Commentary: USA Team Handball National Teams: Are there too many guys with short haircuts and accents? (Part 2: Dual Citizenship Athletes)

Swedish-American Martin Clemens Axelsson and Norwegian-American  Karoline Borg are key members of the U.S. National Teams

Anyone who follows USA Team Handball’s excellent American’s Abroad updates has surely noticed that two groups of Americans (military members and dual citizens) are very well represented. In Part 1, I assessed that having a lot of military athletes on our National Teams isn’t a problem, but rather a symptom of a problem (thin talent pool). In part two, I’ll consider whether the same is true for dual citizenship athletes.
Dual Citizenship Athletes
USA Team Handball, since its inception has had dual citizenship athletes playing for its National Teams and certainly it isn’t the only sport to have sprinkled its roster with these dual citizen athletes. Notably, USA soccer, particularly in its development years in the 80s and 90s, has had its fair share of foreign imports. Additionally, a number of Handball nations (e.g. Spain) where there is no shortage of homegrown players have bolstered their roster with mercenaries (naturalized citizens) simply to improve their national team.
Until recently, however, dual citizen athletes have been a distinct minority on U.S. teams that have been overwhelmingly comprised of born and raised, domestic based players. Arguably, at no other time in the history of the sport in the U.S. have so many dual citizen athletes (e.g. El Zogby.Axelsson, Borg) played such pivotal roles on U.S. National Teams.
So, should we be concerned that we have too many guys with foreign accents?
Yes, for three reasons.
1) Again, this is a very clear indication that we have a thin talent pool. First off, let’s acknowledge that most dual citizens if presented a choice between 1) playing for the Handball nation where they’ve learned to play and spent most of their life or 2) playing for Team USA they are going to choose the Handball nation. Only, if they have no realistic prospects are they going to consider the U.S. option. There might be exceptions to this (perhaps, Adam El Zogby), but it’s a good rule of thumb. So, if a second tier (or third, or fourth or even lower caliber) player from Europe can make the U.S. team it’s probably a good indication that our homegrown talent pool is third tier (or lower). This isn’t all bad. Such players can still be huge contributors that can help us knock off the likes of Canada, Greenland and maybe even Brazil or Argentina someday. But, they are not likely to put us into the next echelon in the World Championships or Olympic Games.
2) Integrating dual citizenship athletes can be disruptive. It should also be noted that the integration of dual citizens on a national team can be a tricky business. I got a sense of this during my short stint on the U.S. National Team when we had tryouts for a couple of dual citizens from Norway and Sweden right before the World Championship in 1993. Both athletes that tried out were nice enough guys and experienced players, but there was also a little resentment with these “outsiders” potentially taking a roster spot from the born and raised Americans. As two outsiders amongst 15 players that had been practicing together for several months there were few integration problems. The only minor problem I recall was when they started conversing in Nordic to each other in front of their teammates. Never a polite move in any context and this was put to a halt with some friendly counseling.
As the current National Team structure has most players playing with clubs overseas, the context is clearly different from my stateside experience. And everything might be all hunky-dory now as relatively few athletes are competing for roster spots. As competition for National Team spots heats up, though, politics will undoubtedly enter the picture. Heck, I remember divisions and accusations of political favoritism based on geographical regions within the U.S. Those New York accents can take a while to get used, but add an even thicker one with an accompanying separate cultural identity and there could be real cohesion problems. An American citizen is an American, but let’s be clear that there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a big cultural identity difference between growing up in the U.S. and growing up in a foreign country. It doesn’t matter how well someone speaks English and how frequently they connect with relatives in the States, they’re going to be more culturally attuned to where they’ve lived. Fortunately, the U.S., more than any other country, is a melting pot of different cultures, so team integration of such a diverse group is still likely to occur. All things being equal, though, it’s simpler not to have such a diverse team.
3) Dual citizens are less likely to support development in the U.S. An ancillary benefit (at least a hoped for one, anyway) of athletes participating in National Team competitions is that those athletes will use that experience to support development of the sport in the U.S. Anyone who has been around the sport in the U.S. knows full well that is not always the case. In fact, it happens a lot less than we’d like it to. Still, it goes without saying that it’s even more unlikely that a dual citizen with stronger ties to another country will decide to move to the U.S permanently and become involved in development efforts. Also, not to be forgotten is the role model aspect of a local club member getting promoted to the National Team. This can inspire younger players to new heights with the thought, “well if he can do it, I can do it.”
Should anything be done to remedy this imbalance?
In many respects this problem can be resolved the same way the military athlete imbalance can be fixed. If we widen our domestic talent pool with better players then the standard for dual citizens getting consideration will be higher and accordingly there will be fewer of them.
While this should occur naturally I also think that USA Team Handball should have some policies that will indirectly boost opportunities for domestic players. Right now, with no U.S. based residence program it’s pretty much impossible for a domestic player to improve significantly as a player without moving to Europe. As such, by default, this has given the dual citizen athlete already conveniently living and acclimated to Europe a distinct advantage. While, I’m not advocating a return to the full-up residence programs of the 80’s and 90’s, I do think that some resources need to be spent on preparing domestic based athletes for overseas competition. (This is outlined in Part 3: A Framework for Creating U.S. National Team Success) In addition, more time and resources should be devoted to getting those domestic athletes on good clubs with strong training programs. A watchful eye should be kept on dual citizen athletes, but logically they will be more able to fend for themselves.
In the end, I’d like to see U.S. National Teams with a smattering of dual citizens playing key roles. Not because I don’t like dual citizens, but because I’d like to have the quality of our domestic players be such that only a few talented athletes can make the cut. And who knows, maybe I’m dreaming, but perhaps one day I’ll even get to read a German (or Danish, pick your country) commentary deploring the fact that they’ve lost a prized dual-citizen prospect to the Americans.