It has been 21 years since a major international hockey event took place on USA soil – and that was just one part of a multi-sport event, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. From 4-13 August, the Pan American Cups will be the first field hockey-only major event to take place in the USA. Add to that notable first, the fact that this is the first dual-gender Pan American Cups, with men and women’s matches taking place on alternate days, and you just know this is going to be memorable occasion in the PAHF’s timeline.
It is fitting that the host venue is USA Field Hockey’s showpiece venue, Spooky Nook, where the USA women train and play and, for the members of the 15 participating teams and match officials, the sports specific centre promises to offer a fantastic competitive experience. For the PAHF, the 2017 event will be a showcase for the sport, with a number of teams competing off the back of some very promising Hockey World League performances.
So, with just a few days to go before the opening ceremony, let’s take a look at Pan American Cups of yesteryear and the teams who are hoping to lift the trophies on 12 and 13 August. For these nations, the prize at stake is not solely seeing their name on the roll of honor, there are also the more prosaic matters of qualification for the 2018 men’s and women’s World Cups and the 2021 Pan American Cup.
Until the introduction of the Pan American Cup, in 2000 for the men and a year later for the women, the only ways a team could qualify for the Hockey World Cup was via a World Cup qualifier or if they had finished in a high position at the previous edition of the World Cup. With the advent of the Hockey World League (HWL), a new route to qualification has opened up – depending upon placings at the HWL Semi-Finals and world rankings – but the Pan American Cup is the official PAHF continental qualifier for the World Cup. Prior to the HWL, the Pan American Cup also served as a way to decide which teams could contest the World Cup qualifiers, usually the teams who finished second to fifth in the Pan Am Cup would go on to contest the qualifiers.
So it is easy to see why the continental qualifier is important. It is a simple way to determine a nation’s superiority in the PAHF region and give a straightforward route to the next World Cup - in this case in 2018 in India [men] and England [women].
Since its inception in 2000, the men’s Pan Am Cup has attracted 15 different nations. These range from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Mexico and USA who have competed in all four previous editions and will also be appearing at Spooky Nook this time around, to nations such as Peru, Netherlands Antilles, Jamaica and Cuba, who are all one-timers at the event. Cuba has the distinction of being the only men’s team with a 100 per cent success rate. They entered the event in 2000 – held in Havana – won it after a 2-1 result over Canada, and have not appeared since.
Likewise, in the women’s event, 14 different teams have participated, with just Argentina, Canada and USA appearing at all four previous editions. Barbados, Bermuda, Guyana and Venezuela are among those with only one appearance. This year will herald Brazil women’s debut at the event.
Taking a trawl back through the Cup’s 17-year history, one striking thing is how the world order of hockey has changed. In front of a home crowd in 2000, Cuba breezed through the men’s event, racking up 51 goals in the pool matches that included a 14-0 demolition of both Peru and Barbados and a 3-1 win over Argentina. The final was a close affair between Canada, who had beaten Argentina in the semi-finals on penalty strokes, and Cuba, who had continued to score freely with a 8-0 win over Chile.
In the 2004 edition, which acted as a qualifying event for the 2006 Monchengladbach World Cup in Germany, it was Los Leones who dominated. To be more accurate, it was the firepower of Jorge Lombi, with 26 goals to his name, that propelled Argentina towards their first Pan American Cup. The final was against Canada and, in a repeat of the 2000 edition, the Red Caribous lost 2-1.
That scoreline was reversed four years later in Chile when Canada met the United States in the final. After two silver medals, the Canadians were determined to take gold but they were made to fight all the way. In the semi-finals, they met a resolute Argentina and the match went to extra time, with Canada coming from behind twice. At full-time it was 3-3 and Connor Grimes became Canada’s hero when he scored the winner in the 80th minute.
In the final, Canada met USA and again they had to fight back from 1-0 down to take the match to extra time. This time Paul Wetlaufer was the hero as he scored the winner to hand Canada a well-deserved title.
The fourth edition was held in Canada, with the winner guaranteed a place at the 2014 World Cup in The Hague. This was the first sighting of the exciting team that was beginning to develop in the blue and white colors of Argentina. A year later the same players were wearing bronze medals around their necks as they surprised the hockey world with a bronze medal at the World Cup. Gold at Rio was the culmination of this team’s talents and ambitions. Again, it was Canada who suffered the heart-break of a loss in the final, 4-0 to Argentina – all four goals scored by the precocious talent of Gonzalo Peillat.
The women’s events have been dominated by three teams. With one exception, the results have been Argentina, USA and Canada – gold, silver, bronze respectively. The one change to the order was Chile’s bronze medal at the expense of Canada in 2009. While Argentina might have bragging rights at this event, there is evidence that the other teams are closing the gap. In a thrilling match in 2009, USA held Las Leonas to a 2-2 draw and sent the game to penalty strokes. At the end of the first round of penalty strokes, the score stood at 4-4 so the match went to sudden death. Rachel Dawson was the unfortunate stroke taker who missed and Noel Barrionuevo stepped up to slot home to give Argentina the title.
In the 2013 edition, held in Mendoza, it was again the USA who were determined to halt the Argentine dominance of the event. It was a closely fought, competitive match with just one goal separating the teams – a 55th minute goal from Delfina Merino.
So what to expect this time around in the men’s and women’s events?
The prospect of some of the top teams in the world converging on Spooky Nook is enormously exciting but also raises the concern that some of the lower-ranked teams may concede high numbers of goals. Tournament Director Paula Parks sees nothing but positives in the presence of the top teams: “What player in the world wouldn’t find it an amazing experience to share a pitch with Olympic gold medalists,” she says. “To see how they play, how they train, how they get to be where they are, that is a real privilege.”
It is also an opportunity for developing teams to see where they currently stand in the world’s hockey hierarchy. For teams such as Canada men and Chile women, who both competed at this year’s HWL Semi-Finals, it is a chance to see how they have closed the gap on the top 10 teams. For Canada – already qualified for the 2018 Odisha World Cup – it is also an opportunity to play in a tournament format, which is all part of a team’s long-term preparation for the World Cup.
In the men’s event, the team to beat will be Argentina. Ranked number one in the world and Olympic gold medalists, this is a team that is cresting a wave and coach Carlos Retegui will want to keep the momentum his team has created. Argentina recently booked their tickets to the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India, after advancing to the championship match at the FIH Men’s Hero Hockey World League Semi-finals in London, England. They lost to The Netherlands, but they will be determined to defend their 2013 PAC title.
Canada men are ranked 11th in the world and a victory over India [ranked 6th] at the same HWL Semi-final event is a clear signal that the team’s qualification for Rio 2016 was no flash-in-the-pan. This is a team with ambition and quality within its ranks.
A bronze medal at HWL Round Two was reward for USA’s progress in recent seasons. Ranked 26th in the world, the gap in rankings does not point to a drop in competitiveness. This is a team with a lot to prove in front of a home crowd.
One ranking place lower is Chile [27th] and three bronze medals at the past three Pan American Games indicates that the South American country is used to performing in tournaments, and beating higher ranked opponents. Add to this a failure to perform at the HWL Round Two in Tacarigua, Trinidad and Tobago, and you have a team determined to put things right and finish among the medals.
Brazil [29th] gained entry to PAC after winning gold at the 2015 Pan American Challenge in Chiclayo, Peru. They finished fourth at the 2015 Pan American Games and, while their performance at the recent Rio 2016 Olympic Games was not up to par, it provided an invaluable opportunity to play tournament hockey against higher-ranked teams.
Hosting a HWL Round Two event in April, Trinidad and Tobago [33rd] faced USA in the quarterfinal. Although they fell 3-2 in the shootout round, Trinidad and Tobago are a team that can prove a threat to higher ranked teams.
No. 41 Mexico and No. 48 Venezuela both qualified for PAC from the Pan American Challenge. Mexico recently hosted and participated in the FIH Hockey World League Round 1 in Salamanca, Mexico in September 2016. Of the four-team event, Mexico showed impressive goal scoring abilities on their route to claim third. Venezuela also competed in Round 1 as well as the South American Championship in Chiclayo, Peru, in 2016, where they came second to Chile.
On the women’s side, the two outstanding teams are the world number three team, Argentina and the home side and sixth-ranked team USA.
Having claimed every women’s Pan American Cup title since the event’s establishment, Las Leonas punched their tickets to the FIH women’s Hockey World Cup in London, England, at the FIH Hockey World League Semi-finals in Johannesburg, South Africa. For many observers, the Argentina team of the past few months is one that has re-discovered its way after a poor performance in the 2016 Olympics. Retirements and changing personnel had disrupted the team but a sparkling HWL Semi-final campaign, combined with a demolition of England in an earlier test series, indicates that Argentina are the form team at the moment.
In the past few years, USA hockey has been on the move, with gold at the HWL Semi-Finals in Johannesburg the pinnacle of their recent achievements. The team has climbed the rankings, winning back-to-back Pan American Games titles (2011 and 2015) and a bronze medal at the 2016 Champions Trophy in London, England. The team also out-performed their PAHF rivals Argentina at the Rio 2016 Olympics, beating them in the pool stages and finishing higher in the event [fifth/seventh]. USA has the ability, self-belief and work rate to beat any of the world’s top ranked teams.
Canada women, ranked 19th in the world, have had a roller-coaster in recent seasons. On their day, they are very good and can challenge the best; on a bad day they underperform – a fifth place finish at the HWL Round Two in West Vancouver, Canada, was one such occasion. But this is a team that has recent experience against higher-ranked opponents and a podium place is well within their reach.
Chile (20th) comes to PAC after earning a silver at HWL Round 2 in Vancouver, Canada in April. They lost in the final to India in a shootout (3-1) but the result took them to the HWL Semi-finals in South Africa where they were in the same pool as Argentina and USA. Chile finished pool play with one win over the higher ranked host nation but the experience will have proved invaluable to this progressive team.
Also competing at the FIH Hockey World League Round Two in West Vancouver, Canada were Uruguay (23rd) and Mexico (30th). Facing off against each other in the quarterfinal round, Uruguay came out victorious before falling to Chile in the semifinals to earn fourth. Mexico went on to claim sixth place.
At 41st, Brazil are the lowest ranked and least internationally experienced side. They won the 2015 Pan American Challenge against Barbados, which was a qualifier for this event. The beauty of this tournament is that it gives teams such as Brazil a chance to compete on an inspirational sporting stage, and that experience can never be underestimated.
Men’s World Rankings
No. 1 Argentina
No. 11 Canada
No. 26 USA
No. 27 Chile
No. 29 Brazil
No. 33 Trinidad & Tobago
No. 41 Mexico
No. 48 Venezuela
Women’s World Rankings
No. 3 Argentina
No. 6 USA
No. 19 Canada
No. 20 Chile
No. 23 Uruguay
No. 30 Mexico
No. 41 Brazil