Part 1: Grass Roots vs National Team Focus: Recent National Team Losses Should Raise Doubts on National Team Focus

Intrepide Youth

How does a club team in Guadeloupe beat a national team from the U.S.? Answer: It’s start with superior youth development programs.

This past April the USA Women’s National Team traveled to Puerto Rico where they played several matches.  They lost twice to the Puerto Rican national team, beat the Puerto Rican junior national team and lost twice to French Guadeloupe’s top club team, Intrepide.  Depending on your perspective these results could be considered as either totally disheartening or a sign of mild progression.  If your perspective is that of an old timer you’re disappointed as Puerto Rico is a team that the U.S. would typically beat by 10 goals or more.  If your perspective is more recent it’s a sign of mild progression as the Puerto Rican team is roughly equal to the U.S. and we were able to play competitively against them in their home country.

More interesting to me, however, are the the two losses against, Club Intrepide, and the contrast it presents.  Most Americans probably don’t know much about France’s Overseas Departments: Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion Island.  I, for one, was fairly ignorant about them until I lived in France and started following French sports more closely.  France’s national handball and basketball teams have several players from these Islands far removed from France.  And athletes from from these islands also play on a number of club teams in France.  I saw this first hand in the over 35 basketball league I played in while living in Paris. Trust me, those guys from the Caribe can play ball and this tall American player knew he was in for a workout, but also thankfully for some Ti’ Punch after the match.

Still, Guadaloupe has only around 400,000 inhabitants and the town of Sainte-Anne where Club Intrepide is based has 23,000 residents.  How does a small town with very modest living conditions put together a club that can beat the U.S. National Team?  Well, there are probably a number of reasons, but I would argue that the underlying reason is that the tiny town of Sainte-Anne has a better organized and structured youth program than what the entire U.S.has put together coast to coast.  Most likely the players on Club Intrepide have been playing since their early teens, if not earlier.  Whereas most of the players on the U.S. weren’t introduced to the sport until their 20’s.

U.S. Women’s Team:  Modest Progress or Regression?

In theory, with 318 million people the U.S. can overcome its lack of developed youth programs by finding and training top notch athletes regardless of age.  And, superior athleticism can indeed trump skill and experience if the athleticism gap is big enough.  But, that’s a big “if” and these recent results are a pretty strong indication that the U.S. isn’t overwhelming it’s competition athletically.  Instead it is simply a continuation of less than satisfactory results seen in 2011 and 2013.  And, while Rome wasn’t built in a day there should be an expectation of better results.

Even more concerning is a not widely advertised loss that the U.S. Women suffered against West Point at the Collegiate nationals.  (I did not see this match, but heard one of the commentators mention it during one of the other matches.)  I suspect that the U.S side had some very recent additions to the U.S. Residency program, but there’s still no excuse for ever losing to a collegiate team. Residency athletes are supposed to be the cream of the crop, training on a daily basis and should be able to overwhelm a collegiate side.  Still, I will say it’s not the first time a Service Academy side has played a National Team close:  When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy we narrowly lost a close match vs the U.S. National Team.  Thing is, though:  I was on the Men’s club team and we lost to the Women’s National Team.  (Maybe, this gives you some perspective as to where I’m coming from when I make an assessment that not one single player on the current USA Women’s team would have made any of our Olympic rosters from 84 to 96!)

Don’t Blame the Athletes

I’d like to make some perfectly clear.  I do not, nor should anyone else, blame the athletes for their lack of success.  They are a hard working bunch making a lot of sacrifices to improve their game.  They’ve been given the opportunity to train full time at a Residency Program and they’re doing their best to make the most of it.  Heck, in many respects as a former national team player with modest skills I really identify with them and their dreams.

Taking Stock: Are Residency Programs the best place to spend limited resources?

No, if blame is to be assigned that blame goes straight to the decision makers.  And, basically the fundamental question is whether it is better to direct resources towards athletes chasing the 2016 dream or towards efforts that will improve chances for U.S. success in 2020 or 2024.  As someone who’s a already expended quite a bit of time and energy addressing this question it’s fairly clear where I stand.  Although, written a year ago little has changed to alter my position.  In fact, it’s hardened as 2016 Olympic Qualification seems more unlikely now, the Auburn program seems to be a bit on the austere side and the prospect of a U.S. hosted 2024 Olympics seems even more likely.

Some might argue that resources directed towards 2016 also helps the out years, but the reality is that there’s minimal overlap at this point in time.  This is especially true if you look at the ages of both the men’s and women’s team.  The women’s program at Auburn is especially long in the tooth with many players in their late 20s.  Even worse in what I’ll generously call highly questionable recruiting the U.S. has brought in several rookies that probably range in age from 24-29.  (I say probably, because the U.S. Federation doesn’t list the ages of it’s athletes on its website and ages were deduced by internet searches for their last year of college.)  If out year success is desired it goes without saying that this sort of recruit should be the very rare exception instead of the norm.

The U.S. Federation hasn’t provided much in terms of rationale for this spending decision other than that previous residency programs have resulted in most successful national teams for the U.S.  A true statement, but one that neglects a number of “Yes, buts” to include:

  • That previous success wasn’t all that successful:  No Olympic medals and zero victories over top European sides in Olympic or WC competition.
  • European leagues are far more professionalized now:  Virtually every top athlete in the world is now training and competing regularly in a professional environment superior to the club and national team regimens of the past, further widening the gap between what the U.S. can do with a residency program.
  • Our competition in Pan America is now much stiffer: Grass Roots development in Latin America has resulted in stronger national teams, both technically and athletically.  And, their top players are now playing for top European clubs.
  • More post college opportunities for collegiate athletes:  Playing opportunities with decent salaries abound for 2nd and 3rd tier athletes in many sports making recruiting crossover athletes even more challenging.

Quite frankly, I am totally perplexed that smart people don’t look at these stark realities and come to the same conclusion that I have:  That a Residency Program focused on crossover athletes in their mid to late 20’s has very little chance of success.  That it is a huge drain on very limited resources.  And, that other paths and possibilities need to be considered, carefully assessed and pursued.

What are some of those possibilities?  In part 2 I will identify some options for consideration but, only after I first take a closer look at the current club situation and the state of grass roots development in the U.S.