USA Women: What Happened and What’s Next?

Following the twin disappointments this year of failing to qualify for the Pan Am Games and the 2007 World Championships the USA Women’s National Team is at a crossroads. What happened and what’s next?

I hope to interview the current (Dawn Lewis) and former coach (Christian Latulippe), as well as Mike Cavanaugh, the USOC High Performance Handball Director once I get settled back in the US. In the interim I’ll pose a few questions and possible answers from my perspective.

[b]Did the US Women have a realistic chance to qualify for the Pan Am Games or the World Championships?[/b]

Answer: Yes. Looking at the scores and the write-ups of the matches that were played one can conclude that they had a legitimate shot at qualifying for both tournaments. For the Pan Am Games beating Canada 2 out of 3 was unlikely, but they are a better team than Mexico. They certainly proved that they could beat Mexico in a neutral setting in the Dominican Republic. I can only speculate as to whether the coaching change prior to the 2nd chance tournament in Mexico impacted the outcome of that tournament. In terms of qualifying for the World Championships it has been noted in the comments section of one of our write-ups that the US Women’s team was leading Paraguay by 4 in the 2nd half. If they had held on to that lead they would have qualified.

[b]Did the US Women have a realistic chance to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games?[/b]

Answer: No. The gap in terms of both raw athletic talent and experience between the US and Brazil was simply too great. And the same can be said for the rest of the PATHF. Nobody is going to beat Brazil in Rio this summer at the Pan Am Games and no team will likely lose by less than double digits. The 2nd place and possibly the 3rd place team will have a chance in an Olympic qualification tournament, but they will likely face the difficult task of having to beat a European team in Europe. It is also extremely unlikely that a PATHF nation, other than Brazil, will place in 7th or higher at the World Championships. Bottom line: Barring some bizarre disqualification, the sole PATHF rep at the Olympics will be Brazil.

[b]What are the chances for the US Women to qualify for the 2012 Olympics?[/b]

Answer: There’s always a chance, but there are simply too many unknowns to accurately predict the likelihood of qualifying. In simple terms a combination of either the US fielding a better team and/or Brazil and other PATHF foes dropping down a bit will be needed.

[b]What are the prospects of Brazil and other PATHF foes fielding weaker teams?[/b]

Answer: It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it. The quality of national teams often runs in cycles, but Brazil appears to have developed a national program which is developing quality youth athletes that feed into their national program. Additionally, many of their players will continue to likely gain valuable experience overseas. To a lesser extent other nations like Argentina have followed Brazil’s example, but are more within reach of the US program.

[b]What are the prospects for the US to field a team that can qualify for 2012?[/b]

Answer: Unknown. Four years provides some time to put together a credible program, but the current picture looks bleak. USOC management at the 2006 National Championships Town Hall meeting indicated that following USA Team Handball’s decertification they had actually considered dropping the Women’s program. In the end, they decided to continue to fund the program with limited resources. Now that the program has definitively failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics continued funding is in question. Also based on recent performance it is highly doubtful that a more competitive program could be created anyway at the current level of funding. Adding even more uncertainty are the USOC plans to turn over control of day to day handball operations to a new organization later this year. Perhaps this new organization will quickly and innovatively develop a competitive national team, but this remains to be seen.

[b]What is the tournament schedule for the Women leading up to the 2012 Olympics?[/b]

Answer: Assuming the calendar follows past precedent, the following tournaments will be staged prior to the 2012 Olympics

2008 Pan American Div 2 Championships (Winter?)
2009 Pan American Championships (May?) (Qualification for Dec 2009 WC)
2009 World Championships (December) China
2010 Pan Am Games Qualification (Winter?)
2011 Pan American Championships (May?) Qualification for Dec 2011 WC)
2011 Pan Am Games (Summer) in Guadalajara, Mexico (Qualification for 2012 Olympics)
2011 World Championships (December) Location TBD
2012 Olympics (August) London

Some question marks in terms of timing, as well as whether there would be a Division 2 tournament for the Pan American Championships. According to the old newsletters of the PATHF the plan was that the bottom 2 teams from the Pan American Championships would have to participate in a Div 2 tournament, in which the top 2 team would qualify for the Pan American Championships. As only 8 teams wanted to participate at the last championships it’s quite possible that there won’t be a Division 2 tournament.

This schedule adds further uncertainty as the next meaningful tournament is likely two years away. In light of this dry spell, one could argue that perhaps this is an opportune time to change management and implement changes to the current program. In terms of Olympic qualification the Pan Am Game in Mexico in 2011 will be the most important test.

[b]What does the US [i][u]need[/u][/i] to do in order to field a better team?[/b]

Answer: The US needs better athletes, more experienced athletes, top level coaching and top level competition on a regular basis.

[b][i][u]How[/u][/i] does the US field a better team?[/b]

Answer: There are a number of different models and strategies that could be employed and several have been tried in the past with varying degrees of success. As answering this question would take awhile, I’ll save an extended discourse on this question for a future post. In short, however, no matter what model and strategy you choose, it will need funding in order to be executed properly.