This past Wednesday, USA Team Handball released a preliminary roster for this summer’s North American and Caribbean Handball Championship. The roster lists 28 athletes and here’s a breakdown by age and where they first learned to play handball.
USA Preliminary Roster (Youngest to Oldest)
The ages on the roster range from 15 to 39 with an average age is 25.1. This is quite the range and is considerably more spread out then the typical women’s national team roster which is more bunched up with the bulk of the athletes in their 20s. For comparison, take a look at the rosters of the 24 nations at the 2019 IHF Women’s Handball World Championship
USA Provisional Roster (Nation Where they First Played Handball)
All of these athletes are Americans, but the U.S. is a large nation with a global population. Estimates vary, but as many as 9M American citizens live in another country so it’s no real surprise that some of those 9M learned to play handball where they grew up. In fact, 57% (16 of 28) of the U.S. roster originally played handball in 8 different countries. Norway leads the way with 4 athletes followed by Germany with 3. Other nations: Cape Verde (2), Denmark (2), Sweden (2), Canada (1), Israel (1), Japan (1).
The fact that the U.S. has so many dual citizen athletes is sometimes seen as controversial, but it shouldn’t be. I addressed this reality and its implications for the U.S. National Team and the sport’s development previously in a series of commentaries Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
In terms of the 12 U.S. athletes that were raised stateside, 3 athletes (Kaffka, Stewart and Taylor) are products of Collegiate Clubs, 6 athletes (Lombard, Hartnett, Vallone, Fithian, Gascon and Darling) primarily first learned how to play at a Residency Program (Cortland or Auburn University) and 3 athletes picked up handball either on their own or with a club (Da Cruz, Faulkner and Smet).
Final Roster Projection
My projection for the Final Roster is a mixture of logic and guesswork. The logic portion is primarily looking at the last major tournament roster (the 2019 PANAM Games) and penciling in any name from that roster that is also on the preliminary roster. Of course, just because someone made the team last time doesn’t guarantee that they will make the team again, but it’s usually a good starting point. Further strengthening this logic is the COVID-19 pandemic as it has somewhat frozen things in place since March 2020 with many athletes not even playing handball much since then. There are 11 potential returnees and assuming that 16 athletes will be allowed for this tournament that means 5 newcomers.
And, this is where some major guesswork is required as I am not familiar with many of the other names on the roster nor do I even know what positions some of them play. So, keeping this in mind here is a top level assessment of which athletes might make the final roster. To be clear, though, I’m not actually going to make any hard projections other than that I think all 11 athletes from the PANAM Games will make the final roster. I just simply don’t know enough about the newcomers.
Goalkeepers: Sophie Fasold was one of the 2 goalkeepers on the PANAM Games roster and the other GK, Bryana Newbern is not on the 28 player preliminary roster. Fasold has also been able to play a full season with her club team, Nord Harrislee in the German 2nd Division, so I think she will likely get the the bulk of the minutes. The coaching staff will have to choose whether they want 2 or 3 goalies on the roster and both Sanna Wheeler and Emily Mrymo have previously made Jr team rosters. Also, identified as a GK is McKenna Smet who is very new to handball.
Left Wing: Julia Taylor was the 3rd leading scorer for the U.S. at the PANAM Games and Maria Vallone was her backup. It would seem that these two spots are fairly locked in, but I’m not familiar with the other potential options.
Right Wing: Zoe Lombard and Elisabeth Hartnett were the U.S. PANAM Games participants, but they may be joined by 16 year old, Eden Nesper who played on the U.S. Youth team in 2019 and plays for both the U17 and U19 for her club team, Hannover Badenstedt in Germany. The Hannover U17 team won the Germany cup title this past weekend. She’s a capable player with a bright future, but that’s still a pretty young age to be playing against grown adults. It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides.
Circle Runner: Veterans, Sarah Gascon and Jennifer Fithian, should both make the roster and they will be joined by Shani Levinkind. Levinkind was selected to the PANAM Games roster, but did not participate due to injury. Karen Schultze, 20, plays in Germany and had previously been added to the player pool, so one can assume that she’s also a strong candidate. This position may seem to be set, but because there are some major question marks at backcourt some of these players might end up playing there instead of at circle.
Backcourt (Left, Center, Right):While the other positions appear to be somewhat settled there are a lot of question marks as to who will be playing the three backcourt positions. Well, not all question marks. Left Back, Nicole Andersen, the 2nd leading scorer for the U.S. at the PANAM Games returns and will likely be called upon to assume a greater leadership role with the team. Also returning are veterans Kathy Darling and relative newcomer Sif Skov Christensen. And… that’s it, (as far as I know) when it comes to returning back court players.
Logically, this means some newcomers are probably going to be expected to play some really important minutes at the key backcourt positions. And, really not knowing these players means some major guesswork. I’ve heard some good things about Emma Ready and I’ve even played quite a few times vs her father long ago in California so perhaps she’s inherited some of his feisty quickness. Despite being just 17 she could be an option at Center Back. Cecile Brown and Emilie Johansson are also possibilities and as dual citizens perhaps they’ve gotten quite a bit of playing time despite their relatively young ages.
But, really for all I know several names on the roster that I haven’t even mentioned (see below) could well be the athletes the selection team goes with.
But, here’s one thing I do know: U.S. success or failure in Elgin this summer will likely hinge on these newcomers and their ability to make meaningful contributions at backcourt.
Much of the above commentary focused on the likely returning players from the 2019 PANAM Games and some new gaps where newcomers will need to step up. So, for context I’ll highlight some players that were not on the preliminary roster and the contributions that will be missed.
First and foremost, center back Jence Rhoads, the U.S. leading scorer (24 goals in 5 matches) from the PANAM Games is not on the roster. Anyone who’s seen the U.S. play for the past several years knows that she’s developed some solid skills and has been the point guard directing traffic on offense, making the players around her more productive. Also, not returning are left back Julia Sayer and right back Ashley Butler. All told, those 3 athletes accounted for 44% (40 of 91 goals in 5 matches) of the live action goals scored at the PANAM Games. In terms of backcourt productivity they accounted for 74% (40 of 54 goals) of the backcourt scoring. Further limiting experienced options is the news that the long awaited return of right back Karoline Borg will be delayed due to pregnancy. Borg, age 30, plays right back for Aker Topphåndball in Norway’s top and league and had previously played for the U.S.
While these roster changes will impact the U.S. it’s more than likely that the U.S. won’t be alone with this problem as other NACHC nations are also surely encountering similar roster churn. Such change is inevitable and it will be interesting to see how successful teams are in integrating their newcomers and getting their teams ready after a long pandemic layoff.
Note: If there is any information in this table that is incorrect, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will update it.
USA Men’s Preliminary Roster prior to the 2021 WC: Link