What We Have: America’s Team Handball Demographics: USA Men’s National Team (A Closer Look by Position, Part 2)

At this past summer’s PANAM Games, 44 year old Sayed Shalaby was an important contributor for Team USA.  His making the team at that age says a lot about his skill and determination.  However, it also says quite a bit about our lack of depth at the back court position.

Note: This is part of an ongoing series, Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball (2019 Reboot): Link

Previously, I broke down our Sr National Team by our two best stocked positions, Goalkeeper and Circle Runner. In this installment I take a closer look at our thin back court and wing positions

Handball:  It Takes a “Team” to Win, but it all Starts with a Solid Back Court

Anyone who follows handball learns pretty quickly that it’s a true team sport.  6 court players working together on offense and 6 court players and a goalkeeper working in tandem together on defense.  One great player can make a big difference in a handball match, but not quite to the extent a great player can in other sports like basketball or like a QB can in American football.

That being said if you’ve played the game or have become a student of the sport, you know that you simply can’t have a great or even a good team without a solid back court.  The reason for this is primarily geometric.  If one just looks at the layout of a handball court with a 6 meter arc around the goal it’s obvious where the best place to shoot from is:  It’s the center of the court.  So, naturally that’s where you try to shoot first.  And, where the defense tries to stop you first.  Sure, teams score from the wing a lot of the time, but that’s primarily because the defense has shut down the center and, in turn, they’ve funneled the offense to the wing which is somewhat less defended for a shot at a less desirable angle.

The ideal back court has 3 players (left back, center back and right back) who can play the position well.  Players that can make 1 on 1 moves, pass the ball smartly and shoot from 9-10 meters over the defense.  However, few teams, have the ideal.  Perhaps they have a left back who has a great jump shot, but is just a so-so passer and can’t beat the defense 1 on 1.  Maybe they have an undersized center back who is great 1 on 1, but can’t shoot from 9 very well.  And, then a left back who’s a great passer who keeps the offense flowing, but is not expected to score much.  (There are multiple combinations and this narrative is somewhat simplistic, but it should help provide context for this discussion/analysis.)

But, what happens if you’re back court is subpar?  If the defense figures out they can’t score very effectively?  Well, the middle of the defense relaxes a bit and keeps a closer eye on the circle runner.  The wing defenders figure out that they don’t have to help in the center so much and keep better tabs on the wing.  Pretty soon no one on offensive is getting a decent shot and risky and riskier passes are made leading to turnovers.   And, then the game gets out of hand.

Can the same thing happen in reverse?  Can solid back court players be hindered by poor wing and circle runner play?  Yes, but not to the same extent.  This, is simply because play starts in the back court.  It’s possible for a team to “get by” with subpar wings, but you can’t “get by” without a back court.  How is this reality often demonstrated?  When coaches decides to move a natural wing player to the back court… because the wing is actually a better back court player.  I don’t recall such a move ever being done in reverse.

U.S. Back Court:  Our Best in Years, but Still Very Thin in Terms of Depth

I’ll talk about all 3 positions with the insight that there is some fluidity in terms of placement.  (e.g. with left handers being scarce some of our left backs have/will found themselves playing right back)

Currently, the U.S. has three back court players that I would assess as a rung above everyone else.  Those 3 are Ian Hueter, Abou Fofana and Gary Hines.  Not surprisingly they also were the 3 athletes that played the bulk of the minutes at this past summer’s PANAM Games.

Fofana plays in the French Pro Ligue which is the 2nd level of competition in France and arguably the 2nd best 2nd Division after Germany’s HBL 2.  Fofana is clearly our best left back and has dominated some games against weaker national team foes.  Against, better competition, however, at the PANAM Games his shooting percentage suffered.  And, while our best left back, he actually only sees limited offensive action with his club team, playing more on defense.

Ian Hueter, in my opinion is the linchpin of the offense and one of the best center backs to ever play for the U.S.  It’s not for his scoring acumen or his one on one skills, but his passing and court sense.  He makes the back courts on either side of him way more effective. The U.S. has had better center backs, but no one so accomplished at the age of 22.

Gary Hines is certainly one of the more athletic players the U.S has ever had, but he has always been a bit undersized at back court.  And while he’s gotten better at passing the ball taking players on one on one is hard wired in his DNA.  When he beats his opposition for a remarkable goal I’m not one to complain, but when foiled by the defense as he was at times during the PANAM Games it pretty much shut down any rhythm the U.S. offense had.  At 35 he’s got a lot of mileage on him, but he’s still performing.  Still, I wouldn’t be surprised for him to move toward the left wing position as his career winds down.

So, three solid back court players, and with Fofana and Hueter, plenty of room and time to improve.  But, beyond those two it’s pretty thin.  How thin?  With multiple options available this summer for the PANAM Games, 44 year old Sayed Shalaby made the 14 player roster.  And, while I was initially really skeptical of this roster choice he is indeed still a hell of a player with solid 1 on 1 and passing skills.  Yes, while very definitely in the waning days of his career he was arguably the next best back court player available.  And, when a 44 year old athlete is your nation’s 4th or 5th best back?  Better than several players in their athletic prime?  Make no mistake your national team lacks depth at the position.

The other listed back court for the PANAM Games was Sean Zimber.  A reliable player, but he might be undersized to be more effective at the national team level.  Reportedly, he is moving to Germany to play some club handball and at 23 he does have time to improve.

Beyond the PANAM Games roster the pickings are thinner.  At the recent tournament the men’s team played in Ireland the primary back court options were Sebastian Wheeler, Amir Seifert and Jonas Stromberg.  To their credit they stepped up and played effectively against Ireland and Great Britain.  All three players are young (20, 20 and 18 respectively) so there’s room for growth, but I will be surprised if they progress to the level that Fofana and Hueter are currently playing at.  The same is true for the other backs that have played for the U.S. at recent Jr and Youth competition.  Good players, hard working players, decent technical skills.  All true.  But, I don’t see them progressing to substantially higher levels like the French or German 2nd Division.  Of course, I’m not a professional scout, and even if I was I could still be 100% dead wrong.

Wings:  Not as Strong as Desired, but Relatively a Lesser Concern

First, a Little Respect for the Wing Position: My earlier diatribe on the critical importance of the back court, no doubt, rubbed some wings the wrong way.  Let’s be clear: Solid wing play is a critical component for good teams.  Good wings that can fly on the fast break and finish shots can be the difference between winning and losing.  And, for the most part the U.S. has wings that can get the job done.

At left wing, Sam Hoddersen has currently emerged as the best U.S. option, but there are several other players that show promise.  Those players include Asaf Bengozi, Amir Seifert, Michael Lee and Nik Zarikos.  All 5 are playing in Europe and are 23 or younger.  Add Gary Hines as an option and we’re in fairly good shape.  There’s a good internal competition and excepting Hines, these player have room and time for improvement.  While, none of them are spectacular players, they are reliable.  Worst case scenario:  We have solid play at left wing.  Best case scenario:  One (or more) of these player develops into a higher division caliber wing.

At right wing, the U.S. has gotten reliable, steady play from Ty Reed and Greg Inahara.  The big question marks for these players, however, are their ages, 27 and 29 respectively.  Reed is currently playing with Flensburg’s 2nd Team and his potential progression to higher level clubs is TBD.  Inahara is living in the U.S. and his future plans are unknown.  Beyond those two there are 3 players, Patrick Mulligan, Austin Koury, and Elyes Baltagi.  I don’t see these players having the same skill level and potential as our cadre of left wings so there is a depth issue.

The other key aspect of the right wing position is that you pretty much have to be left handed to play the position with any effectiveness.  This is where the small player pool really hurts the U.S. since only 10 percent of the world population is left handed.  Heck, it sometimes is a problem for a big handball nation. 

This concludes my in depth review of the U.S. National Teams.  I’ll next take a closer look at the existing U.S. club structure and grass roots efforts.