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March 1, 2015 — A best chance to reverse history

Yesterday, the United States men’s national field hockey team started off its Olympic qualifying campaign in an eight-nations tournament in Chula Vista, Calif.

The tournament is one of three second-round matches in the FIH World League, a worldwide series of survival-of-the-fittest tournaments which helps determine which teams qualify for either the Olympics or the FIH World Cup.

The United States men have trained hard under head coach Chris Clements over the last few years, posting their progress on social media with the hashtag #NODAYSOFF. Question is, can the current efforts of the men reverse a rather star-crossed history?

While we know that women’s field hockey has had a rich history since 1901, there are accounts of men playing a stick-and-ball game resembling field hockey as early as the 1870s. It is one of many stick-and-ball games such as bandy, ice polo, and shinny which were adopted on college and school campuses.

But while field hockey had an almost exclusive hold on women and girls in terms of athletic offerings for American schools, the wide array of sports offered to boys (football, wrestling, baseball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse) prevented the game from catching on in the United States. At the senior level, the U.S. men’s program has had to borrow athletes from foreign shores and from other sports in order to compete.

The results have borne this out. The United States men’s national field hockey team has not qualified for an Olympics on its own in 59 years. Its only two berths since then were as the host nation in Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996.

It’s not impossible for the Americans to make the next Olympics, but a good showing is essential in World League 2 in Chula Vista. The United States needs to place in the top three in order to make it to the World League’s third round, which helps determine which non-continental champions will qualify for the 12-team Olympic tournament.

The key to the entire tournament, as is customary in FIH competitions, is the quarterfinal round, which will take place on Thursday. None of the teams are eliminated from the tournament after pool play, so the first crossover match will cut the field in half. Should the United States cross over against a winnable opponent such as Italy or Austria, the Americans would need just one more win to qualify for the World League semifinals.

The United States would then be placed in one of two 10-nations tournaments — one in Belgium and one in Argentina. Most of the teams likely to be continental champions, such as Germany, Australia, and Holland, are going to be in these two tournaments, and it would take a tremendous effort to make the top three in either one of them.

The Olympic dream won’t die if the U.S. doesn’t make it into the World League semis, but it sets up a situation where the United States men would have to win the Pan American Games in Toronto this summer, which would truly be a tough ask.

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