Commentary and Analysis: USA Men vs. Alberta Jr. Team Series

It's a long way to Tipperary and to Auburn for that matter: Does it make more sense for the U.S. to Train in Europe? That thought along with analysis of the 4 match series played between the USA Men and Alberta Jrs

It’s a long way to Tipperary and to Auburn for that matter: Does it make more sense for the U.S. to train selected athletes in Europe? That thought along with analysis of the 4 match series played between the USA Men and Alberta Jrs.

The USA Men recently hosted the Alberta Men’s Jr. Men’s Team in a series of 4 matches played over 4 days (15-18 February, 2016). The U.S. won all 4 matches by the following scores

Match 1: USA 35, Alberta 25
Match 2: USA 30, Alberta 23
Match 3: USA 32, Alberta 25
Match 4: USA 29, Alberta 27

Links to Video of the matches courtesy of the Alberta Team Handball Federation: Link

The Good

4 games; 4 wins: A team should always get credit for winning matches. The U.S. faced some adversity and still came away with 4 victories.

Sticking with Residency Players: The U.S. has previously called in veterans and expats to shore up weaknesses against modest competition like Puerto Rico. Not so this time around. The U.S. fielded a roster entirely composed of players participating in the Residency Program. That’s the way it should be if you’re a believer in the Residency Program model.

Teamwork: It’s hard to get a full sense from Youtube videos of how well a team is working together, but I’ve got the impression that these players are bonding together as a unit.  Undoubtedly, they are facing a lot of adversity and a little bit of “us against the world” mentality has helped make that happen.

Better Handball Skills: It’s clear that these players, many of whom are relatively new to the game have leaned the fundamentals of the game. They look like a handball team. That’s real progress.

Notes on a few players:
– Joshua Norman: Norman plays a pretty good point on defense. His quickness and court awareness disrupted Alberta’s offense and made the U.S. defense better across the board.
– Alden Mezick: Mezick has developed into a pretty decent goalie. For his limited experience this is a significant accomplishment and it makes me wonder how much more progress he would make with regular competition against better players.
– Ty Reed: Reed has developed into a capable wing in a short period of time.

The Not So Good

Handball Skills Still Need a lot of Work: While the players have the fundamentals down one doesn’t have to look to hard to see that there’s still a lot of work left to be done. Backcourt play, in particular, is still pretty ineffective. There’s little question in my mind that veterans like El Zoghby, Hines and Axelsson are still far better options for those 3 critical positions. And, sight unseen I suspect some of the younger dual citizens playing in Europe are also better options as well. Yes, talent wise all that Auburn has accomplished so far is a promising goalie and a couple of credible options on the wing.

No Future Elite Professionals: Predicting future success on the handball court is a challenging proposition. It’s not easy even for professional scouts. Still, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by stating that I don’t think any of the athletes currently training at Auburn will ever don a jersey for a top professional club some day. Hard workers for sure, but I would be very surprised to see any of them playing in the HBL, LNH or for a Champions League side. 2nd Tier or 3rd Tier sides might be possible, however, for a few, but even that is a few years away.

The Lack of Promotion: Where was the best place to get information on these matches? Unfortunately, it was the Alberta Team Handball Federation. They posted scores on their Facebook page in a timely fashion and match videos on their Youtube page. They also posted travelogues with behind the scenes video of their trip. By contrast the U.S. only managed a couple of Facebook posts and the Federation website doesn’t even mention the games. The crowd in attendance was also pretty sparse. It’s almost as if the Federation didn’t want anyone attending or knowing about these matches.

The Unintended Contrasts

Competition Availability (North America vs. Europe): Perhaps nothing could drive home the “lack of regular competition” problem inherent with a U.S. base Residency Program more than the scheduling of a 4 game series between teams located in Alberta and Alabama. 2,400 miles, a 35 hr drive or a 10 hr plane trip with 2 stops. The European equivalent would be Barcelona playing Minsk. Many thanks to our Canadian friends who are willing to foot the bill for such a journey.

It makes me wonder if the cash strapped U.S. will be returning the favor at some point. Or more appropriately, it makes me wonder if anyone with the U.S. Federation will look a little more closely at moving selected athletes to a European training site like the Aarhus Academy. Instead of competition against a team like the Alberta Jrs. every 2 months or so they could be playing against more experienced European club teams on a weekly basis. And, some of those players could even get discovered for a coveted pro contract.

More information on the European Based Training Program the U.S. could consider: Link  

Grassroots vs. Residency Programs (Alberta vs. Alabama): I also can’t help but watch these matches for a couple of minutes without asking myself the following questions:

  • – How does a Canadian Province put together a Jr. Team that can compete with the U.S. Sr. National Team? The Alberta roster included five 18 year olds and no player older than 21. And, they’ve done it with no national federation funding.
  • – Could the U.S. develop a program in one U.S. state similar to what has been developed in Alberta? Seriously, just one state would be a good start. That’s all I’m asking.
  • – Why aren’t members of the Board of Directors and the Staff at USA Team Handball asking themselves the same questions?

More information on the “Alberta Option” for USA Team Handball to consider: Link

At least I’d like to think some decision makers are asking such questions. In the meantime, I’ll just keep shaking my head in puzzlement and keep telling myself it’s only a matter of time before smart people see the light.