PAHF Year 2017 in review

As the year draws to a close, it is time to take a look back at some of the events and players that have made hockey shine in the Americas over the past 12 months.

It all began in the spring as the Trinidad and Tobago Hockey Board got their year off to a fantastic start playing perfect host to the FIH Hockey World League Round Two event. It was not the final placing that the host nation hoped for – they finished fifth behind Japan, Canada, USA and Russia – but they proved they were more than capable of hosting a great event.

It was also at the HWL Round Two event that the watching hockey fans learnt what Trinidad and Tobago’s coaching staff already knew – in Akim Toussaint, they have a very special player. The midfielder is the only player to make it onto both the PAHF Elite Indoor and Outdoor Hockey squads this year, following his nation’s outstanding performances in both strands of the game. But more of that later.

The women’s Hockey World League Round Two contenders headed northwards for their PAHF-hosted event, to the rain swept city of Vancouver in Canada. Again, while the organizing committee put in a shining performance – including battling with water-logged pitches armed with brooms – it was disappointment on the pitch for the hosts. Canada had entered the event with high hopes of emulating their HWL 2015 performance only to finish fifth. Chile however, were on a roll and their second-place finish behind India meant they qualified for the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg. This was the first time the Diablos had made it to the Semi-Finals and it was thanks in no small part to the goal-scoring and leadership qualities of Camila Caram and the coolness under pressure of Denise Krimerman.

And so to the Hockey World League Semi-Finals, where the prize on offer was not simply a place at the Hockey World League end-of-season Final but it also offered a chance to qualify for the 2018 men’s and women’s Hockey World Cups – taking place in Bhubaneswar, India and London, England respectively.

In London, at the first of the men’s Semi-Final events, PAHF was represented by Canada and Argentina, both of whom delivered in great fashion. Argentina went to the event as the world number one team and finished in second place after receiving a 6-1 masterclass in taking scoring opportunities from the high-flying Dutch. While a podium place was nothing less than Carlos Retegui and his men expected, Canada defied all expectations as they saw off Pakistan with a comprehensive 6-0 victory; defeated China 7-3 and then beat India in a thrilling 3-2 battle which earned them fifth place and qualification for next year’s Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup.

Scorer of two goals, including the winner, in the 5/6th match against India was Gordon Johnston. Talking on the Field Hockey Canada website, the striker said: “Our guys worked so hard in that match, we got a lot of chances and we buried them. The last World Cup we were at was 2010,” he added.  “Eight years I’ve been dreaming to get there, so it’s a dream come true!”

In the women’s Semi-Final events, PAHF had three representatives, all playing in Pool B. Argentina, as the world ranked number three side, were favorites to win the pool; USA went to the event ranked sixth and Chile were the outsiders, with a world ranking of 21.

In the event, Chile surpassed themselves, playing with a style and confidence that belied their status as lowest ranked team at the competition. They beat the hosts South Africa and lost by only one or two goal margins to higher ranked India, USA and Argentina. In their final classification match, Chile beat Poland and won ninth place and the hearts and minds of spectators.

“I think we showed that we are making steps and growing,” says Manuela Urroz, whose performances this year have earned her a place in the PAHF Elite Team of the Year. “At World League Three we faced tough rivals but we played our game. I must admit we were sad not to have qualified for the World Cup.”

As a team that has risen rapidly up the rankings this year, Chile’s female players might feel aggrieved at missing out on the World Cup qualification but as they showed later in the Pan American Cup, where they finished in silver medal position, they are a team that has punched well above their weight this year. Their reward has been a rise up the FIH World Ranking to a high of 15th.

For Argentina and USA, the Hockey World League Semi-Final was a chance to secure World Cup qualification early, to avoid the stress of needing to qualify via the continental qualifier. Argentina had the better of the pool matches as they cruised to four wins. They also made short work of Ireland in the quarter-finals and were all set for a semi-final encounter with Germany.

The USA lost twice in the Pool games – to South Africa and Argentina – but, despite below par performances, they picked up enough points to finish second in the pool. But everyone knows it is at the quarter-final stage when your team needs to hit a rich vein of form and this is exactly what Janneke Schopman and her team managed to do. A win over Japan set them up for a semi-final encounter with England. A nervy 1-1 draw saw the USA achieve what many have failed to do in recent years – beat England on shoot-out. In the other semi-final, Argentina were on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline against Germany.

USA continued to play their style of fierce, uncompromising hockey. In Germany they found a side who would match them for work rate and again the USA side found themselves drawing 1-1 and going to shoot-out, this time against the other side renowned for its strength at shoot-out.

“We always back ourselves,” was teenage sensation Erin Matson’s verdict on the situation and sure enough, the 17-year-old was the one who kept her head and scored the winning goal after Franzisca Hauke had seen her shot saved by Jackie Briggs.

The results meant that both USA and Argentina – who eventually finished fourth – will be heading to the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup in London next July.

While the top ranked teams were battling for World Cup places and top 10 ranking spots, at the development end of the game, July was an exciting time. The Central American Hockey5s saw a new hockey nation emerge as Guatemala took both the men’s and women’s titles, beating Panama into second place in both events. All the participating teams have promised to take place in next year’s event, having agreed the event truly showed the power of sport to bring nations together.

And so to the Pan American Cups, where Argentina men and women were seeking to defend their 2013 titles. This they achieved in some style. The men won all their games, conceding just three goals in the process. The final, between Los Leones and Canada was a fast-paced and high-quality affair, but it was always going to be a tough ask for Canada to beat their world number one opponents.

In the women’s competition, there was a new name in the final. Chile took full advantage of the confidence they had gained from their Hockey World League endeavors and surprised everyone with their 4-3 victory over USA in the semi-finals. The final saw Argentina maintain their unbeaten record at this event, but Chile certainly have signaled their intent to be a hockey nation to be reckoned with.

Urroz agrees: “The Pan Am Cup was another story. I think the team started to believe in ourselves and we had a historic result. We will grow from this point.”

And so to the Indoor Pan American Cup, which was held for the first time in Georgetown, Guyana. The prize for the winning teams was qualification for the Indoor World Cup, to be held in Berlin in February 2018.

This was an event for firsts as both winning sides, USA women and Trinidad & Tobago men, are first-time winners at this tournament. USA beat Argentina 2-1, with goals from eventual Player of the Tournament Ali Campbell and Katie Gerzabek; then Trinidad & Tobago stunned everyone when they hammered Argentina 7-0.

“We weren’t sure where we were staying until three days before the tournament started because of financial restraints,” says Akim Toussaint as he reflects back on his team’s historic performance. “But that did not stop us going out and making history. We played every game with a real passion but everyone thought we had just caught Argentina by surprise when we beat them 5-2 in the first game.”

Trinidad & Tobago proved their opening victory was no fluke when they won their other three group matches. Toussaint takes up the commentary: “Then came mighty Canada. They needed to win by four goals to knock us out of the final. We had never won against Canada in any form of the game so we were a little nervous until we remembered that we had never beaten Argentina either before this tournament. That gave us so much confidence going into the match.”

Trinidad & Tobago did fall four goals down to Canada but somehow the Trinidad side managed to not only claw their way back into the game, but they emerged 7-5 victors.

The final, against Argentina, was an almost simple affair in comparison. A structured, composed and skillful performance saw Trinidad & Tobago win 7-0 and make history in the process.

Guyana is a nation that has been developing apace in recent times and all the hard work has paid off as the women’s national team finished as winners, just ahead of Jamaica, at the qualifying event for the Central American and Caribbean Games (2018), while the men’s team qualified in second place behind Jamaica. Both Jamaica and Guyana’s men’s and women’s teams will be contesting the 2018 CAC Games in Barranquilla, Colombia next year.

The final two events we will report on for our annual round-up are the men’s and women’s Hockey World League Finals, which took place in India and New Zealand respectively. Argentina men will be pleased to have reached the final but a 2-1 loss to Australia means Los Leones lose their number one world ranking as the Kookaburras retained the title and picked up maximum ranking points.

The women’s PAHF representatives at the event, Argentina and USA, will not view the Hockey World League Final in New Zealand with any great joy. USA finished second in their pool and then faced a quarter-final match against England. This they lost 2-1, and so found themselves in a 7/8th place match against China. They won that encounter but after the highs of the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg, Melissa Gonzalez and her team will have found this a tough pill to swallow.

Argentina looked imperious as they won all their pool games, beating China, England and Germany but when they faced New Zealand in the quarter-finals, they met a team that had transformed itself overnight. New Zealand had finished the pool matches in fourth place and had performed dreadfully in the process but against Argentina, the host nation took every ounce of energy the home supporters offered and turned the game around. Argentina took the lead but then seemed to take their collective foot off the gas. New Zealand scored twice and Argentina were left playing for fifth place – a position they achieved thanks to a 4-0 win over Germany.

Argentina’s captain Delfina Merino summed up her team’s year: “The past year has been a year of growing as a team. We started the year training with one coach but now we have a new coaching staff so we are very much in a period of transition. A lot of young players have joined the team, which is something we all have to get used to. We finished the Hockey World League in fifth place, but if you look closer at the results, we won four of our five games, which is okay. We will continue to grow as a team and as individuals within the team. The connections between players will get better and better. This year went as expected and that is okay. We are now concentrating on and looking forward to the World Cup.”

Merino is one of a number of players nominated for awards at the annual FIH Hockey Stars Awards. The Argentina captain and dynamic striker is one of five candidates up for Player of the Year (women). She is joined on the shortlist by USA captain Melissa Gonzalez, while USA goalkeeper Jackie Briggs is nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year.

In the male category, Argentina’s Gonzalo Peillat is nominated, while goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi is one of five nominees for Goalkeeper of the Year.

In a category dominated by three players from the Netherlands, Maria Granatto is looking to replicate last year’s success when she was crowned 2016 Rising Star.

You can lend your support to the PAHF nominated players by visiting the FIH website