2015 PANAM Games Qualification
March 7 Uruguay 30, USA 25
March 14 Uruguay 24, USA 22

2015 Pan American Championships
May 22 Paraguay 25, USA 24
May 23 Puerto Rico 23, USA 20
May 24 Puerto Rico 33, Paraguay 29

2015 NORCA Championships
April 2 (Group Play) USA 33, Puerto Rico 29

 

USA Women’s Schedule

Sunday, 18 June USA vs Brazil 1915 (Local), 1815 (ET)
Monday, 19 June USA vs Puerto Rico 1330 (Local), 1230 (ET)
Tuesday, 20 June
Wednesday, 21 June USA vs Colombia 1500 (Local), 1400 (ET)
Thursday, 22 June USA vs Paraguay 1430 (Local), 1330 (ET)
Friday, 23 June
Saturday, 24 June
Sunday, 25 June

Official Tournament website: Link

Live Streaming

All of the matches will be live streamed by TyC Sports in Argentina.  If the quality of the video matches what was recently provided for the Argentina – USA friendly match, fans around the world are in for a real treat.

TyC Sports Play: Link

USA Falls to Argentina 33-20 in Preparatory Friendly Match

USA’s Kathy Darling draws a crowd as she shoots on goal vs Argentina

Argentina beat the United States, 33-20, yesterday in a friendly match yesterday in Buenos Aires.  Argentina, the second or third best team in Pan America (behind Brazil and possibly Cuba) dominated the match from the start building a comfortable 7-2 lead in the first 12 minutes.  This lead was gradually extended and the last 5 minutes of the first half got a little ragged with the U.S. playing down 2 players following a debatable Red Card decision given to Team Captain, Sarah Gascon for a foul on wing shot.  The score at the half was 20-10.

The second half was a more even affair as both teams liberally substituted and both coaches experimented with different combinations of players.  The U.S. clamped down on defense and the second half scoreline was a more respectable 13-10.

Overall, the U.S. offense looked more structured and organized than it has in the past.  Argentina played fairly aggressive on defense, coming out high to disrupt the USA offense, but for the most part Team USA did a decent job of controlling the ball, limiting turnovers and resultant fast breaks.  The U.S. 6-0 defense, however, traditionally a strong point for the U.S., was not as effective as it has been in the past.  Argentina was able to consistent break down the U.S. defense for breakthroughs and wing shots.

With the liberal substitution the U.S. scoring was very balanced with 4 players (Kathy Darling, Sarah Gascon, Ashley Butler and Jence Rhoads) scoring 3 goals apiece. Anja Borg and Shani Levinkind added 2 each, and 4 players (Julia Taylor, Ashley Van Ryn, Nicole Andersen and Elizabeth Hartnett) scoring one.

The U.S. plays another friendly match vs Uruguay today and plays its first match of the official tournament against Brazil on Sunday.

On Demand Video of match: Link (Note: TyC’s video quality is outstanding.  If that’s the video quality we’ll see for the tournament, we’re in for a great remote viewing experience)

USA – Argentina Friendly Match Available Live on Direct TV, Fubo TV and Roku

Tonight’s USA-Argentina match can be seen on U.S. TV

The USA Women are in Argentina for the 2017 Women’s Pan American Handball Championships.  The actual tournament doesn’t start until Sunday, but they are playing friendly matches in preparation.  Tonight they have a tall order as they take on Tournament hosts Argentina at 2100 hrs (local) and 20:00 hrs (ET in the U.S).  The U.S. played the Argentina Junior Team to a 27-27 draw earlier in the week, so surely the Sr team will offer stiffer competition.  And, as this could be a potential tournament semifinal Argentina may very well want to send a message to the U.S. side.

The match will be broadcast live by Argentina sports channel TyC which in our ever more connected world is actually available in the U.S.   Here are your viewing options:

Direct TV:  If you have Direct TV (and an international package) you can watch the match on Channel #469.

Fubo TV:   Fubo TV is a digital streaming platform perhaps best known for soccer, but it’s also now rapidly becoming the best option for handball fans in the U.S. as it also carries beIN Sports and Eleven Sports.  And, not just the beIN sports TV channels, but their digital channels as well, which was the only way to watch the IHF World Championships and EHF Champions League live in the U.S.  Eleven Sports is another newcomer on the scene and they’ve already signed up to broadcast the European Handball Championships later this month.

Roku / Amazon Fire / Apple TV:  Another benefit of Fubo TV is that it can also watch it on TV via your connected device (e.g. Roku).  This can be done by first adding the Fubo TV channel to your Roku and then logging in with your Fubo TV account information.  (It took me a couple of minutes so you don’t want to wait till match time.)

Fubo TV offers a free 7 day trial so it won’t cost you to see how well it works with your computer and/or TV.

Fubo TV Trial sign up: Link

USA – Canada Series Results

Channel 4, WTVY, might have spelled USA Goalie Gabe Goodreau’s name wrong, but they have confirmed what many have suspected for years. Just as Jerry West was the inspiration for the NBA’s logo, Gabe “the Logo” Goodreau is the inspiration for USA Team Handball’s.

The USA Men hosted Canada for a series of 4 matches this past weekend in Alabama.  The series was split 2-2 and the results are below:

Friday, 9 June (at Auburn)
Game 1: USA 32, Canada 29
Game 2: Canada 32, USA 24

Saturday, 10 June (at Dothan)
Game 3: Canada 29, USA 28

Sunday, 11 June (at Auburn)
Game 4: USA 21, Canada 20

The match in Dothan was played in conjunction with the Alabama State Games and it gave an opportunity for the elementary kids participating in the State Games to see the U.S. National Team in action.  The game was close with Canada prevailing 29-28 in overtime.

Channel 4, WTVY, in Dothan did a segment on the games and they have video from the youth tournament and the USA – Canada match starting at 2:42.

WTVY Video: Link

The Dothan Eagle also has a nice story on the match

HANDBALL 101: USA-Canada men’s match creates good first impression: Link

USA Men’s Team

 

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.

Handball Inside Interview with Team USA’s Rene Ingram

A German magazine, Handball Inside, Interviewed USA Goalkeeper, Rene Ingram earlier this year prior to his participation in the Youth and Jr Pan-American Championships and the IHF Trophy Pan-American Championship.

Below is a translation of the article:

Interview:  Grosswallstadt Keeper Rene Ingram 17, talks about his selection for the U.S. National Team and the prospects of team handball in the USA.

You are playing in the Pan American Championships with the US National team. How do you have two citizenships?
RENE INGRAM: My parents worked many years in the US and acquired a green card and naturalization, so they are able to pass on the US citizenship to their children. My brothers were also born there.

How did the Americans discover you?
INGRAM: My mother was approached by the parent of a player who was already playing for Team USA . Shortly after that I got an e-mail from the coach that they watched a few videos about me. He invited me to a tournament in Sweden but due to school obligations I could not go. Now that I am a student I am more flexible.

Whats your impression about the efforts of the US handball federation to promote Handball?
INGRAM: They are very dedicated and have a lot of enthusiasm. It is constantly progressing which also shows because they installed a “residency program” at Auburn University in Alabama for the National Team. They might also install it as an Olympic training site. In schools team handball also shows a rapid increase in popularity.

What are the training conditions like in the US?
INGRAM: Very good, great arenas, excellent fitness facilities and a wholesome approach to overall health. There is a lot to be learned from Basketball, American Football and Hockey as they are much more advanced in that area but very willing to share their findings. The Americans are sport enthusiasts and there are a lot of companies that generously support sports. One thing, that I have to get used to however, is that the trips to the games are very far.

What is the proficiency level of your national teammates ?
INGRAM: Where fitness is concerned they are at a top level since most of them also play other sports on a competitive level. Concerning playing skills the members of the residency program at Auburn University who train together regularly with additional support from high class European players are also on a good track.

Did the US Handball Association select more players with dual Citizenship?
INGRAM: There are three more players from Germany and one each from France, Sweden and Norway.

Do you think that you will be able to go to a World Championship or Olympic games with Team USA?
INGRAM: Certainly, even though right now it is a very young team that is just being built up and has a lot of catching up to do in comparison to experienced Nations. Motivation and fighting spirit are perfect already. Team USA placed 11th at the Beach Handball World Championship in Hungary 2016. There is still some time left to build up an effective squad till the next Olympics. I think that the U19 and U21 both have good chances to qualify for the world championship in July and August.

 

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.

Teams and Draw Pools for Women’s PHF Championship Draw Revealed: Cuba is No Show    

Cuba’s Women’s Team: Good news for the U.S. and other 2nd tier Pan-American nations: They won’t be participating at the upcoming Championships

The Pan-American Handball Federation (PHF) has revealed the draw pools for this summer’s Pan-American Sr. Women’s Championship and in doing so they have confirmed that Cuba, the 2015 silver medalist will not be participating in the competition.  There was no indication as to why, but it is likely due to budget considerations.  Cuba’s absence means that only two dominant teams (Brazil and Argentina) will be participating and that several nations, including the U.S., now have a realistic chance of securing 3rd place and Pan-America’s last World Championship qualification slot.

The 10 teams will be drawn into two groups of 5 teams each with 1 team coming from each of the following pairs:

  • Brazil, Argentina
  • Puerto Rico, Uruguay
  • Paraguay, Chile
  • USA, Guatemala
  • Colombia, Dominican Republic

Based on past performance it’s pretty much unfathomable that Brazil will not be in the final.  Argentina is not as good as Brazil, but as they are now the tournament it’s pretty improbable that they will also not reach the final.  Among the remaining 8 teams there is a great deal of parity with only Guatemala being at a significantly lower level of play.  I would give, Puerto Rico a slight edge based on their 4th place finish two years ago, but the U.S. certainly is in the conversation as well having split two matches against them recently at the NORCA Championship. Puerto Rico was, however, missing at least one key player, 22 year old breakout star right wing, Jailene Maldonado, who now plays professionally in Spain.  Uruguay, which beat the U.S. to qualify for the 2015 PANAM Games is also in the mix.

The date for the actual draw has not been announced.  The tournament will take place in Buenos Aires from 18-25 June.

2015 Championship Results: Link

PHF Article on Draw Pools: Link

 

USA Takes Gold after Thrilling Comeback vs Martinique

Team USA: Pan-American IHF Trophy Champions

The U.S. beat Martinique 21-20 yesterday to take Gold in the IHF Trophy Championship for Pan-America.  The first half of the match saw Martinique control the match and tempo for a 12-7 halftime lead.  The second half saw the U.S. and Martinique trade goals for the first 13 minutes with Martinique leading 16-11.  The U.S. then went on a 5 goal run to cut the lead to 16-15.  The match was then a nip/tuck affair with the U.S. first tying the score 18-18 at the 27 minute mark and taking its first lead, 20-19 with 1:12 left in the game.

The last minute had several frenetic sequences.  First, the U.S. lost its team captain, Antoine Baup to a 2 minute penalty.  Martinique scored shorty thereafter tying the match at 20-20 and then put a lot of defensive pressure on the down a man U.S. offense.  A wing shot by Youssef El Far missed, but hit the cross bar and was rebounded by Tyler Boykin giving the U.S. another opportunity.  And Sam Hoddersen took that opportunity, getting fouled for a 7 meter penalty shot which he then scored giving the U.S a 21-20 lead.  With just 5 seconds remaining Martinique immediately went on attack and received its own 7 meter penalty with no time remaining.  But, the opportunity to send the match into overtime was denied by USA goalie, Rene Ingram.  Video of the save and the resulting U.S. victory celebration can be seen here: Link  (The contrast between the Martinique and USA reactions tells all.)

Team USA Scoring
Sam Hoddersen- 11
Youssef El Far- 4
Antoine Baup- 3
Cedric Kollman-2
Michael Lee- 1
(Note: Sean Zimber was marked defensively almost the entire game.  That strategy held him scoreless, but I’m not so sure it was a smart strategy overall.)

The U.S. was well represented on the tournament All Star team with 4 players receiving honors

Left Back – Sean Zimber
Right Back – Sam Hoddersen
Right Wing – Youssef El Far
Goalkeeper – Rene Ingram

Cedrick Kollman was also the tournament’s leading scorer.

The victory qualifies the U.S. for the IHF Trophy Intercontinental Championship where the U.S. will meet the winners of the Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania competitions.  The IHF Trophy tournament is a tournament that the IHF has adopted to give developing handball nations more opportunities to compete.

Video of match: Link

Video of Closing Ceremonies: Link

USA Takes Care of Business vs Guatemala; Rematch vs Martinique Today for Title

Team USA on defense vs Guatemala

Yesterday, the U.S. finished Group Play with a comfortable, 28-21 victory over Guatemala.  Sam Hoddersen led the U.S. in scoring with 12 goals while Antoine Baup had 8.  Youssef El Far (4), Sean Zimber (3) and Tyler Boykin (1) rounded out the scoring.

The game had originally been scheduled for Tuesday, but due to strong rains and a leaky roof it had to be rescheduled for Friday.  With the win, the U.S. finished in 2nd place with a 2-1-0 record and today will get a chance to avenge its loss against undefeated Martinique.  The U.S. lost by 10 against Martinique, but with a title on the line don’t be surprised if this rematch is a lot more competitive.  The winner of today’s match will take home the gold and will also advance to the Intercontinenal IHF Trophy tournament where it will face the winners from Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

Game time is 1600 ET

Web Stream: Link

Competition Website: Link

USA Defeats Colombia 25-23 in First IHF Trophy Match

Antoine Baup (#6) and Sean Zimber (#7) on defense while Rene Ingram tends goal.

After a rain out Tuesday, the USA got some court action yesterday against tournament hosts Colombia.  Right out of the gate the USA took a 5 goal lead only to have Colombia chip away at the lead to end the first half tied 12-12.  In the 2nd half Colombia took a 21-18 lead, but the USA staged its own comeback and controlled the last 10 minutes of play for the eventual 25-23 victory.  Rene Ingram was instrumental in goal with many big saves, including several on penalty shots.  Cedric Kollman and Sam Hoddersen led USA scoring with 7 and 6 goals, respectively.  Antoine Baup and Sean Zimber added 4 each.  Michael Lee and Youssef El Far rounded out the scoring with 2 a piece.

Tonight the USA plays 2-0 Martinique at 2000 Eastern Time.  A win will guarantee the U.S. a trip to the championship game which will most likely be a rematch vs Martinique.  Even with a loss, the U.S. is still in good shape and would still qualify for the final with a win over Guatemala on Friday.

Live steam: Link