Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Regional Qualification Format for the USA Team Handball National Championships

I participated in my first US National Championships in 1987 and most recently last year in Houston. I have been frustrated from time to time with the bracketing of these tournaments. Recently, I was placed on a committee to look at how our championships are set up. As a part of this committee, I also was involved in determining the teams that would play in the Elite Division and group seeding for this year’s tournament. My purpose here is not to go into the details of the committee process, but I will give you my opinion of the committee process: It is a bad way to select teams.

USA Team Handball is currently exploring new formats for the National Championship. Formal plans will be briefed in the near future. Here’s what I’m proposing:

A Regional Qualification Format for the USA Team Handball National Championships

Key Features
- The clubs in each region will take on most of the responsibility for determining who qualifies from their region for Nationals
- Results from the previous year's Nationals will be used to allocate bids to each region. Only the Nat’l champion, and possibly the host club, will get a free ticket to next year's nationals.

Proposed Regional Groupings.
- I think that right now there are two regions that are fairly well defined in that most of the clubs are within reasonable driving distance of each other. Those regions are Southeast (ATH, Condors, FIU, North Carolina, Tar Heel) and Northeast (NYC, Garden City, New England). Also, I'm pretty sure there are other Division 1 teams in those areas which would also logically fit)
- Other parts of the country are however, more geographically separated. California, with 3 clubs creates a mini-region as does Houston, with 2 clubs. My initial thought is that a large Western region should be created containing the California, Houston and other assorted clubs West of the Mississippi. Travel is of course a problem, but I don't see anyway around it. Most of those clubs are used to traveling anyway, so it shouldn't be that drastic of a change. Attending a qualifier might also be more incentive then a Salt Lake City or Falcon Cup trophy. Houston also might prefer to be grouped with the Atlanta clubs and that is also feasible.
- Non-geographic teams (e.g. Knight Air, the Deaf Team) would also have to be placed in a region. This would be done with their consultation.

Regional Format Determination
- Working by consensus (i.e. all clubs must agree) each region would set up its own parameters for qualification. This could work much like how the different continents today decide their own process for World Championship qualification. Pan America has two regional tourneys and one final tourney to identify 3 entrants. Europe uses a combination of the European Championship Results, pool play over several weeks, and a 2 team home and away competition to determine their several spots. An ambitious region could set up pool play over the course of 3 months between interested teams. Another region could set up 2 subregionals with 4 teams. Another region could utilize an already existing club tournament and set up one of the initial pools with regional teams seeking to get qualified. The other pool could have clubs from outside the region and the defending National Champion. There are a lot of ways it could be done-- let those clubs decide how to do it.
- If, however, teams can not reach consensus agreement on a format for qualification the Competition and Organization Committee will select the representation from that region. This will be the “Nuclear Option” and if this isn't an incentive for the regions to get their act together, I don't know what is! I would also recommend the that the fall back criteria for the Committee's selection be clearly defined. In particular, I think it should be limited to performance in the current calendar year, only. The Committee would also probably focus on head to head regional competition. For instance, let's say that one team refused to cooperate on a format with 7 other teams in a region and those 7 teams held a tournament. While no longer set up by consensus, the committee would probably think the results of that tournament would be a pretty good indicator for selection.

Regional Allotment of Spots at Nationals
- For Nationals, regions would be allocated bids based on the performance of that region's clubs at the previous year's Nationals. (i.e. If one power house region captured spots 1-4, they would be allocated 5 spots for qualification at the next year's Nationals) While not as good of reward as automatic qualification, this still provides incentive for doing well, as you will improve your chances for qualification next year.

8 spots for the 2006 Nationals
1 allocation - For the host club (if there is no host club, the region with the next ranked team gets a spot.)
1 allocation - For the champion, if returning
3 allocations - 1 automatic bid for each region
3 allocations - based on region performance at the 2005 nationals (places 2nd to 4th)

Roster Control
- Prior to the start of the qualification period, players may freely affiliate with the club of their choice. The decision on which club to affiliate with is the sole choice of the player. Players, however, may not change their club affiliation until after the National Championships.
- Players may only affiliate with one club for the purpose of qualification. Players could, however play for other teams in non-qualification related contests and tournaments.
- Clubs may only attempt to qualify one team for the Elite Division. A club could draw from any player on its club roster for qualification matches and the National Championships. The National Championships will, however, likely limit the number of players and Regions may set limits on rosters as well for qualification matches.
- At Nationals players may freely transfer from teams in the Elite Division to teams in the lower divisions. Players may not transfer, however, to other Elite Division teams.

Implementation Plan

2005 Nationals
- Inform clubs of plans for future Nationals. Brief them on proposed plans for qualification
- Brief teams on 3 tentative proposed regions (West, Northeast and Southeast)
- Use the results of the 2005 Nationals for determining the number of bids allocated to each region for qualification for the 2006 Nationals
- Get a list of teams that tentatively plan to participate in regional qualification

Summer/Fall 2005
- Formalize qualification procedures for the 2006 Nationals
- Receive feedback from clubs on proposed regional assignments
- Use iterative approach on website and solicit member input

1 November 2005
- Go final with Regional groupings of teams

1 December 2005
- Due date for teams to submit their formal “Intent to Participate”

30 January 2006
- Regions submit qualification plan for Nationals. Note, these plans aren’t approved by USA Team Handball they are just provided in case a team later on files a protest in regards to the format not being properly followed or some other issue.

15 Feb - Apr 2006
- Designated qualification period for 2006 Nationals
- Player/club affiliation finalized (Note this will require the General Membership to get their $35 in sooner than many are used to. This is something that will need to be widely publicized.)

22 Apr 2006
- Seed teams 1-8 based on established written criteria. I would recommend the using the regional placement from the previous year’s nationals and performance during the qualification period.

Example Regional Setup

Western Region (3 bids)
The California clubs (Cal Heat, LA, and Santa Clarita) and the Mountain Clubs (AF, Utah and CSU) agreed to play a single round-robin among the 6 clubs. This was done over 3 weekends
Weekend 1: Cal Heat hosted LA and Santa Clarita. Each team played each other: 3 total matches and 2 matches for each team over the course of a Saturday morning and afternoon
Weekend 2: CSU hosted AF and Utah. The same format from California was used.
Weekend 3: The California teams flew out to Colo Spgs for a West Coast/Mountain States Showdown. Each California team played the 3 Mountain State teams for a total of 9 games and 3 matches for each team. The top 3 teams in the pool were awarded bids for Nationals

Potential concerns with this format and my response

- What about the performance of teams at the previous Nationals, shouldn’t the top teams be automatically included in the next year’s Nationals?
ANSWER: The problem with rewarding teams from last year, is that this year’s team can be radically different from the current year’s team. Players age and rosters change dramatically. Recent performance is a much better indicator of team strength.

- What about traditional tournaments like the Carolina Blue Cup and West Point? We can only play so many games a year. If we add regional competition these tournaments will be impacted
ANSWER: This could very well be true. The regions should try to work with these tournaments to minimize the impact of regional competition. It might also be possible to use a portion of these tournaments for regional competition. Regardless, the potential impact is more than offset by the benefit of structured competition with a clear goal (qualification for Nationals). I think that would be more rewarding than a Blue Cup trophy and I think most players would agree with that.

- Won’t some clubs be unhappy with the region they are placed in or won’t some teams not want a particular team in their region?
ANSWER: Yes, some teams will be difficult to please. I think, however with a reasonable amount of dialogue a 90% solution could be achieved. The bottom line is that I would rather have teams whine about the region they are in, then the Division they are placed in at Nationals.

- Our club doesn’t want to play in any regional. The National Championship is enough for us.
ANSWER: If you can’t or don’t want to play in regional competition, Division 1 will still be there for your team.

- The one team per club rule will really limit our club. We’ve sent two teams to Nationals before and they were both competitive teams. We have a lot of club members who have no desire to join or start a new club. And we have new players that we would like to develop and experience competition at the elite level. What’s the point of this rule anyway?
ANSWER: Anytime you have duplicate affiliations the potential for conflict will be there. Could a situation arise where club team 1 (which has already qualified) loses on purpose to their other club team to improve their chances at qualifying? It sure could. This problem could be mitigated by potentially with strict roster control of the teams, but it would necessitate eliminating the National Champion or host team automatically qualifying, since a creative team could simply stock their team trying to qualify with their good players. I’m sure there are other creative tricks that could be done that I haven’t thought of. The simple rule of 1 club, 1 team will eliminate that and it will foster the growth of the sport, by eliminating clubs from over stockpiling with talent.

- With player affiliation being open what’s to prevent other teams from raiding our team for players?
ANSWER: Players will have a choice on whether to switch allegiances. If teams are interesting in keeping players they will need to be straightforward with their commitments to players. In particular, teams laden with talent will be very vulnerable. Rising stars might be wise to reconsider their affiliation if the club won’t internally commit a roster spot at Nationals, because Hans is flying in from Germany.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The “Marco Polo’s from Canada

From the February 2005 French HandAction Magazine (I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in this translation.)

The “Marco Polo’s from Canada

The Canadians rowed, rowed… before reaching the promised land: Tunisia, where they had a rude welcome, but also one rich in learning. They are admirable pioneers that will come back stronger the next time…

Vincent Levesque, Marcellin Pelletier, Luc Pellerin… The players have names that sound French, but they speak the language a little differently when it comes to Handball. “pointage” for “nombre of buts” (number of goals), “lancer de penaltie” for “penaltie” (penalty shot), or “echappees” for “montees de balle” (turn-over). They play for Champlain, for Chaudieres in Quebec or for Celtique in Montreal, and they played in the World Championships for the first time since 1978. The result of having won the Bronze medal at the Pan-American Championships and having put some distance between themselves and Greenland and United States, the North American representatives in 2001 and 2003.

Lilliputians of Handball, but they are “armed with determination and a new pair of shoes,” as they noted with humor on the official site of their Federation, which is practically the only source of information on their Handball adventure, since only two local reporters from Champlain traveled with them! This lack of coverage is mainly the result of being drowned out by Hockey.

The 14 Quebecois and 2 Albertans (the only Anglophones) had to make sacrifices for their passion and to be a member of the team which traveled to Tunisia. Each player had to pay 3,000 Canadian Dollars for gym time, heating, equipment, and especially two warm up tournaments prior to Tunisia (around 10 matches). Fortunately, equipment was given to them at the last moment, but still to play at the World Championships is a luxury for the young players (23 is the average age), a majority of whom are students.

Like Geoffroy Bessette-Cosette, the little left wing, and hero of the Angola game with 6/8 shooting. A good pioneer, Geoffroy went to get a little French culture for one season at Montelimar, Ligue Nationale 1 (which is the French 3rd Division) in 2003-2004. This season, Charles Barriteau plays for Lille/Villeneuve d’Ascq (2nd Division) and averages 1 goal/game while Alexis Bertand is an essential part of the Ivry reserve team (3rd Division). “By going to France we not only improve our Handball knowledge, but also learn the defects of our own program. The National selection started again 3 years ago, and we had 9 clubs in our elite division and a second division. Some teams are comparatively similar to the French 3rd Division, but there are only a few good match ups in our league.”

To define a little better what Canadian Handball is, one should know that the record attendance at the National Championship Final is 1000 spectators, but usually crowds are closer to 50 or 100 people. In effect, it is difficult to fill the stands when the matches are on Sunday morning. “It’s the gym time that we are given.”

Under the influence of Handball demons (8 hours of practice/week for these amateurs) and of their sorcerer, Mohamed Benkreira, (who coached at Villeneuve d’Ascq from 1995-97 and then was the National Team Coach for Qatar for 3 years), Canada failed to beat Angola, the 3rd African representative, losing 26-27 in their final match. And this was after the rude beating by Denmark (18-52) and France (16-44), 31 years after the last Franco-Canadian duel, where France had some difficultly, winning 22-15.

“France is our Handball reference,” explains Mohamad Benkreira, the coach. “Before the World Championships, I sent 6 or 7 players to the Paris metro area, for them to meet with Constanti (French Federation National Team Director) in his office, at the Federation. Then I overwhelmed them with tapes of France’s most recent matches.” Mohammed doesn’t count his time, nor his money for this team. Paid 8,000 dollars/year, this Algerian is also an adjunct professor at the University of Montreal. His first goal is to get more international matches, because he knows that Canada has to quit playing Handball in the Americas, and travel the globe to seek matches without worrying about negative results.

“One has to absorb, absorb all information,” underlines Geoffroy, a fan of Michael Guigou (French Nat’l Team Left Wing). “And we will talk of our experience upon our return to convince our sponsors.” Geoffroy doesn’t forget that it is him and his teammates that will go door-to-door when they return, with tapes from the World Championships.


My thoughts on this article and the US prospects for 2007:

It doesn’t take a genius to see that if the US is going to qualify for the 2007 World Championships, we will need to beat the Canadians. (It is unrealistic to consider beating Argentina and Brazil—That gap is way to wide) And one might argue that the gap between the US and Canada has widened substantially. Despite the plastering the Canadians got at the World Championships, that experience and the preparation that went with it, is invaluable. If they keep their team intact for 2 years (they’re young so it might be feasible) and they keep sending players to get experience in France they will continue to improve.

Meanwhile, the US program is at best, standing in place. How can we close this gap by Summer 2006? Well, without a combination of better players and some decent preparatory team training prior to PANAM championships I don’t see it happening. Maybe there’s some American Passport holders out there that can help us throw a “Hail Mary.” The mid-term solution to a better program is to send some promising players overseas like the Canadians, Brazilians and Argentines. Or start up a full time National Team training program—assuming of course funding appears out of nowhere for this. In the long term, there are a multitude of possible steps that could be taken based on the overall development path that is chosen.