USA Handball National Championship Review (Part 2): Mercenary Teams Flying in Pros to Win a National Championship; Are we Really OK with this?

In part 1 I addressed the low American participation rate at our National Championships. In part 2, I take a closer look at the eclectic California Eagles roster which won the National Title. It’s time for USA Team Handball to put a stop to this nonsense.

Correlation Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Causation…

When you write a lot of commentaries sometimes you wonder if anybody even reads them. For sure, quite a few people see the social media post, think, “just John Ryan complaining about something again” and swipe until they get to something more entertaining. Yes, in a TLDR world, it’s easy for my commentaries to get skipped.

But, sometimes they do get read and sometimes they can even be a catalyst for change… maybe? After the IHF Super Globe this past fall I wrote a commentary which criticized the composition of the San Francisco CalHeat roster which was composed mostly of athletes that weren’t American and/or didn’t live anywhere near San Francisco.

I’m not sure the exact timeline of events, but not too long afterwards, SF CalHeat and their long time coach, Danilo Rojevic, parted ways. (Keep in mind, SF Cal Heat had won the last 3 national championships.) Rojevic then became the head coach for the California Eagles which are (sort of) based in Southern California, even though, Rojevic, as far as I know still lives in the Bay Area. Probably, not coincidentally, several athletes, many with mercenary like attributes also transferred from SF CalHeat to the California Eagles

And, then as a contrast we have the rosters for SF CalHeat at the recent National Championships. Best I can tell, SF CalHeat’s 1st team roster is mostly composed of Bay Area residing athletes and their 2nd team had more Americans than any other team at nationals.

Maybe some folks at CalHeat took my commentary to heart? Maybe? It could be just a coincidence in timing. It could also very well be that they might have been thinking along the same lines and my commentary just distilled the full extent of the “problem.” Again, it’s all a big maybe.

A Closer Look at the California Eagles Roster

But, just in case my commentary from last November helped people make some decisions here’s another roster breakdown to perhaps again serve as a catalyst for a change in direction.

First a quick note on the methodology (or lack there of) used. The roster information comes from the USA Team Handball Sport 80 National Championship Page and the Results file. I then did Google searches and checked social media websites to assess nationality and place of residency. And, no, I didn’t contact anyone directly with these nosy questions. There could well be some errors as social media data could be old or inaccurate, but I think this summary is accurate enough to get a basic picture of the team’s composition.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • The California Eagles had more athletes from the 2023 SF CalHeat Super Globe roster on their team than the SF CalHeat team participating at the National Championships.
  • The bulk of the scoring came from athletes that didn’t play for the California Eagles prior to this season,
  • Best that I can tell nine of these athletes don’t live in Southern California and four of those nine athletes don’t even live in the U.S.
  • Two new additions (Bjorn Christensen Mathiassen and Marcus Rene Næss Soltvedt had just finished their season playing for Bergen in Norway’s top division. Mathiassen, in particular, appears to have played a pretty big role, leading the team with 25 goals, including 12 in the gold medal match
  • At first glance, one addition to the roster, former Montpellier Right Back, Maxime Bouschet, looks like an obvious mercenary. But, his LinkedIn profile makes it pretty clear he’s not. He’s living in Southern California and doing post doctoral work at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). That’s pretty cool and this is exactly the type of expat that helps grow the game.

“Powering Up” and the “Need to Make Compromises”

On a recent Red, White and Glue podcast, California Eagles Coach, Danilo Rojevic, reflected on the SF CalHeat Super Globe experience and its roster composition. The addition of athletes who were neither American nor living anywhere near San Francisco was euphemistically referred to as “powering up” and he indicated that it was pretty much necessary to be more competitive at a Super Globe.

And, of course, he’s correct. A North American club consisting of amateurs who live in the same geographic area is almost always going to be a weaker team than one that “powers up.” Case in point, the Mexican Club, Ministros, was the North American & Caribbean representative at the 2022 Super Globe. They went 0-4 with an average Goal Differential of -19 goals. Whereas, CalHeat went 1-3 with an average Goal Differential of -8.25.

But, there’s no requirement to add ringers, jokers, mercenaries or whatever you want to call powering up your roster. Ministros has proven that. They didn’t get the highly coveted win over the Oceania entrant, but I don’t think they made any compromises. The reality is this: There is no NEED to compromise a club roster so that you can win a championship. But, sure a club might WANT to compromise their roster so they can win a championship. Bottom line: need and want are two very different things.

Two Key Points to Reiterate

I guess I should first reiterate two key points that I’ve made previously:

1) Nobody is breaking any rules: I highly doubt that the California Eagles broke any rules. The U.S. rule book has a requirement for athletes to participate in one other sanctioned tournament to qualify for “Elite,” but, since there was another enitity organizing domestic competition this year the championship was actually a Div 1 championship instead of an an Elite championship. And, then there are no residency requirements. Athletes can live anywhere and play for any club. And, “anywhere” literally means anywhere (Europe, Antartica, etc.)

2) Plenty of room for whataboutism: And, the Eagles aren’t the first team to power up. SF Cal Heat has done it before, but apparently has decided to change course. The New York City Team Handball Club has also added players including 2 athletes from Montpellier’s Academy last year. (Kylian Prat receiving the MVP award) NYAC, which is only loosely connected to New York City, has athletes from all over the U.S., so by default they are pretty much a mercenary squad that never even practices.

Multiple Issues of Concern- Let’s Recognize them and Avoid Conflating them

There are several issues related to club rosters in terms to both the nationality and locality of the athletes. And, while the nationality and locality of athletes are somewhat intertwined, we shouldn’t conflate them as all just one big issue. Below is an attempt to first describe the situation we have with club rosters without identifing the concerns we might have with each situation:

  • Some clubs have athletes on their rosters who don’t even live in the United States
  • Some clubs have athletes on their rosters who live nowhere near the club’s geographic location
  • Some clubs have no real geographic location and simply get together for competition
  • Many clubs have rosters which are almost exclusively expats

To varying degrees I have concerns with each of these issues. Here are some of those concerns:

  • Fairness: To varying degrees adding players skews the competition. Intrinsically I don’t think it’s “fair” for a club relying on local players to compete against clubs that are “powering up” with players from anywhere in the U.S. or even from Europe.
  • Arms Race: I guess one could say that all clubs are free to power up. But, this results in an arms race to secure players. Is this where we want clubs to focus their energy?
  • Lack of American participation: I think the current structure of adding players to rosters contributes to fewer Americans playing, particularly for clubs seeking to compete for a title. This is because with only a handful of exceptions adding an American means a weaker team Because of this USA Team Handball should consider the addition of citizenship quotas and/or age requirements to incentivize player development.
  • Player free agency and it’s detriment to regional growth: With athletes free to play for any club, anywhere they often seek the best deal for themselves. This has resulted in the somewhat strange situation of an athlete choosing to be a mercenary for a better club nowhere near where they live rather than play for the nearby weaker club.

Time for Decision Makers to Review this Situation… and Make Decisions

Depending on where you stand you may or may not be concerned with any or some of these issues. Or, perhaps you might be concerned, but believe that not much could or should be done about it. After all, these sort of roster manipulations have been taking place for quite awhile. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it…

Except I think it is pretty broken. Perhaps like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot we’ve just slowly become adjusted to more and more manipulation to the point where it just seems perfectly normal to fly in pros from Norway or France to play in a U.S. National Championship.

Well, I say it’s time jump out of the boiling pot. It is not normal to fly in pros to win an amateur handball competition. It is silly and it should not be allowed. Full Stop.

Seriously, it just makes a total mockery out of our national championships and our would be club system. It accomplishes nothing and is detrimental to what should be the primary goal for handball in the U.S. Namely, growing the domestic game in the U.S.

At least it all seems pretty damn clear to me… But, then again, I’m just some guy with a website and a bunch of opinions. I don’t make the decisions… I just try to put the information out there for others that are empowerd to make decisions.

Individual clubs can decide to change direction, but doing the right thing will result in a decrease in performance. With a significantly weaker roster the 3 time defending champs, SF CalHeat finished in 4th place at this year’s nationals. Not every club is likely to make similar changes so creating a fair playing field across the board is clearly the purview of the USA Team Handball Board of Directors and it’s administrative staff. Perhaps some board members weren’t aware that several athletes fly in from overseas to play at the U.S. Championships. Or, maybe some were aware, but slowly boiling in the pot. Or, maybe they’ve thought about it and are perfectly Ok with that reality.

Regardless, the board should review that situation and decide if they are OK with it. And, if they aren’t OK… what they are going to do about it. Then, if they are going to take a look at that aspect it would also make sense to look at the other locality and nationality issues. And, whether any tweaks to roster requirements would make sense to help put a bit more of a U.S. stamp on the U.S. National Championships. And, to help grow the game domestically.

At least that’s what I think should happen. Ignorance should be no excuse and very importantly… doing nothing is also a decision. A decision to stick with the status quo.

What will happen, though? Well, a few months ago I would have thought nothing, per usual. But, then again maybe the SF CalHeat change of direction might just spur the USA Team Handball Board of Directors to also make some changes.

(Note: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly identified the two players that played for NYC last years as professionals. They were actually members of Montpellier’s Academy program.)