Commentary:   USA Team Handball Fails to Qualify for the Olympic Qualifier: An Opportune Time for a Status Check and to Set Plans for the Future

Gut Check Time:  Does USA Team Handball have a plan to hike its way out of the forest or is it just walking in circles?

Gut Check Time: Does USA Team Handball have a plan to hike its way out of the forest or is it just walking in circles?

This past Saturday, the USA Women and Men lost to Uruguay in the 2nd Leg matches for the Last Chance Qualifier for the PANAM Games.  The Women lost 24-22 and the Men lost 28-20. The USA Women ended up with a 7 goal aggregate loss and the USA Men ended up with a 4 goal aggregate loss. Match Recap: Link

These results simply cannot be sugar coated. Failing to qualify for the Olympics is one thing. Anyone familiar with our National Team’s results the past few years knew it was going to be tough to beat Argentina. But, losing to Uruguay and not even qualifying for the Olympic Qualifying Event (i.e.; the PANAM Games)? Without a doubt this is an unavoidably stark reminder as to where our National Programs stand.

Let’s be honest: The U.S. is not even close to the level it needs to be to qualify for an Olympics. We don’t just need a couple more players, or a few more months of training or a few more games. Maybe if we had qualified for the PANAM Games and gone toe to toe with Argentina and/or Brazil in the semifinals this summer before falling short we could rationalize that we’re almost there, but that didn’t happen. Not even close.

With Failure Comes Opportunity

Failure, however, can also be an opportunity. Olympic qualification for the Men is no longer possible and the Women now only have a very, very remote chance. (The U.S. Women’s would need to qualify for the World Championships and then finish in an unprecedented 7th place.) While there are other goals for our National Teams for a variety of reasons Olympic Qualification is without question the main target. With 2016 gone as a possibility the U.S. will now not play another match related to Olympic Qualification until December, 2018, at the earliest. With no immediate pressing need it’s therefore an opportune time to step back, take stock and plan for the way ahead.

2020 Olympic Prospects

Part of that taking stock is an assessment of what the U.S. prospects are for 2020 qualification. And, taking a look at our current teams and our Pan American competition reveals a very tough road ahead. For the Women, it’s particularly bleak. The average age of the 2nd chance roster is 28 and the bulk of the scoring is coming from athletes 30 and older. The U.S. needs a roster overhaul and it’s debatable as to whether there are enough quality prospects joining the program with the right age/athletic ability combination to take the U.S. to the next level. Seriously, there would have to be several already on the team making key contributions before we could even realistically contemplate the monumental task of taking down the current World Champions, Brazil. Brazil will likely not be as strong in 2019, but it’s unlikely they will drop down near as much a we need to go up. With the men’s team it’s much the same story. The Argentine and Brazilian Men aren’t as good as the Brazilian Women, but there’s still a huge gap. And, the U.S. Men aren’t very young either with the roster for the 2nd chance tourney having a guestimated average age of 27. A couple of players are on the younger side, but several players are pushing 30 or have passed it.

I’m not suggesting that the U.S. shouldn’t even try to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, but a real hard look should be taken at how resources are to be expended towards 2020 qualification. For example, if expenditures for a residency program and/or full time coaching are only going to improve our chances of qualification from 2% to 5% are they still worthwhile expenditures? Might it be better to expend resources towards a development initiative that would improve qualification chances in 2024 from 10% to 40%?   Those are questions that should be asked.

Planning for Today vs. Planning for Tomorrow

With many efforts there is an inherent conflict between either planning for today or tomorrow. Or, perhaps more accurately, the “near term” or “long term.” Or, even more accurately planning for a “defined” near term” or a “defined” long term. I say defined, because sometimes people would just as soon not define what their time frame is because in doing so they will be forced to make decisions they’d prefer to avoid having to make.

And, sometimes folks will like to argue (or worse, just assume) that near term efforts are by default also supporting long term plans. This, however, is often a bad assumption and one that has all too often been true for USA Team Handball. Case in point: Have the efforts of the past 3 years (hiring full time coaches, rushing to build a residency program and in the case of the women populating that program almost entirely with athletes over the age of 25 really paved the way for long term success? Or, has it been overly focused on questionable, short term goals? For sure, I’ve got my opinion, but what’s done is done.

Instead, it’s best to start fresh and ask some tough questions regarding what makes sense going forward. Here are just a few questions that should be asked:

Full time head coaches: Despite limited resources, 3 years ago the decision was made to hire full time coaches. Have these hires produced satisfactory results? How is their performance being measured? Can the U.S. continue to afford this expenditure or should the funds and man-hours be spent on other critical needs? Will having full time head coaches significantly improve U.S. performance or would the U.S. have similar results with just part time coaches?

Recruiting: Is USA Team Handball successfully recruiting the types of athletes it needs to build long term success? Or, is it recruiting too many athletes that are in their mid 20s with limited raw athletic skills? Is it even realistic for USA Team Handball to recruit the types of athletes that were more readily available in the 70s, 80s and 90s? Even if these athletes can be recruited can they be trained quickly enough to beat quality teams like Argentina and Brazil that have developed through their youth programs?

Residency Programs: In the fall of 2013 the U.S. established a residency program at Auburn University. Is this program producing satisfactory results? What are the established metrics being used to assess performance? Is the program too austere to attract the types of athletes desired? Can the program be effectively focused on both near term National Team performance and individual player development? Is Auburn the best location for this program or should other locations like Boston be pursued? Or, would USA Team Handball be better off sending its handful of top notch prospects to an overseas location like the Aarhus Handball Academy where they could get weekly match competition?

Some More Prognostication

It’s my own personal opinion that asking and answering these questions and others will logically lead USA Team Handball into a different direction than the path it’s been on the past couple of years. At the very least it would lead to some major tinkering with the structure and goals of the Residency Program at Auburn. And, it could depending on more detailed analysis lead to radical changes such as closing or mothballing the program at Auburn, pumping resources into targeted youth programs, an arrangement with an overseas entity like the Aarhus Academy or even going all-in on the likelihood of a Boston Olympics.

My fear, however, is that little such introspection will take place and the U.S. will muddle about for the next few years with a program at Auburn that looks much like it does now. Our national teams will continue to struggle, but hopefully show some signs of marginal improvement. Perhaps improving to the point where we can beat other 2nd tier nations in PATHF and qualify for the World Championships, but not progressing to the point where we can beat Argentina and Brazil. And, then when we fail to qualify in 2019 there will be a changing of the guard. Dozens of players will have already come and gone and several more will retire. And then a new batch of crossover athletes will be brought in. If there’s an Olympics in Boston we may even finally decide to move the Residency Program there. Recruiting and funding will naturally tick up and the U.S. will field some respectable sides that won’t embarrass. We’ll also have an uptick in grass roots interest like that which was seen in LA and Atlanta, but we’ll again slide back into to the same 3rd tier status the sport has always had in America.

Stay the Course? Are We Really, Really Sure that Makes Sense?

Maybe those are satisfactory results for some. With several years of “nothing” going on for our national teams under the Esch regime, the common refrain has been “at least we’re doing “something” now.” And, to many old timers I think the idea of setting up a Residency Program similar, if but a little more austere, brings back nostalgia for the good old days. That the program will soon be back to the level of the 80s and 90s.  And, maybe just maybe, we’ll somehow even exceed expectations this time around.

Believe it or not, I fully understand why some folks have this outlook. Heck, occasionally I even find myself guilty of such nostalgia. I guess I’m just a bit too analytical, though, to keep the rose colored glasses on very long. The bitter reality is that those good old days weren’t nearly as good as we like to remember them. The historical results are an epic pile of losses. The Men’s Olympic record is 4-24-1; The Women’s Olympic record is 4-19-0. In World Championship competition the men are 0-16-0 and the women 4-24-0.

And, keep in mind those are the “great” results are from a different era. We haven’t even been good enough to qualify for those events for several years otherwise we’d be adding quite a few more “L’s to those dismal records. Further compounding the problem is that handball is way more professionalized today and our competition is much stiffer in Pan America. Time was that we could take some great athletes in the 22-25 age range, spend 2 or 3 years training them up and qualify for an Olympics. The new reality is that even if, and it’s a big if, we can recruit the same quality of athletes post college we recruited in the past it’s doubtful that we could now even qualify a team for the Olympics, let alone come close to beating a European team.

Maybe what’s been started at Auburn is going to be truly different. That this past weekend’s stumble in Uruguay was just a momentary hiccup on the road to slow and steady improvement. That it’s only a matter of time till our Residency Program at Auburn starts building teams that will make short work of sides like Uruguay, Chile and Greenland. And, just a bit more time till we’re beating Argentina and Brazil, qualifying for the Olympics and even knocking off some European sides.

I guess anything is truly possible. The thing is, though, I’ve seen this movie before and I’ve yet to read or hear anything that articulates just how this movie’s going to have a different ending. We may be doing “something” but so is a lost hiker in the woods walking around in circles.

Time to Start Focusing on 2024

As I see it, the alternative is to develop a long term strategic plan with 2024 as a target and focus point for both National Team and Grass Roots development. Why 2024? Two reasons:

  • There’s no quick fix to our National Teams that will dramatically improve our chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification. Focusing on 2024 will buy more time to identify, recruit and develop talent. Still a challenge, but a more realistic one.
  • There’s a significant chance that Boston will host the 2024 Olympics meaning that the U.S. will not have to qualify. And, a hosted Olympics could be the vehicle to build some sustainable grass roots that can keep the U.S. competitive for years to come.

How exactly would this be done? Just how would it be different than what is being set up at Auburn? Very good questions. I know that perhaps, I come off as a “Mr. Know It All” sometimes, but, I’ll be up front and state, I don’t know the answers to those questions. Sure, I’ve got some ideas and I’ve started to flesh out some possibilities, but it’s not a simple problem with an obvious solution.

What I do know, though, is this. A comprehensive plan is needed. The sooner, the better.  But, that’s just what I think. The real question is what USA Team Handball leadership thinks. If there ever was a time to take stock and potentially change course, that time is now.