Note: This is part of an ongoing series, Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball (2019 Reboot): Link
Previously, I gave an overview of our entire pool of male athletes and our Sr National Team player pool. In this installment I break down our Sr National Team by our two best stocked positions, Goalkeeper and Circle Runner.
Small Player Pools and Statistical Variance
Whatever the sport, whatever the size of a nation’s player pool, there’s going to be variance in the quality of elite athletes available. A huge nation can have a couple of years where the talent is mediocre or a small nation can hit the jackpot with a golden generation. Variance can also appear in subsets by position. A team with great court players could get saddled with subpar goalkeeping. Or, vice versa, a world class keeper could be vainly fighting a gallant battle as his team struggles to score on the offensive end.
Again, this can happen with huge pools or small pools. But variability is far more likely to happen in small pools because… statistics. And, make no mistake about it, the U.S. is dealing with a small pool meaning that while things tend to trend toward the mean it should come as no surprise when it doesn’t. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. Relatively speaking here are two positions where the U.S. is dealing with talent much better than one would expect for such a small talent pool.
Goalkeepers: What a Deal: Our U21 Keepers are also our Sr Team Keepers
I don’t think too many people would argue with me that the goalkeeper is the hardest handball position to learn. It requires not only the ability to react quickly, but years of practice and competition to hone one’s skills and learn the little tricks to stop a few extra shots per game. So, let’s talk about some incredibly good statistical variance good fortune for the U.S:
Right now the #1 and #2 goalkeepers for the U.S. are both 20 years old.
It’s hard to understate what incredible good fortune that is. In theory, these goalies, Rene Ingram and Nicholas Robinson could be around for 10 to 15 years. Even 20 years. Of course, the career arc for goalkeepers is quite a bit different from other positions. There is a natural skill set for goalies in terms of quick reactions and a general sense of awareness as to how react. These are god given abilities that will become self-evident after a few years of playing the game. But, then over several years of training and game time experience the great goalkeepers are separated from the good keepers. The keepers that can take their skills to yet another level. Right now the U.S. has two good keepers aged 20 with the potential to be great. Below them are several other keepers who are also solid and could surprise. Hendrik Schultze is pretty good. Alden Mezick is really good for someone who’s never played in a regular competitive environment. However, those keepers and others are also older than the keepers that are ahead of them when the natural order of things would be the opposite.
This also presents a real challenging circumstance for any current or yet to be discovered stateside goalie. And, in turn, anyone thinking about recruiting some potential “diamond in the rough” goalies. Those would be goalies are starting with zero or substantially less experience, are likely older than our top two goalies and will be in inferior training environments. Translation (as if one is needed): They have little chance of cracking a national team depth chart. And, whatever little chance they would have would require several years of dedicated training. All, for an unlikely, big maybe. Not a recruiting pitch I would like to make.
Circle Runner: A Real Log Jam
The U.S. has no fewer than 8 circle runners that I can make a solid case for making a national team roster at a major competition in the years to come. 4 of these 8 (Srsen, Hueter, Donlin and Skorupa) have already played or are currently playing in Europe at the 2nd Division or higher level. Pound for pound this is clearly our strongest, best stocked position. Urrr…. Overstocked.
Talk about statistical variance! This overabundance is both crazy good luck and bad luck. True, none of these guys are playing with a Champions League club, but this is a solid group of athletes. From a U.S. perspective everyone under age 23 is on the all-time list of U23 circle runners. Christ, it is the list. Assuming natural progression as a player every single one would have been a candidate for our Olympic teams of the past. Problem is, however, is that teams rarely play with more than one circle runner at a time, meaning really only 2 are needed on a national team roster and perhaps 3 if you want to have a defensive specialist.
Further compounding this bad luck is that the circle runner is the easiest position to learn and, in turn, best suited to cross over athletes. As a former circle runner I don’t take offense with the “easiest to learn” description. It’s just a fact. Case in point. Here are two pretty good circle runner cross over athletes who’ve played at a pretty high level in handball nations where there are no shortage of athletes: Luka Karabatic (France) was primarily a tennis player until age 19 and Borja Vidal (Spain/Qatar) played basketball until age 24.
So, the one position where we could actually take gifted athletes (think non-NFL tight ends or non-NBA bruising power forwards) and turn them into handball players relatively quickly is already well stocked. Seriously, there maybe should be a temporary edict forbidding Americans living in Europe from playing circle runner. And, indeed, some of these athletes have been moved to the back court, especially for Jr and Youth competitions where the U.S. was lacking other options. It’s possible that they could continue that transition and develop into skilled back court players. It’s possible… But, in most cases there’s a reason they are playing circle runner with their club teams. It’s because that is where they are best suited.
So that’s the good news positions. In part 2, I’ll take a look at our back court and wing positions where we haven’t been so lucky in terms of variance.