The last time the U.S. women’s national field hockey team competed in the Pan American Games, it ended rival Argentina’s streak of six consecutive tournament titles dating back to the sport’s inclusion in 1987.
In addition to it being the Americans’ first Pan Am title, the 2011 championship secured the U.S. women a spot in the London 2012 Olympic Games. However, the high turned to bitter disappointment with a last-place finish in London that led to a coaching change and program overhaul.
Now the new-look women’s team is ready to try again. The Americans open the 2015 Pan American Games on July 13 in Toronto, and a berth in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games is on the line should they successfully defend their title.
The women will be in Pool B in the 2015 Pan Am Games, which also includes Chile, Uruguay and Cuba. Pool A includes Argentina, Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The U.S. men begin play July 14 against Cuba. Joining those teams in Pool A are Argentina and Trinidad & Tobago. Pool B has Canada, Chile, Brazil and Mexico. The U.S. men finished fifth in 2011.
Last month, the women finished fifth in the FIH Women’s Hockey World League Semifinal in Valencia, Spain. They opened play with wins over Uruguay (2-0) and South Africa (4-1), tied Germany (2-2) and lost to Ireland (2-0) and Argentina (3-0). They then defeated Ireland 6-1 and Spain 3-1 to close out the tournament.
“This tournament was huge for our growth and development going forward,” said Michelle Kasold, one of 10 players returning from the 2011 Pan Am Games team. “We know we created enough chances in every game to win, along with limiting the teams we played to few. We know that our physical and technical abilities are solid and that there are just a few areas we need to tweak.
“Teams are playing us differently than they did at the World Cup last year, so now we have to adapt and continue to read these changes. I think the biggest takeaway for us as a team is that no matter what the source or outcome, we always stick together, take one game at a time and believe, because we know we’ve done the work to allow us to be successful.”
Since leaving Spain, Kasold said, the team has been focused on minor tactical changes, tweaking a few corner routines and just continuing to stick to their strengths and play their style of game.
“Much of our team has fond memories of the last Pan Ams, and we’re eager to create new memories with this group,” Kasold said. “Argentina is always a strong rival, but all the teams will be putting out their best games, since this is the last opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. We have to be ready for every opponent.”
On the men’s side, coach Chris Clements is hoping for continued improvement in a tournament in which the United States has not medaled in 20 years.
“We are aware of the medal drought, but that will not help us win,” Clements said. “We need to stick to our plan throughout all matches, focus on the process and achieve the performance measures we have in place for us to be successful. It is all about what we do.”
In June, the men’s team traveled to Europe for six matches in the Netherlands and Belgium to help prepare for the Pan Am Games. They went 2-4 during the trip and got what Clements called invaluable experience.
“The team has developed their ability to play structured and disciplined hockey for the entire game against all opponents,” he said. “This was a critical element of our recent European tour. We are aware of the importance of increasing efficiency in both attacking and defensive 25’s and have strategies in place to aid us to be successful.”
The winning men’s and women’s field hockey teams at the Pan Am Games will earn spots in Rio in 2016. There are five continental qualification tournaments, and the champions at each will earn a quota place for their Olympic team. The six highest-placed teams in the World Hockey League Semifinals will also earn a quota spot if they have not already qualified at a continental championship.
The competitions will take place at the Pan Am/Parapan Am Fields at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.