When the USA men’s team take on Canada in the first match of the Hockey World League (HWL) Round Two event in Tacarigua, Trinidad and Tobago, it will be the first major challenge of Rutger Wiese’s tenure as head coach. It will also be the USA men’s third attempt to reach HWLR3 and a shot at World Cup qualification.
That is not to say that Wiese is new to the USA men’s program. In fact, he has been assistant coach to the senior team since 2013 and was part of the coaching team that saw squad win the HWLR1 in Salamanca, Mexico in September 2016. He is also head coach to the U21 men’s national team, leading them to a creditable fourth place at the Junior Men’s Pan American Championships in May last year.
Dutch-born Wiese is no stranger to success. As a player he was part of the HC Bloemendaal squad that won three National Club Championships in Europe’s home of hockey, the Netherlands. He also won an European Club Championship with Blomendaal in 2001. Towards the end of his playing career in 2010, playing for Menzieshill, he won the Scottish National Indoor Championships.
Wiese cut his teeth in USA field hockey coaching in the collegiate system – first at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and then at Harvard. During his time at Harvard, the college saw 12 student athletes collecting All-Ivy League accolades.
Securing a victory, or a top two place, at the HWLR2 is, unsurprisingly at the top of Wiese’s priority list right now. In all three seasons, the USA have stormed through Round One events, but faltered at Round Two. During the 2013 season, their Round Two adventures were cut brutally short when they lost four out of five games, including a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out loss to Trinidad and Tobago and a 9-0 annihilation at the hands of Argentina.
The second season saw the USA team in HWLR2 action again, this time on home soil in San Diego. A close quarter-final game, which they lost 2-1 to Austria, left them playing for 5th-8th place. A subsequent loss to fellow PAHF side Chile meant they then had to beat Trinidad and Tobago, which they did, to finish seventh.
This time around, Wiese and his men hope for better. The squad, which is ranked 29th in the world, has recently returned from a training camp in Spain, which Wiese says has done nothing but give his players heightened excitement and confidence. “We had a very productive training camp in Spain where we prepared ourselves. We will arrive a few days early in Trinidad and Tobago to finalize our tactical plans, and hopefully we can grow into the tournament bit by bit,” said Wiese.
The time spent in Spain was also a chance for the players and staff to adapt to changes in personnel following Wiese’s rise to head coach. The team played national and regional sides and were able to try out new systems of play and experience playing hockey against sides with a very different hockey culture.
Midfielder Michael Barminski says the trip was a great opportunity to get to know the demands and aspirations of the new coaching set up. “And”, he added: “the staff and particularly our head coach, have really helped bring a new energy to the squad in trainings and overall excitement about what this team is truly capable of.”
There is a palpable sense of team cohesion and excitement surrounding the USA camp ahead of HWLR2 and Wiese says the mood is very much one of “being prepared to battle for our team mates at all times.”
At 24 years old, Barminski is a veteran of the USA team and he agrees with his coach about the sense of ‘team’ and ‘battling for each other’ within this USA squad: “The biggest strengths of our team is our brotherhood and perseverance - hands down,” says the midfielder. “Those two things have been part of Team USA for as long as I’ve been on the squad (he made his debut in 2010) and I’m sure long before I even picked up a field hockey stick.
“From the public perspective, I think people often look at our roster and see that we are a young team, which is often taken as a negative. Mainly I think, because youth is associated with immaturity and lack of discipline. However, from very young ages, most of our players have had the responsibility and privilege of bearing the USA logo across our chests. We have shown huge growth in maturity and perseverance over the past years. I know that we are still a young team but our ability to trust in the process has never wavered and I think that has really become part of our crowning strength as a team.”
For Barminski, this is all about taking one game at a time: “Put simply, we have six games that are each 60 minutes long. For those 60 minutes we want and plan to execute our strongest skills and capabilities for the duration of that time in every game. I think if we fully invest ourselves into ‘the process’ and follow our game plan we are in a great position to qualify for the HWL Semi-Finals.”
Both Wiese and Barminski acknowledge the scale of the challenge. Wiese says that the biggest challenges will come from their northern neighbours, Canada, who are ranked 11th in the world and have the confidence that comes from both competing at the Rio Olympics and enjoying a good run in the 2015 Hockey World League, where they finished fourth in Round 3 and qualified for the Finals.
He also sees Japan (World Ranking 16) and Chile (WR: 26) as contenders for the top spots, but says the unknown quality in Tacarigua might turn out to come from Russia (WR: 22). “Of course, our challenges are the top-notch competition we face, however, we are excited for the opportunity. We will try to mainly focus on ourselves this tournament, while keeping in mind that in international competition you always need to be prepared for the unexpected and adjust to the new situation.”
One of the exciting things about qualifying for HWLR2 is that teams find themselves playing opposition who they rarely meet. This can lead to exciting clashes in style of play and some unexpected results. It is certainly a prospect that has Barminski licking his lips in anticipation: “The HWL circuit gives us a cool opportunity to play opponents that we otherwise typically wouldn’t because of zoning regions. However, it presents its own set of challenges as we have had to climb our way from HWLR1 to HWLR2 and now have a chance to qualify for HWLR3. It’s a lot of games to get to the top. But we’re up for it.”
The USA men’s team will face Canada on 25 March, Barbados on 26 March and the final pool A game is against Chile on 28 March. How they finish in the pools will determine their quarter-final opponents. The top two placed teams will automatically qualify for the HWL Semi-Finals to be played in July and August 2017. The third placed team will have a chance to also qualify, depending upon the rankings of the third place finishers in the other two HWLR2 events, taking place in Dublin, Ireland (11-19 March) and Dhaka, Bangladesh (4-12 March).
Tacarigua, Trinidad & Tobago - March 25 to April 2
PAHF teams: Barbados, Canada, Chile, Trinidad & Tobago, USA