Taking Stock of the Pan American Competition: Can the USA Women Beat the Pan American Also-Rans?

Argentina:  Still the best of the Pan American also-rans.  Can the USA put together a team capable of beating them in 18 months?

Argentina: Still the best of the Pan American also-rans. Can the USA put together a team capable of beating them in 18 months?


Much has been written or said about Brazil’s historic run to the title at the recently completed Women’s World Championship.  And, with good reason; It was truly historic for a Pan American team to win a title in convincing fashion.  If it wasn’t obvious before, there is now undeniable proof that the Brazilian women are as good and for the moment even better than the top European teams.  This is something no Pan American team (Men or Women) has ever accomplished and in doing so there is now a chasm in terms of quality between Brazil and the other Pan American teams.

With only one Pan American direct qualification slot for Olympic qualification normally this would mean that the rest of Pan America should immediately forgo any thoughts of going to the Olympics until 2020 at the earliest.   It’s just really hard to contemplate a scenario where any side beats Brazil anytime in the near future.  Throw out your “Miracle on Ice” analogies.  Unlike hockey handball is a high scoring game and there’s just no plausible scenario for a dramatically superior team to lose a 60 minute match to a significantly inferior foe.

Fortunately, for the rest of Pan America Brazil is hosting the 2016 and their automatic bid throws them out of the equation.  Instead of unseating Brazil all a Pan American side has to do is emerge as the 2nd best team at the 2015 PANAM Games in Toronto.  Currently there is a pecking order among the also-rans.  This past summer 3 teams (Argentina, Dominican Republic and Paraguay) took 2nd, 3rd and 4th at the Pan American Championships and qualified for the World Championships.  I had the opportunity to see each of these teams play in several matches and here’s a summary of how they fared at the World Championships and my assessment of their future prospects.

Dominican Republic
Group Play
– Record: 0-5
– Avg Scoreline:  18.4-35.6 (-17.2 Goals)
– Highlights:  Stayed relatively competitive vs Montenegro, losing by just 7 each half; Lost close match to 4th place Congo 23-22
– Lowlights:  Totally outclassed in matches vs France, Netherlands and South Korea.  Managed only 10 goals vs France
President’s Cup:  29-24 loss to Algeria and 27-26 victory over Australia
Overall Ranking: 23rd
Avg Age of Roster: 21.8
Assessment:  Overall, a disappointing tournament for the Dominicans as they only managed to eke out 1 win and that was against the Australians who’ve consistently finished last at the World Championships for several years. They have a fairly young roster with only 1 significant contributor (31 year old winger Nancy Pena) over the age of 25.  The official roster indicates that all of their players are based in the Dominican Republic, but other sources indicate that several players are also playing for clubs in Spain.

Group Play
– Record: 0-5
– Avg Scoreline:  11-33 (-22 Goals)
– Highlights:  Played Argentina close in 2nd half, losing that half by score of 12-10
– Lowlights:  One of worst all-time performances in Group Play competition history.  Lowlights include a 40-6 annihilation by Poland and a 29-9 loss to Spain that included a goalless first half.
President’s Cup:  23-21 victory over Australia (won in penalty shootout) and 29-19 victory over Algeria
Overall Ranking: 21st
Avg Age of Roster: 21.5
Assessment:  Their performance in group play was a disaster, but you have to give the Paraguayans credit for bouncing back in the President’s Cup.  Particularly surprising was their convincing victory in their last game against Algeria.  This improvement illustrates what an important development opportunity merely attending a World Championships can be.  I suspect that Paraguay would have lost to Algeria had they met in Group play, but with the experience of just a few games they developed greater confidence.  They have a very young team overall, but two major contributors, Marizza Faria and Maria Gomez are 29 and 30 respectively.  On the other side of the age spectrum, their 2nd and 3rd leading scorer were Left Back Ana Acuna (age 19) and circle runner Sabrina Fiore (age 17).  Both show quite a bit of promise, but would probably need to play overseas or in Brazil to further develop as players.

Group Play
– Record: 1-4
– Avg Scoreline:  20.4-28.2 (-7.8 Goals)
– Highlights:  Played very competitively against the defending World Champions, Norway for 45 minutes.  Even led Norway 6-4 after 15 minutes and were down just 8-10 with 2 minutes left in the first half.  Norway, however, had a couple of runs which put the game out of contention.  Particularly, disastrous was a 12 goal run which resulted in the ugly final result of 37-18.  Argentina was also competitive against Spain, losing only 25-19 and had a convincing 25-15 victory over PATHF rival Paraguay.
– Lowlights:  They were less competitive in a loss to Poland (31-17) and lost by 10 goals to Angola (33-23).  Angola has Africa’s strongest women’s program, but they weren’t as strong at this WC as they’ve been in other years.  Based on how Argentina played against European foes this should have been a much closer contest and a victory over Angola would have advanced Argentina to the knockout stages instead of the President’s Cup.
President’s Cup: 27-21 loss to Tunisia and 31-19 victory over Congo
Overall Ranking: 19th
Avg Age of Roster: 23.9
Assessment:  I watched parts of several Argentinian matches and they clearly are a hot and cold team.  They are technically sound and when they play under control they can stay competitive against the top teams.  But, they also had several stretches with lots of turnovers which were disastrous.  Looking at the match reports many of these opposition runs were towards the end of the halves and this suggests some conditioning issues.  Additionally, while many players are technically sound they don’t have many players with exceptional quickness which can make a big difference in capitalizing on 1 v 1 situations against strong defenses.  Overall, they have a pretty young team which could continue to improve.  One major contributor, Madgalena Decilio is 30 years old, but the rest of their roster is 28 or younger.  Their best player Luciana Mendoza is 23 years old and plays for Blumenau in Brazil.  I suspect that her performance at the WC will draw some interest from a few European clubs.

For an additional assessment on Argentina read Ruben Gomez’s article at Mundo Handball.  Included in the article is some strong praise for Argentina, from Norway Head Coach, Thorir Hergeirsson, who indicates that they are the team of the future and will replace Brazil as the Pan American team to beat.

Can the USA Beat these Sides?

As an American, I couldn’t help but watch these 3 teams from a parochial viewpoint.  Essentially, I found myself asking, “Can the USA beat these sides at the 2015 PANAM Games and earn a ticket to Rio?”  Athletically, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Paraguay are nothing to write home about.  And, of the three teams only Argentina has sound technical handball skills.  Comparing these teams to past American sides, I’m pretty confident that any USA Olympic team from 1984 to 1996 would fare well.  They would easily beat the Dominican Republic and Paraguay and they would wear Argentina down physically.  And, now that the USA is setting up a Residency Program at Auburn University that appears to be comparable to the Residency Programs that were set up in the 80’s and 90’s.  But, can the U.S. make the necessary progress in the time alloted? Crystal ball prediction is fraught with peril, but here’s the case for yes and no depending on whether your you see the proverbial glass as full, half-full, half-empty or empty.

Glass Full Perspective:  Time is short, but in 18 months the U.S. puts together a team that gets the job done.  Some top notch recruiting finds several high quality athletes that quickly develop into great handball players.   Combined with the core veterans they jell quickly into a competitive team.  And, this team keeps getting better thanks to additional funding that supports a couple of extended trips to Europe to face challenging competition.  Come July 2015 they’re tested and ready to beat every team but Brazil.

Glass Half-Full Perspective:  The challenge of putting together a team in 18 months that can qualify for the Olympics might be asking quite  bit, but it proves to be well worth the shot.  The U.S. doesn’t make up the ground necessary to beat Argentina, but the USA makes sufficient progress so that it topples Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.   They even give Argentina a run for its money in the semis, but fall short.  More importantly, the stage is set for a stronger run towards the 2020 Olympics.   Several young talents have emerged and they are motivated and ready to put 4 more hard years of work in.   Also, while the Olympics were unattainable the U.S. easily qualifies for the 2015 World Championships and has that that opportunity to further improve as a team.

Glass Half-Empty Perspective:  The U.S. makes slow, but steady progress.  A couple of top notch recruits are identified and quickly become important contributors to the national team. The U.S. is much improved, but unfortunately so have most of the other Pan American teams.   Like the U.S. they’ve taken stock of the competition and decided to invest in a shot at 2016.  Several key opponents have taken overseas training trips and some players have been placed in competitive European clubs.  And, the Cubans have emerged as a rival to Argentina.  At the PANAM Games and Pan American Championships the U.S. faces tough competition to even make the semifinals.  Depending on the draw they face the difficult task of beating Cuba or the more feasible task of beating Paraguay or the Dominican Republic to advance.  A top 3 placement is a long shot and the U.S. faces a 50-50 proposition to even secure one of the 5 Pan American slots for the 2015 WC.   And, in regards to progress towards the long term the results are mixed at best.  There’s a bit of foundation established towards a run at 2020, but to a large degree the U.S. ends up having to start over.

Glass Empty Perspective:  The U.S. program manages only marginal progress in 18 months.  A handful of recruits are identified, but they aren’t “knock your socks off” athletes.  They’re developing as handball players, but not to the point where they’re really ready for international play.  The U.S. team ends up being mainly composed of hard-working veterans who’ve had less than satisfactory results in the past.  A more cohesive team thanks to the Residency Program, but not a whole lot better than previous teams sent to the 2011 PANAM Games and the 2013 Pan American Championships.  Meanwhile, the rest of Pan America also realizing the unique opportunity Brazil’s participation represents takes major strides forward investing in overseas training and coaching.   The U.S. faces a tough match in the second chance tournament against either Paraguay or Uruguay to simply qualify for the PANAM Games.  And, at the PANAM Games and Pan American Championships the U.S. team doesn’t come close to qualifying for the semis and ends up around 8th place.  Finally, perhaps the worst result of all, the National team sees a rash of retirements both from veteran players and newcomers distraught and unmotivated at the unlikely prospect of beating Brazil in 2019.  And, then the U.S. does as it has several times before, starts all over again with a new crop of athletes in 2017.

My Perspective:  As a skeptic of Residency Programs in general and someone that advocated against starting a program so quickly it should be no surprise that I lean more toward the glass half empty side of things.   Call me a pessimist if you like, but it truly will be an uphill battle.   There surely will be improvement, in my opinion, just not enough improvement to merit the expense in terms of funding and man-hours when the U.S. faces so many other challenges across the board in terms of grass roots development, marketing, etc.

All that being said you can also be assured that I would be more than happy to see 18 months hence, the glass half full or even better full with a ticket to Rio punched.