By Jim Caple | Jan. 30, 2019, 2:46 p.m. (ET)

The U.S. women's field hockey team talks in a huddle after a match at the FIH Women's Hockey World Cup on July 25, 2018 in London.

 

The U.S. has won only two Olympic medals in field hockey, both in Los Angeles. The first was a bronze by the men’s team at the 1932 Olympics, and the other was a bronze by the women’s team in 1984.

While neither has won an Olympic medal since those 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the women’s team in particular is growing and becoming very good. It has won the championships at the past two Pan American Games (2011 and 2015), which the squad will compete again in — and perhaps win — this summer in Peru. The team also won the 2017 FIH Hockey World League Semifinals.

“The women have improved,” USA Field Hockey Executive Director Simon Hoskins said. “They used to have to scramble to get into the Olympics. They came in fifth in the Rio Olympics. We won championships just before it. It’s not easy, of course, to compete in any sport at the international level. You have to work hard and sacrifice a lot like many Olympians to be at the top level. And now here we are in the top nine teams in the FIH Pro League.”

The FIH Pro League opens this month and replaces the Champions’ Trophy, the World League Semifinals and World League Final. The women’s league includes teams from eight other countries: the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand, China and Belgium. They’ll play a home-and-away round robin, with a grand final for the top four teams to end the season.

The league was started to improve the sport’s global popularity and allow fans around the world to watch the games over the season. It also provides more games for the U.S. team.

“Now with the Pro League, we have a season structure, January through June. Eight away games and eight home games. It’s awesome for the women,” Hoskins said. “And it’s great for the people to be able to see the women play in meaningful matches.

“And every game for the Pro League will be televised on Bleacher Report. All games now, finally, will be able to be seen by everyone in the U.S. on television. They can also buy tickets.”

Team USA’s superb striker Kathleen Sharkey, 28, says she is very excited about the new league. 

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“I think there will be a lot of changes in our scheduling and what we’re normally used to,” Sharkey said. “But we’ll be experiencing the same amount of travel and the team challenges that we’re facing. I think we’re just focused on taking one game at a time and on what we need to do to be our best on the field for each of those games."

“I think the Pro League can be a big help to growing the game in this country. And the U.S. will be able to watch our game throughout the six months of the league or watch it online. Hopefully the Pro League will inspire some hockey players and also bring some new fans to the sport.”

Sharkey, who was on the 2016 Olympic team, got started in field hockey during junior high after watching her older sister play the game. While she played virtually every other sport, Sharkey became passionate about field hockey and went on to compete in it in college at Princeton. She also grew up in Pennsylvania, where the sport is more popular.

“It’s one of the most popular female sport programs in high school in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland,” Hoskins said. “What has changed over the past 10 years is our biggest growth in youth hockey. It’s being played by younger players, and is an alternative to soccer, basketball and other sports. As people have moved away from traditional areas, we have programs in many more areas. We have programs in Florida, which is one of the fastest growing areas. Texas is another. Michigan is another.

“The change is a much younger demographic in the growth. And it’s been by clubs. Before there weren’t any clubs — it was just a high school sport. And like many things in America in youth sport, growth has come around.”

Sharkey said there is a lot of work to be done to grow the game in other areas of the country but says the sport is getting bigger.

“I think girls are starting to play at a much younger age, which is helping to raise the skill level overall in the country,” she said. “On our team right now, we have teenagers who are really strong players and able to contribute on the international level, which 10 years ago was very rare for a teenager to step onto the national team. That says a lot about the sport.” 

While field hockey is growing somewhat, many Americans are unfamiliar with the sport. But it is fun to watch, including how amazingly fast the ball moves when the players hit it.

“That’s why it’s good to see it live at the very elite end,” Hoskins said. “People should be encouraged to watch the Pro League. If you can’t make it in person, which is the best way to experience it so you can cheer on Team USA, it’s great to watch on television and see the athleticism and the speed and the intricate skill. People will see that it’s a very cool sport.”

Seven of the FIH Pro League games in the U.S. will be played in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with one game in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The first game of the season for Team USA, meanwhile, is Feb. 2 against Argentina in Cordoba. There is a fierce rivalry between those two teams, with the U.S. beating Argentina at the 2016 Olympics and also surpassing them at the 2015 Pan Am Games. 

“Argentina is a very good team and very dangerous on the attack, but they’re always fun to play against,” Sharkey said.

The U.S. team is coached by Janneke Schopman, who won gold and silver medals playing for the Netherlands at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. The Netherlands is currently ranked as the No. 1 team, but the strongly experienced and committed Schopman could likely help the U.S. rise from its No. 12 ranking. 

In addition to playing well in the FIH Pro League, the U.S. wants to win an Olympic medal again in 2020. And given how they have been steadily improving, that’s quite possible, even though the Olympics will be in Tokyo rather than Los Angeles.

“Our ultimate goal is to win a medal at the Olympics next year but right now our current focus is on qualifying for that,” Sharkey said. “That is our primary goal for 2019 — to qualify for Tokyo and go from there.”

Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.