2015 Women’s Pan American Championships: An Opportunity Squandered and Time to Reassess the Women’s Program

The Numbers

By the numbers:  A snapshot of the U.S. Team performance at the 2015 Pan American Championships.

By the numbers: A snapshot of the U.S. Team performance at the 2015 Pan American Championships.

For reference, here’s a similar table from the 2013 Pan American Championships: Link

An Opportunity Squandered

Going into the tournament, based on recent results I pegged the U.S. as most likely finishing in 4th, 7th or 8th place. This was based on a favorable draw placing the U.S. in the same group as 2 teams it recently had beaten (Greenland and Puerto Rico) and 2 unknown quantities (Paraguay and Venezuela). But, Puerto Rico and Greenland had other plans and they apparently made some adjustments to turn the tables on the U.S. Coupled with losses to Brazil and Paraguay and a victory over Venezuela, the U.S. was relegated to consolation play where they then easily defeated Guatemala before losing to Chile in the 9th place game.

If you are a cynic you can look at the team’s overall ranking (10th out of 12 teams) and conclude that it was the worst performance in U.S. history.  And, in terms of final team ranking you would be 100% correct.

Recent Result in Pan American Competitions

2007 Pan American Championships: 7th out of 8 teams
2007 PANAM Games: Did not qualify
2009 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 PANAM Games: 8th out of 8 teams
2013 Pan American Championships: 8th out of 10 teams
2015 Pan American Championships: 10th out 12 teams
2015 PANAM Games: Did not Qualify

If you are more of an optimist, however, you could look at the score lines and conclude that the performance was better than other recent Pan American Championships in that the U.S. was competitive in every single game except their first game against eventual champion Brazil. And, even in that game it was close for a half.

Overall, I lean a bit more, however, to the cynic side of things. This was a golden opportunity to send a team to the World Championship. Unfortunately the team that seized that opportunity, though, was Puerto Rico.

Some Key Data Points that Should Raise Some Questions

U.S. Roster Average Age: 28.5: I’ve highlighted on numerous occasions that the average age of the U.S. National Team is much higher than it should be for a team that is essentially a developmental team. Across the board, the players on the U.S. roster are about 4 to 5 years older than they should be for the skill level they currently have. Yes, they can continue to improve, but their raw athletic ability will continue to decline and life issues will inevitably start to interfere with their ability to fully committ to the sport. I’ve been told that a youth movement is coming, but I see no signs of it. Instead I see a handful of “new” players that aren’t exactly “young” or exceptionally gifted. Dedicated, hard working for sure, but that will only get you so far.  Finally, I haven’t seen the rosters with the birth dates of the other nations participating in the tournament, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. had the oldest team participating.

Top 3 Scorers (Goals) (Training Location):
Karoline Borg (30) (Norway)
Kathy Darling (26) (France)
Julia Taylor (22) (France)

Borg plays for Njard in Norway’s 1st Division (actually the 2nd level in Norway) while Taylor and Darling have been playing at the N1F level (the 3rd level) in France. Taylor, however, has been only practicing this year, but has signed a contract for next year.

Probably, not coincidentally, they also were the 3 leading scorers for Team USA scoring nearly half of the U.S. goals (78 of 161). Borg even left the tournament early for college exams, but still ended up leading the team in scoring. Regular competition hones skills and keeps players at the top of their game. A Residency Program in Alabama simply can’t provide the competition experience that a decent club in Europe can provide.

Maybe if the U.S. had more players playing in Europe we’d be having a different conversation altogether. As, I’ve pointed out in the past, a Residency Program might have some real value if its goal was primarily to develop younger players to the point where they can play competitively in Europe at a higher level club.

References related to Puerto Rico’s Quickness in the USA Team Handball Match Summary: 5. Sometimes without witnessing a match it’s hard to get a sense as to what happened, but this recap sure gives the reader some good insight as to how Puerto Rico turned the tables on the U.S. And, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the U.S. play in recent years. Team USA lacks quickness that often can be exploited with the right tactics. As a former leaden foot defender myself, I sympathize mightily. Focus and determination will only carry you so far. The U.S. really needs to emphasize quickness in it’s recruiting if it wants better results.

Currently Non-Training Veteran Players (Called Up): 2
Residency Players (Staying Home): 7 (Estimate)

Two athletes (Jennifer Fithian and Tomuke Holmes) on the 16 player roster are currently not active with a club or training at the Residency Program in Alabama. Hats off to these two veterans for making the roster. It can be extremely challenging to keep yourself fit and your handball skills sharp, but they’ve done it. It’s certainly not their fault that they were deemed more valuable than players training full time at Auburn. In particular, it’s downright amazing that Tomuke Ebuwei at nearly 39 years of age can beat out athletes nearly half her age that are training full time.

The decision to call in veterans instead of Residency Program athletes, though, is a glaring indicator that USA Team Handball is not getting the types of recruits it would like to. I would surmise that if the decision on what athletes would make the team was close the edge would have gone to younger athletes with more future potential. The fact that it apparently wasn’t a close call is an indictment on recruiting.

Stephanie Hesser Stats
2013 Pan American Championship goals scored: 27 (led team)
2015 Pan American Championship goals scored: 0 (failed to make team roster)

Probably, what has me shaking my head the most is that Team USA’s leading scorer from the 2013 Pan American Championship, Stephanie Hesser, couldn’t earn a spot amongst the 16 players selected for 2015. Based on the U.S. team’s results her performance in training has either fallen dramatically or there’s something else going on behind the scenes. All the more troubling because at 21 she’s one of the few players young enough and skilled enough to possibly be a game changer for the program in her mid to late twenties.

Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification

With 2016 Olympic Qualification now 100% over thoughts turn towards 2020 prospects. Barring a change to the Olympic Qualification process this will likely mean defeating the current World Champions Brazil in 2019 at the PANAM Games in Peru. The U.S. played Brazil close for a half, before losing 28-14 in Group Play. A far better score line than other recent encounters, but this Brazil team was not the same team that won the World Championships 18 months earlier. With several players unavailable due to European club commitments this experimental side had only 5 hold overs from the WC squad and was essentially a Brazilian B Side that had never played together before as a team. And, they still dominated the tournament.

Come 2019 it’s likely that Brazil won’t be quite as strong a team as they are now, but it’s hard to think that they will have dropped too far in quality. It’s a real stretch, though, to think we can put together a side to knock them off. But, I’d like to think that come 4 years the U.S. will be able to field a better side. A team that is capable of qualifying for the PANAM Games and securing a World Championship slot. There’s a couple of ways the U.S. could go about such an effort, though.

  • It could keep the basic roster intact and add a handful of players gradually. This would present the best chances for near term success and qualification for the 2017 World Championships.
  • It could overhaul the roster and purposefully recruit younger athletes, ideally athletes in the 18-22 age bracket. This would probably limit chances for near term success, but could set the stage for a realistic run at 2024 Olympic qualification

Time for Some Accountability?

To sum up it’s really hard to put a silver lining on this recent performance. And, logically it’s time for USA Team Handball to consider making some personnel decisions.

It’s no secret I thought the original hiring of Coach Latulippe was highly questionable due to his poor record in his first go round with the U.S. and a very mixed record as a club coach in France. These results are pretty strong evidence that the second go round isn’t going much better. I don’t think USA Team Handball should be spending its limited funds on a full time coach, but if they do decide such a position should be funded it’s time to start a search for a new coach.

And, USA Team Handball should also take a long look at keeping the man who hired Coach Latulippe, High Performance Director, Dave Gascon. I’ve disagreed with just about everything he’s been involved with for the past several years, from the failure to hire a new CEO in time for the promotional opportunities of the 2012 Olympics, to the short circuiting of the Strategic Planning organized by the USOC, to the hiring of full time coaches even before a Residency Program was established to the rush to approve the Auburn Residency program prior to the seating of a full board of directors. One decision after another that has had negative consequences or has yet to bear any significant fruit. All that being said, he’s to be commended for his time, all of which has been done at no cost to USA Team Handball.

Still, in my opinion it’s time to take stock.  To take a look at metrics such as team results and player recruiting and assess whether reasonable targets are being met now and what the trendlines look like if the status quo continues.  I think if that is done objectively the conclusion will be that it’s time to find some new blood and give those individuals an opportunity to see if they can have better success going forward.