Heading into the tournament I assessed (as did probably anyone else who follows Pan American Handball) that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Brazil and Argentina would take 1st and 2nd in the tournament. True to form, both sides dominated their groups and waltzed to the final where Brazil again showed their total dominance with a 38 – 20 pasting of Argentina in the gold medal game. Brazil is simply in a class by itself with no other team posing a serious threat. Argentina has also created some separation between itself and the rest of Pan America, but it is at least conceivable that they could lose to another team besides Brazil.
As far as the prediction that at least 6 other sides had a legitimate shot at taking 3rd place it wasn’t too far off the mark. I figured that Uruguay and Puerto Rico were the strongest of the little 6, but it was Paraguay that seized the opportunity and qualified for the World Championships.
The USA Women had their best Pan American Championship placement since 2003, finishing 5th overall in the field of 10 teams. The tournament started out poorly for the U.S. as they were first blitzed 42-10 by Brazil and then suffered a 29-25 goal loss to Puerto Rico. They rebounded after an off day with a 31-17 victory against Colombia and then saw Paraguay beat Puerto Rico giving them a chance to qualify for the semifinals with their last Group Play game against Paraguay. The U.S. needed a 5 goal victory to advance, but ended up battling from behind most of the game to an eventual 29-25 loss.
To the U.S. Women’s credit they didn’t hang their heads, but finished the tournament strong in consolation play. They first had a relatively easy 27-20 win over Chile and then got some revenge against Puerto Rico (27-26) to finish up in 5th place.
The team had some solid individual performances. Kathy Darling led the team in scoring with 30 goals. It’s clear that playing in France has helped her understand how to best maximize her size and strength advantage. Sarah Gascon played a key role on defense and as a utility player on offense. Together, those 2 veterans continue to provide leadership for the team when some (myself included) would have figured they would have been retired from international play a few years ago.
Nicole Andersen, just 20 years old, added some very welcome scoring punch in the backcourt. Jence Rhoads has developed into a solid center back and did a good job of distributing the ball. Wings Julia Taylor and Zoe Lombard were reliable scorers on the wing and fast break. Finally, Sophie Fasold had a good tournament in goal and her steady play helped keep the U.S. in contact with the opposition when the score might have gone further south.
All in all, this is a team that from all appearances stuck together through some tough situations. No superstars, just some hard nosed women battling together and playing to the best of their abilities. Coach Christian Latulippe deserves credit for bringing them together as a group despite just a couple of opportunities for the team to train together prior to the tournament. And, for keeping them motivated to finish strong in consolation play.
Official Tournament Website: Link
Now here’s some further reflection on the Women’s Team performance and future. (Yeah, time for some analysis that’s less warm and fuzzy.)
The Importance of Goal Differential and Some Very Debatable Coaching Decisions
While finishing 5th is our best performance in years I can’t help but think that a semifinals berth and a chance to play for World Championship Qualification was well within reach for the taking. It’s easy to sit back in the comfort of your own home and yell at the screen, but not so easy to make the actual decisions. But, one thing I kept yelling over and over was:
“OMG. Please stop playing with 7 offensive players and no goalie! It’s not going to work… Can’t you see that it’s not working. Put your goalie back in. Just stop it. Stop it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I actually love the 7 player offensive strategy and the dynamic it has added to the game since being introduced last summer. Why, I even wrote a nice ode to Belgium’s use of it against France. With the right team and the right situation it’s a strategy that should be implemented more often than it is by risk adverse coaches. It speeds up the game, creates more possessions and can help a team catch up quicker.
While it arguably may have been the right situation at times to implement, the USA Women, quite frankly just don’t have the right personnel. They are too prone to turnovers on offense and they don’t have the team speed. The USA Women, as currently constituted, play better when the game is at a slower pace and they can set up defensively. Doesn’t mean they can’t fast break, just means that it needs to be done when the opportunity presents itself in a controlled manner.
The U.S. used this 7 vs 6 strategy towards the end of the Puerto Rico match and it resulted in a couple of empty net goals for Puerto Rico. Maybe, it was a wash, but my assessment is that it didn’t really help the U.S. offense that much and it took away the opportunity for the U.S. to shut down Puerto Rico defensively. In the end I think it cost the U.S. a few goals and turned a 1 or 2 goal loss into a 4 goal loss. And, that 4 goal deficit would later have a huge impact in that it necessitated a 5 goal victory vs Paraguay instead of perhaps 2 or 3 goal margin.
In the Paraguay match the U.S. used the 7 player strategy pretty much the entire game. I counted 3 empty net goals and 3 empty net misses (whew). Again, I don’t think it helped that much on offense and that the strategy played right into the hands of the quicker and younger Paraguay team. Further, the U.S. decided to defensively mark Paraguay’s Center Back most of the game. This had the effect of the U.S. essentially playing 5 vs 5 handball defensively against Paraguay. While Paraguay’s Center Back is a quality player it was pretty clear to me that the other 5 players were more than able to compensate for her absence. This is because the smaller, quicker Paraguay team had more room along the 9 meter line to operate and score on breakthroughs. Honestly, the hallmark for the women the past decade or so has been their solid 6-0 defense. It’s a wall that hardly anyone in Pan America can shoot over and requires a lot of side to side movement for the offense to find holes that can be penetrated. And, if you turn a 6-0 defense into a 5-0 defense those holes just get bigger.
Combined, the 7 player offensive strategy and the defensive marking really played up Paraguay’s strengths and the U.S. weaknesses. Again, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but I would love to see the U.S. play Paraguay straight up and see what happens. Unfortunately, we likely won’t get that opportunity for another 2 years.
USA vs Paraguay: Video Link
Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (A Very Important Number)
I’ve written on numerous occasions that for the past several years the U.S. Women’s teams have been populated with far too many athletes that are mismatched in terms of age and technical skills. That essentially we have a developmental team that runs the risk of losing too many players due to “life issues” prior to them becoming world class athletes on a competitive national team. Here’s a closer look at some of those age numbers.
- U.S. Side Gets Younger (with the help of Dual Citizens). I’m pleased to report that the U.S. actually fielded a team with a younger roster (26.9) than it has had at the previous 2 Pan American Championships. The caveat, however, is that this is due to the addition of some dual citizens. Nicole Andersen (20) and Ashley Butler (19) not only bring that average down, they also have potential. As with any player, they may or may not pan out in terms of further development, but time is on their side.
- Our Comparative Rivals are Still Quite a Bit Younger. The average age of the Paraguay and Puerto Rico rosters were 22.8 and 23.4, respectively. Again, who knows which players will pan out, but time is on our rivals’ side. Brazil is around the same age, but their older players are also full time professionals.
So, that’s a top level overview. In part 2, I’ll take a big picture view and assess whether this “better” performance can be interpreted as a sign of progress.