Team handball may not be a huge sport in the United States yet, but that doesn’t mean Team USA is lacking young talent.
Asaf Bengozi of the U.S. men’s junior national team, for example, has emerged as a player with tremendous potential.
The 21-year-old helped the United States earn bronze at the International Handball Federation Intercontinental Trophy tournament in Kosovo, where he was the leading scorer of the tournament with 36 goals in four games.
“Asaf brought lots of experience and a skill set that solidified our team’s offense,” said U.S. men’s junior national team head coach Julio Sainz. “He immediately became our penalty shot specialist, and played an important supporting role as a alternative center back. I am convinced he will continue to serve us well in the future.”
Bengozi most recently competed in the Men’s European Handball Federation (EHF) Cup with his Israeli club team, Hapoel Ashdod.
The EHF Cup, currently the second-highest tier of competition of European club handball, seldom sees American participation due to the high level of play.
In the two games he played with Hapoel Ashdod, Bengozi earned some rare screen time on ehfTV where U.S. players are rarely seen.
“Playing in the EHF Cup feels like a different kind of level because handball is more developed in Europe compared to in the U.S.,” Bengozi said. “But I do believe that the U.S. team is heading in the right direction. It’s been an amazing experience playing for the United States.”
Bengozi was born in Cooper City, Florida, but moved to Israel at age 11. That’s when he first began playing handball.
He first became aware of USA Team Handball when he watched the U.S. team come to Israel for a friendly match. His agent got in touch with the U.S. team and Bengozi was invited to join a few of the practices.
His teammate, Sebastian Wheeler, remembers meeting Bengozi for the first time during those practices.
“[Asaf] was understandably pretty quiet coming into that environment and not knowing anyone; however, I really got to know him during the IHF Trophy. He's had my back ever since,” Wheeler said, who is currently playing as a left back in France. “I would describe him as someone who is very calm on the court. He knows how to get everyone's nerves down to a point where we can perform optimally.”
As the United States looks to the Olympic Games Paris 2024 as its next opportunity for qualification, it will depend significantly on younger players like Bengozi and Wheeler to lead the effort.
And the young athletes are enthusiastic to take on that challenge.
"I almost can't contain my excitement when I talk about the future of handball in the United States. It is truly a sport made for Americans with the high intensity, loads of action, scoring and contact," Wheeler said.
"Since I joined the program in 2016, there have been amazing leaps forward in athlete participation, tournaments, quality of play, coaches, staff, board members, directors, you name it. I also think the 2024 Olympics is a possible goal for USA Team Handball that can be reached. I cant wait for the whole country to know what handball is and how amazing this sport is."
For now, Bengozi’s ability to play in the EHF Cup is a promising sign for the future of USA Team Handball.
“In terms of Asaf’s participation in the EHF Cup, I think it's something that allows us at USA Team Handball to dream. It is a reminder of the potential we have in terms of further development and exposure to the world of handball,” Sainz said.
“Asaf’s participation at the highest competitive level provides an immense personal benefit for him and our program. The more athletes we have exposed to this level of competition, the more they can help us further develop our own competition level.”