Luke DeCock

U.S. field hockey in position to make history

Team USA players celebrate a score during the women’s field hockey match against Great Britain on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro.
Team USA players celebrate a score during the women’s field hockey match against Great Britain on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. AFP/Getty Images

In the four years since finishing last out of 12 teams in London, the U.S. field hockey team has changed coasts and coaches, fields and philosophies, all of it leading to this.

After the group stage of the Olympics, the United States is in its best position to earn a medal in the sport since a bronze in 1984. Were it not for a 2-1 loss to Great Britain on Saturday – in a game the Americans led 1-0 with eight minutes to go – the United States would have won the group.

“Over the week we’ve been very good,” U.S. coach Craig Parnham said. “A huge amount of positives to come out of the week. (The loss) is not the worst thing that can happen. We can learn some lessons from this, regroup and reset before we go into the quarterfinals.”

There was more than just pride on the line; a win over Great Britain would have put the Americans on the opposite side of the quarterfinal bracket from 2008 and 2012 gold medalist Netherlands. That matchup now looms in the semifinals, if the United States can bounce back from Saturday night’s disappointment, but the mere fact the field hockey team is in this position is remarkable.

There’s a lot of credit to go around: to the coach, Parnham, an Englishman who added a Dutch technical coach, a sports scientist and an almost corporate organizational style; to the national federation, which moved the team’s full-time training base from California to the sport’s spiritual heartland in Lancaster, Pa.; to the players who accepted their failure in London and embraced the challenge of doing better.

What we’re really good at is process orientation.

U.S. field hockey captain Lauren Crandall, who played at Wake Forest

The result has been a team capable of going head-to-head with any of the world’s powers on any given night while embracing a focus so defined they sound less like athletes and more like management consultants.

“What we’re really good at is process orientation,” said captain Lauren Crandall, who played at Wake Forest.

You don’t hear that from the swimmers. You hear that from MBA students gunning for jobs at McKinsey.

There’s no question this very narrow-minded – in a good way – approach has brought them success. They talk about treating every practice like it’s the Olympics, about not looking ahead, about one game at a time. It doesn’t make for great conversation, but it makes for great hockey.

The core of the team, half the 16-player roster, is a group of former North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke players, almost all of them imports from Pennsylvania with the notable exception of Chapel Hill’s Michelle Kasold. Five of them played for Karen Shelton at UNC, who was part of that 1984 bronze-medal team. That’s the weight of history that is upon them now.

The United States upset Argentina and Australia, took care of business against India and Japan and was in position to put away Great Britain as well Saturday. Outplayed in a scoreless first half, the United States scored in the third quarter when Michelle Vittese broke through the middle, skipped past a helpless defender and fired a low shot past the British goalie.

That probably should have been enough the way the United States has played defensively in Rio, but the British ended up with the win.

“I’m proud,” Vittese said. “There were things that we could have done better. There always are. There are some lessons, and I’m glad it happened now.”

If the format were the same as 2012, when four teams advanced out of the group stage to the semifinals, the United States would be one win away from a medal. Instead, they face a tough game against 2004 gold-medalist Germany in the quarters and, with a win, either Netherlands or Argentina in the semis, the two pre-tournament favorites.

The group stage was a success. The important part begins now for the United States. Four years after ignominy, history beckons.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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