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April 17, 2019 — Is the Hockey Pro League in free-fall?

It has been a period of adjustment, for sure, as the FIH and the teams participating in the inaugural Hockey Pro League have been adjusting to the responsibility of playing games in all of the participating nations rather than concentrating the competition in only a handful of locations.

First, you had Pakistan and India pulling out of the 2019 competition for various reasons. But yesterday, there was an announcement that makes you wonder if the FIH had thought through the necessary budget outlays for travel and sundries during the six-month competition period.

That’s because, in 2020 and 2021, the Hockey Pro League will be only eight games in duration, not 16. In other words, a team will play only half of the rest of the teams in the HPL on the road, and the other half at home.

Aside from gridiron football, I don’t know of any other competition on a world stage where a single round-robin throughout all available opponents determines a winner or winners. The true test, I believe, of any team’s worth — whether a club side or a national team — is how well a team defends its own home turf, then turns around and plays on the other team’s ground.

I’m hoping that, at least in time for the 2022 World Cup, that the Pro League will grow into the role into which it was envisioned: giving teams an opportunity to qualify for world-level tournaments similar to how it is done in soccer. To me, it’s the fairest way.

April 8, 2019 –The long row

Two weeks ago, the U.S. women’s field hockey team defended two out three points in an FIH Pro League game against Belgium, winning in the seventh round of a penalty shootout after drawing at full time.

This evening, the U.S. played the reverse fixture at Belgium, and were about a minute from playing in another penalty shootout, but the Red Panthers were the beneficiary of a late yellow card, and, with the U.S. team calling out revised defensive assignments, Louise Versavel deflected in a hard pass from Alix Gerniers.

With three points in seven matches, the U.S. is not mathematically eliminated from the semifinal round, but would need a lot of help to catch fourth-place Belgium (13 points). And it won’t get any easier, as the States visit Rotterdam to play Holland this weekend.

April 3, 2019 — Towards a Division III superconference? Not so much.

Yesterday, it was announced that York College, a school which has been on the rise in both field hockey and women’s lacrosse the last few years, will be joining the Middle Atlantic Conference beginning the fall of 2020.

York had been a member of the Capital Athletic Conference for some three decades, but decided to join up with the MAC’s Commonwealth Division to join up with the likes of Stevenson, Messiah, and Lebanon Valley.

The MAC and its 18 teams are an interesting construct. It’s tempting to think of the membership as being a single superconference.

But instead of having one large conference, the teams compete as two separate leagues: the MAC Commonwealth and the MAC Freedom. Each are large enough to earn an AQ to the NCAA Tournament (depending, of course, on the number of teams participating in the sport in any given year).

Now, there are other movements in Division III as well concerning the MAC. Manhattanville College is leaving MAC Freedom at end of this year to go the Skyline Conference, while the Stevens Institute of Technology is entering MAC Freedom this summer.

BULLETIN: March 30, 2019 — Great Britain 3, USA 1

The U.S. field hockey team honored the PIAA Class AA state champion Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) field hockey team at halftime of this evening’s FIH Pro League fixture against defending Olympic champion Great Britain.

And the States even got a goal from the star player from that championship side, teen sensation Mackenzie Allessie.

But the ultimate result from the evening’s activities at Spooky Nook was a 3-1 loss, one which cements the US at the bottom of the nine-team Pro League, an enormous hole to dig out of if the States are to get to the semifinal round of the league. Right now, the United States is nine points out of fourth place in the standings, and the Americans’ next four matches are on the road, at Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, and Germany.

Now, the reason for needing to be in the top four in the FIH Pro League is that the four top sides go into the Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo 2020. The qualifiers are going to be seven two-legged ties featuring 14 teams that qualify through the Pro League (four) and Pro Series (six), plus the next-highest teams in FIH World Ranking (four, since Japan has qualified as host and as Asian champion).

This pool of teams do not count the five continental champions, so if the United States is able to win its third straight Pan American Games title in Lima this summer, the Americans do not have to go through a two-legged tie to get to Tokyo.

But if the States don’t qualify through that route, the American side would likely have to play against an opponent close to the lower end of the Top 10, such as India, China, or Japan in order to make the Olympic Games.

March 29, 2019 — Fortress Lancaster?

The United States women’s field hockey team came into this weekend needing confidence, goals, and some home cooking after playing its entire FIH Pro League schedule away from its training base at Spooky Nook.

The States played pretty well against a Belgium side which has been tipped as a possible rival to World Cup champion Holland and Olympic champion Great Britain. It, however, took nine rounds of the penalty shootout to win the game 5-4 after a 1-1 draw.

The win solidified the credentials of Danielle Grega as a bona fide scorer at the international level, as she leveled the match 10 minutes from time. But it is also possible that the “goalkeeper by committee” approach that head coach Janneke Schopmann has employed thus far may have yielded a frontrunner in Stanford’s Kelsey Bing.

The shootout win, however, means that the U.S. dropped a potential point in the World League standings, and are now next-to-last in the World League table with three points.

The only team behind them? Sunday night’s opponent, Team GB. Great Britain, your defending Olympic champs, are looking up from the bottom of the table, scoring a paltry three goals thus far in the Pro League.

So, tomorrow night’s game between the two sides is not just to escape the bottom of the standings, but also to gain a measure of momentum as the games come thick and fast over the next three months.

And three points Sunday, at home, are an absolute must in order to keep the U.S. in the hunt for one of the final four slots in the Pro League.

March 22, 2019 — A change in the sporting fabric in the Western Hemisphere?

Four days ago, the union representing men’s and women’s professional soccer teams was able to forge an agreement with the Argentina Football Association to begin a level of professionalism with the nation’s women’s soccer teams.

Argentina, for all of its excellence on the men’s side, has been little more than an afterthought on the women’s side. The Albicelestes have only played in two World Cups thus far, in 2003 and 2007. Argentina is winless in six matches, scoring two goals and conceding 33.

The inequality gulf between men’s and women’s soccer in Argentina was laid bare two years ago when the women’s national team called a players’ strike when their $10 stipend went unpaid.

But now, players in the Argentina first division will be guaranteed a minimum salary of 15,000 Argentine pesos per month.

Taken by itself, this is part of a trend in world soccer where nations like France, Mexico, Germany, Spain, and England have started to professionalize women’s club sides, and have even gotten clubs like Paris, Lyon, America, Arsenal, and Barcelona to sponsor women’s teams.

But I also wonder what is going to happen 10, 20 years down the line when young girls are provided choices of sports to play. How many of them will chase down salaries in women’s soccer and forego the largely amateur world of club field hockey?

Argentina, mind you, has been the dominant force in women’s field hockey in the Pan American Hockey Federation since the mid-1980s, even though the population of the country is about 1/7th of the United States.

I think this changes once Argentina’s women’s population generates its first Messi, not its latest Aymar.

 

March 18, 2019 — Not reinventing the wheel

Last weekend, the second annual USA Field Hockey Summit occurred in Baltimore. One of the key points of the agenda was a Saturday morning presentation called, “Introducing the USA Field Hockey American Development Model.”

Now, over the last decade or so, a number of development initiatives have come — and, regretfully, gone from USA Field Hockey. They all had one thing in common: these came out of USA Field Hockey’s periodic meetings.

But the American Developent Model is a different construct. Already adopted by a number of national governing bodies of sport in the U.S., the ADM is a turnkey solution developed by the United States Olympic Committee back in 2015 to address lower sports participation rates among young people and to fight childhood obesity.

According to U.S. Olympic Committee documentation, the ADM is a blueprint for athletes, coaches, national governing bodies, and club teams in order to give participants lifetime opportunities to not only become exposed to the sport, but to find an outlet to succeed, find the natural end to their careers, and then find a way to give back to the sport.

USA Field Hockey has, in the past, tried to market the game as “a game for life.” But since those words were composed, we’ve noticed fewer and fewer athletes remaining with the sport, either as coaches, umpires, or adult players.

The ADM proposes a five-part development plan:

  1. Universal access. The key here is to remove obstacles to participation, something which, in these days of pay-to-play club field hockey, is going to be a major change.
  2. Developing age-appropriate skills. This aspect seems to discourage the “rushing” of prodigies into avenues of competition that could make them feel lost or uncompetitive.
  3. Encourage, not discourage, multi-sport participation. The ADM attempts to discourage players from specializing in one sport for the years leading into college. That parallels what you are hearing from many college coaches who would like better well-rounded athletes for their teams.
  4. A fun, challenging, and creative atmosphere. Keeping the game “fun” instead of doing drills, and emphasizing positive coaching.
  5. Quality coaching at all levels. This emphasizes the hiring of licensed coaches at all levels of a particular sport, and having mechanisms by which coaches continue their training in mid-career.

The ADM is geared towards the following four outcomes:

  1. Grow both the general athlete population and the pool of high-performance players from which future national-team members are selected
  2. Develop fundamental skills that transfer between athletic endeavors
  3. Provide appropriate avenues to fulfill an individual’s athletic needs
  4. Create a generation that loves a particular sport, and transfers that passion to the next generation

I invite you to take a look at the PDF we linked to earlier in this blog entry. This could be an interesting blueprint for the future survival of the sport in a highly competitive marketplace. Or it could wind up on the heap of idea which were trotted out, but found not to work.