USA Men Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification: Can we get “there” from “here”?

Can the U.S. men qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?  I think the logo pretty much answers the question.

Can the U.S. men qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? I think the logo pretty much answers the question.

Yesterday, I took a look at the chances that the USA Women’s team could qualify for the 2020 Olympics.  Today, I assess the USA Men’s chances.

The Competition: Brazil and Argentina: Two sides now of European quality

This past Olympics was a little unique in that due to Brazil’s hosting, 2 slots available for Pan American sides.  Instead of an epic battle between Brazil and Argentina for one coveted slot, both teams were assured passage to Rio once they won their semifinal game.  And, I really mean it when I say epic because these two rivals have battled each other for the coveted Olympic Games bid since 2003.  Brazil won in 2003 and 2007, Argentina won in 2011, while Brazil won the relatively meaningless match in 2015.

And that’s just for the PANAM Games, Brazil and Argentina have also played each other in the final of the Pan American Championships held every two years, except for this year’s final which saw Chile sneak into the final by virtue of Argentina’s pool play upset loss to Greenland.  For the record, Argentina won in 2002, 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2014, while Brazil took the title in 2006, 2008 and 2016.

And, by virtue of those Pan American final showdowns, the Brazilians and Argentinians are regular fixtures at the World Championships where they’ve shown steady improvements in performance, to the point where I argued after the 2015 World Championship that they are now essentially European quality sides: Link

Their performance at the Olympics does nothing, but further validate that assessment.  Argentina was even missing their best player, Diego Simonet, (heck maybe the best player to ever come out of Pan America) was still able to keep games close, losing a heartbreaker to Croatia in the closing seconds.

The implications of Brazil and Argentina reaching this level of play are huge, because even the USA teams of the 80s never quite reached that level.  Yes, the men played some competitive games at the 1984 Olympics, but that performance on home soil against a boycott weakened field doesn’t match the resume of what these two teams have accomplished the past few years.

Professionals beat Amateurs almost every time

Further, and this can’t be underemphasized, the Brazilian and Argentina sides starting lineups now consist almost entirely of full time professional athletes.  It’s a mixture in terms of what level they are playing at, but many are playing for some top level clubs.  Meanwhile, the US has just a handful of players, mostly dual citizens, who are playing in Europe at lower levels.

At the 2016 Pan American Championships in June the U.S. fielded a side with just one professional, Gary Hines, who plays in the German 3rd Division.  The rest of the roster was composed of athletes training with the residency program at Auburn and veteran athletes living in the U.S., but not training on a regular basis. The men’s performance was typical of recent years, finishing 8th out of the 12 teams participating.  They beat weak, really inexperienced sides like Paraguay and Colombia, and lost relatively close games to comparable sides like Mexico and Puerto Rico.  Against eventual champion Brazil they lost 40-15.  I did not see this game, but this is without a doubt a real drubbing that probably could have been worse if Brazil was so inclined.  Team USA’s best match of the tournament was probably a 37-30 loss to Greenland.  And, while that may get a few snickers to the uniformed, Greenland actually has a few players playing for top clubs in Denmark.  They even beat Argentina 25-23 in Group Play.  The fact that the U.S. played Greenland close at least provides a glimmer of hope for better results in the future.

But, only a glimmer of hope because the reality is that Greenland is not Brazil or Argentina.  And, to qualify for the 2020 Olympics Team USA won’t just need one big upset, but two big upsets.  This is because Brazil and Argentina are both very likely to win their respective groups at the 2019 PANAM Games.  And, if the USA can qualify for the semis (a big if) they will need to first knock off one of those 2 sides in the semis and then turn around the next day and knock off the other in the final.  Of course, upsets are always possible and that could change the matchups, but this is the likely scenario.  And, while it’s possible to imagine amateurs beating pros in one big upset it’s really defying the odds to envision two such back to back upsets.

Yeah, but we’re Americans

So, to review the task at hand is putting together a team in 3 years time that can win the Gold Medal at the 2019 PANAM Games in Lima, Peru.  And, this team will likely need to beat both Brazil and Argentina, two sides that the U.S. hasn’t beaten in 20 years.  (And, I think those losses have all been double digit blowouts.)

I know what people are saying, particularly relative newcomers to the sport, “We’ve got the best athletes in the world. The game’s not that hard.  We put our mind to it, we can do it.”  You know, I actually see the logic somewhat.  Honestly, you look at Argentina’s team and they certainly don’t look physically imposing.  But, looks are deceiving and results are results.  We’ve got 20 years of negative data that says otherwise.

Maybe, there will be a tremendous recruiting surge courtesy of the Olympics and we’ll get around 20 high quality athletes that are willing to move to Auburn immediately and train full time in austere conditions.  Maybe, some billionaire will show up and change that austerity overnight into a full up residency program.  Anything can happen.  In all, likelihood though, we’ll get some decent athletes, but not quite as physically gifted as we need them to be, plus a little bit older than what we need.  And, maybe we’ll get some more sponsorship, but it will still fall short of what we need to run a residency program right.

And honestly even if we somehow recruited the athletes and received the necessary funding I still don’t think we can get there from here in just 3 years time.  Yes, as I highlighted with my earlier commentary regarding the Women’s team’s chances it’s time to focus on 2024 with some age appropriate recruiting and grass roots programs that might give us a decent chance of qualifying in 2023.  And, who knows, maybe if LA gets to host in 2024 we could even put together a team capable of some upsets on home soil.