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June 30, 2015 — The best of all possible worlds

The United States women’s national field hockey team all but qualified for the Olympics today.

What’s going on here? Aren’t they home right now? Didn’t they play a few weeks ago in Valencia?

True, the Americans didn’t even play in today’s quarterfinal round of the World League Semfinal in Antwerp. But with wins by Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Holland in the quarters, this puts three sure-shot continental candidate teams, plus a team that’s already won its continental championship, in candidacy for the three automatic qualification slots for the 2016 Olympics.

Importantly, however, none of the four losing teams today — Japan (10th), Belgium (12th), India (13th), and Italy (16th) — are ranked as high as the United States, meaning that whichever of these four teams wins the consolation bracket to place fifth is going to be behind the U.S. in terms of waiting for an Olympic berth.

In other words, it was the absolute best of all possible results for the U.S. coming out of Europe this morning.

Now, for those of you new to this qualification criteria, think of the top six coming out of each of the two World League Semifinals as a two-column ladder. The Valencia half looks like this:

Team GB
China
Germany
Argentina (3rd)
United States (5th)
Spain (15th)

The top three (all in red) are in the Olympics. So will the top three from the Antwerp tournament. Now, it’s possible for either top-ranked Holland or No. 2 Australia to finish fourth in this World League semifinal. If they do, that would mean that they are going to be the first of the two fourth-place teams to qualify for the Olympics, with Argentina having to wait.

Of course, I could go on all day about qualification scenarios, but I’m going to borrow the words of U.S. Masters international Richard Hayden, who figured out the cataclysmic scenarios that would have to happen for the United States not to qualify for the Olympics.

For the United States (the third team in line) to not make Rio, all of the following would have to happen:

1. A team other than Holland, Great Britain, or Germany would have to win the Eurohockey title;
2. A team other than the United States or Argentina would have to win the Pan American Games;
3. A team other than South Africa would have to win the Africa Cup For Nations;
4. A team other than New Zealand or Australia would have to win the Oceania Cup.

Yep, all four.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the two unlikeliest scenarios (3 and 4) could happen if South Africa, having failed to qualify its men’s or women’s teams through a world tournament, simply decides not to spend the money to send a team to the Africa Cup. Or, if both New Zealand and Australia finish in two of the top three slots and decide to let Fiji and Samoa (a minimum 23 goals per game worse than their neighbors) have it out for the Oceania Cup.

Somehow I don’t think this cataclysmic scenario is going to occur; if you’re a field hockey supporter, I guess it’s OK to make your reservations for Rio next summer.

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