In Part 1, I took a whimsical look back at the 1993 USA World Championship team. This time I take a closer look at the composition of the squad and how we’ve gone from zero dual citizens to a roster that is around 80% comprised of Americans who first learned handball in another country. And why it doesn’t matter and, at the same time matters a lot.
First things first… let’s getting something out of the way that I think I shouldn’t even have to. And, that’s a clear cut statement that just because I’m discussing the role of dual citizens on our national doesn’t mean that I think they shouldn’t be playing for Team USA. That is simply not the case. The more the merrier. The best American handball athletes should always make a USA Sr National Team roster.
And, it sure doesn’t mean that I think they are “second class” Americans or something moronic like that. In fact, having lived in France for five years that experience has led me to believe that in many respects an American living abroad is in some ways actually more “American” than a stateside American. For sure, they’ve likely thought more about their nationality and what it means than someone living comfortably in a sea of fellow citizens.
Finally, I think it also goes without saying that if you care about the development of handball in the United States you should really care about where the best American handball athletes are coming from. Because if only a handful of stateside based athletes can make a national team roster or even get invited to a training camp… it’s a very, very clear indication that handball in the U.S. needs better stateside development. That doesn’t mean you don’t cheer on the team… Just means you should be concerned with what it means to the bigger picture.
A Brief History of Dual Citizens playing for Team USA
Dual citizens, playing for the U.S. National Team is nothing new. In fact, in the very early days I think there might have been some foreign nationals residing in the U.S. that hadn’t even obtained U.S. citizenship playing for the U.S. Regardless, the U.S. took advantage of recent immigrants with handball experience to both start the initial development of the sport and to represent the U.S. in international competition.
Over time, however, U.S. sides became almost exclusively Americans that had lived in the U.S. their entire lives and had to be introduced to the sport. The primary exception usually were goalkeepers, but eventually even this highly specialized position started to see more stateside Americans earn roster spots.
When I played regularly in the 80s and 90s I knew of only two dual citizens that represented the U.S. Terje Vatne from Norway played backcourt and Mark Schmocker from Switzerland who played on our 1996 Olympic Team. Periodically, from time to time there were dual citizens that tried out for the team, but to my knowledge none of them made the team or chose to move to the U.S. (more on that later)
In the 2000s more dual citizens started to make U.S. rosters. Adam El Zoghby comes to mind as one of our early additions, but as we progressed through the 2010s to the 2020s this trickle eventually turned into a full fledged flood. The key turning point was 2018. In May of that year the U.S. finished 5th out 6 teams at the North American & Caribbean Championships. The team had only 2 dual citizen, including a 20 year old Sam Hoddersen who led the team in scoring playing out of position at center back. Just four months later, the U.S. had a new coach, Robert Hedin, and a few more dual citizens playing. With a backcourt trio of Ian Huter, Abou Fofana and Gary Hines they easily outclassed a Canadian side the U.S. had lost to in May. And, from that tournament on it’s been a steady progression of more and more dual citizens on the roster up to the 2023 World Championships where 20 of the 24 athletes seeing playing time were dual citizens.
The 1993 WC Training Camp
To further illustrate how things have changed I’ll share my own brief experience with a couple of dual citizens that tried out for the 1993 World Championship Team. Prior to the World Championships the U.S. National Team traveled to Finland for a two week training camp at the Finnish Olympic Training Center.
To be clear this “National Team” was also a “Residency Team” that was training together full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And, as the name implies not only training together, but also, with a few exceptions, living on the same floor in a dormitory environment. Such a situation inevitably creates a pretty tight team comparable in some respects to what one might experience in a military style boot camp. You practice together, you eat together, you watch TV together, you go out together at night. It’s very similar to the team environment an athlete experiences at a major tournament… except year round.
So, when we were told that two guys who we knew nothing about would be participating at our training camp the reaction was one of malaise, particularly for anyone who might not make the team. On the one hand our team clearly lacked depth and an athlete that could genuinely help us would be a nice addition. But, on the other hand, did we want to see one of our buddies get sent home after months and months of training together? Of course, not, but anyone who has ever tried out for a team understands that not making the cut sometimes is part of the process.
The two newcomers were from Norway and Sweden and they were decent players. (Note, after 30 years I don’t remember their names.) The Norwegian was a back court player with good skills, but was pretty young (~17) and just wasn’t ready to play with adults. The Swede was in his mid 20’s and a fairly accomplished Center Back. He had a slight build and wasn’t as good of athlete as the two athletes playing the bulk of the minutes at CB, but he was a good passer with a lot of experience. He wouldn’t have started, but possibly could have come off the bench depending on the circumstance. His making the team wouldn’t have resulted in cutting either of our two Center Backs, but would have instead taken a roster sport from some athletes training with us who were very new to handball.
In the end neither athlete made the final roster. I’m not sure what Coach Voitech Mares thought process was, but I suspect he assessed that the marginal benefit they would have provided was not worth disrupting the team’s cohesiveness. Yes, the old curse that sometimes requires an athlete trying out to not “just be a little bit better” than their competition, but “substantially better” came into play here. In the history of sports this situation has occurred for a number of reasons from contract cost, to age, even to race when the NCAA and NBA had unofficial limits on the number of African American they would have on their teams.
The Dynamics of a Residency Team Concept and National Team Selection
So, some folks might be shaking their head at the prospect of the best available athletes not making the team. But, one has to keep in mind what the U.S. was trying to accomplish then and at other times when the residency team concept was employed. The goal wasn’t to win now, but to try and develop a team that could win at some point in the future. Giving a roster spot to a dual citizen who wasn’t training with the team or willing to move to the U.S. to start training with the team was taking a spot from someone that was. Temporary benefit at the expense of potential long term gain.
And, this non-selection strategy wasn’t just reserved for dual citizens. At times stateside Americans who were playing in Europe were also excluded. I was gob smacked to learn recently that my 1993 WC teammate and current USA Asst Coach, Darrick Heath had not been on our 1995 WC team. The reason? He was playing professionally in Europe and his club would not release him early to come back to the U.S. to train. Yes, arguably our best player was denied a roster slot because our coach wanted him practicing with the team more. No wonder we only finished one spot higher, 15th in 1995. More recently at different times in his career, Gary Hines was not even contacted for his availability for some national team events. And, we’re not talking 38 year old Gary… we’re talking a much younger Gary in his prime.
The Demise of the Residency Team Concept?
For the past 15 years or so I have been a pretty vocal critic of the residency team concept. I’ve written several commentaries about why it never ever worked very well and why it’s even more unlikely to succeed today. I won’t rehash them all again. If you want you can read them here: link
But, regardless what one might think or believe about the merits of a residency team the quantity and quality of dual citizens the U.S. now has available for our Men’s National Team has rendered the question/debate moot. I guess we could spend a small fortune establishing a residency program, but what would be the point? If we could get the necessary funds (a big if), could find and convince quality athletes to participate (another big if), it would be a long, long road for them to even earn a roster spot with this current team. (yet, another big if) Seriously, just imagine the recruiting pitch to someone who’s never played GK before regarding what it will take to eventually get a roster spot. Such a pitch could only be successful if you have the morals of Representative George Santos.
Come Again? Why Did the U.S. have Residency Programs in the First Place?
Well, I can see how someone relatively new to handball or just a top level precursory understanding of U.S. sports structure would ask this question… The answer is quite simple.
Without a residency program of some sort, historically the U.S. would have struggled to even field a team, let alone a competitive team.
The reality is that handball is played by only around 500 to 1,000 people in the United States… and a sizable percentage of this 1,000 aren’t even American citizens. These commentaries from 2019 outline the demographics and are are representative of our current status. It might even be a little worse since COVID likely caused a retraction.
And, now that we don’t have a residency program I can state unequivocally that had the U.S. been forced to field a team without dual citizens we would never have qualified for the 2023 World Championships. We wouldn’t have even come close. I would assess that such a team would have finished last at the recent NACHC championships and would have lost every match by double digits to Greenland, Cuba and Mexico. Our U21 and U19 teams which recently qualified for the World Championships this summer would have also not qualified, but probably could have mustered a win against other very inexperienced teams.
Trading One “Artificial” Solution for Another
In some respects, the U.S. has simply traded one artificial solution (residency programs) for another (a team mostly comprised of dual citizens). Artificial in the sense that both solutions essential paper over the reality that there is very, very limited grass roots development in the U.S. The sort of grass roots that would help make handball a sport that mattered in the U.S. Real development that would have Americans playing the sport from coast to coast and athletes eventually making national teams the traditional way through schools and clubs, continuously playing at higher levels until they reach the top of the pyramid.
And, let’s be clear this is the development that everyone in the world-wide handball community really wants. It’s awesome to have a competitive team to cheer on, but it’s comical to hear or read commentary that sees the U.S. team pick up some wins and conclude that the U.S. is really developing handball now. Because while that may happen it’s certainly not happening yet.
And, while one might think that a competitive national team could help spur development stateside, the U.S. still has not figured out how to break into the national consciousness. Stateside there’s been very little buzz beyond our small handball community as ESPN has once again inexplicably done nothing to promote handball on its streaming platform.
A Really Good Deal
But, while a roster heavily dependent on dual citizens is an artificial solution that doesn’t really help stateside development it’s still a really good deal. And, this is primarily because dual citizens basically cost nothing to develop as those costs are paid by other nations and the clubs they play for. The U.S. can basically run this current national team as if it were a hidden little country in Europe, holding training camps periodically to help these individuals gel as a team. For a cash strapped federation with very little money it’s hard to fully quantify just what a really good deal that is. Well, you sort of can. Take all that money and time that would have been spent on a residency program over the next five years… and think of all the ways that money can now be spent on grass roots development.
And, make no mistake: without these athletes some sort of residency program would have to be developed. Why? Because we simply could not be competitive without one and the IHF will want to see a competitive team taking the floor in Los Angeles in 2028. It’s not clear how much funding would be available for such an effort, but some percentage of the overall budget would continuously be sucked into it. Otherwise… we might not be allowed to field a team at the Olympics, even if we are the hosts.
A Golden Generation
But, the U.S. didn’t just get a good deal. No, we pretty much have hit the jackpot with this current crop of dual citizens. I’ve hemmed and hawed a bit about whether it’s a “Golden Generation” but, not anymore. The depth in terms of quantity and quality is statistically way better than one could normally expect. This doesn’t mean we are going to start winning Olympic and World Championship medals, but we’ll be competitive for the next several years. Five years out we pretty much have 70-80% of our Olympic roster identified. Heck, it might be 100% identified. All provided at essentially no cost. This might not qualify as a Golden Generation for France or Denmark, but for the U.S. it clearly does. We’ve never had it so good.
Does it Matter or Not: Answer: Yes and No
So, if it’s not already obvious how one answers this question depends on your perspective and objective.
From a narrow national team perspective it doesn’t matter at all. The task at hand, whether you’re a coach or player is to go out and perform. For the U.S. that means to be competitive and to continuously work on improving. Depending on the competition that might mean winning a title or it might mean advancing to new heights. No one directly involved in near term preparation of our national teams should care where are athletes come from or how they got there.
However, from a big picture administrative and planning perspective it really matters. If very few stateside athletes are worthy of selection to our national teams that’s a very clear indication that there our stateside structures need work… a lot of work. The good news is that since nothing special is required to “create” a national team more attention can be placed on efforts to truly develop handball stateside. This is a monumental and complex task that won’t be easy and the Golden Generation is both a gift and a warning. It’s a gift in that it frees up a lot of resources (funds and manhours). But, it’s also a warning… Golden generations don’t last forever and we won’t always have such a talented group to bail us out. The time this generation buys needs to be used wisely.
Think that I’m exaggerating this Golden Generation we have? That either they aren’t that good or that we’ll always have a similar talented group available. Well, we just so happen to have a similar cohort that we can compare it to. The current dual citizen cohort for the U.S. Women is a very stark contrast as it is nowhere near the U.S. Men in terms of quality and quantity. And, that presents a lot of challenges. I’ll tackle those challenges next.