Youthful Team USA Field Hockey Squad Learning on the Fly in New FIH Pro League

Corey KnappContributor IApril 12, 2019

Team USA celebrates its home shootout victory over Belgium in the FIH Women's Pro League.
Team USA celebrates its home shootout victory over Belgium in the FIH Women's Pro League.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In the opening game of a new league, playing far away from home against one of the best players and teams in the world, a teenager stole the show.

Forward Mackenzie Allessie corralled a rebound, calmly made a move in front of goal and put the ball in the back of the net, lifting Team USA ahead of Argentina in the teams' debut in the new FIH Women's Pro League.

"So exciting, I mean it was just a dream come true," the 18-year-old said of that first goal.

It was that moment, as well as the remainder of that first game, that has encapsulated the Americans' journey in this league between national teams. Team USA scored again to go up 2-0 before world No. 4-ranked Argentina scored twice in the fourth quarter and won in a shootout.

Ranked 12th in the world, the U.S. has loads of young talent on its roster, but the other nations have the talent and the experience that knows exactly how to get a result when needed. Delfina Merino, the Argentine captain who scored the late equalizer, has more international appearances than most of Team USA combined.

The FIH Pro League, which has both a women's and men's division, is unique in a sport that has been defined internationally by tournament play.

The women's league features nine of the top 13 teams in the world and takes place over six months from January to June. Every team plays each other home and away for a total of 16 games, and the top four teams in the standings advance to the Grand Final playoffs, which crowns a league champion.

The biggest payoff, however, is those top four teams all earn direct placement into qualifying events for the 2020 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"It's really valuable that we're playing consistent, international matches over the course of six months," said U.S. captain Kathleen Sharkey, whose 156 caps are by far the most on the team but still more than 100 behind Argentina's Merino. "It's hard to replicate that intensity in just a test match. ... We're growing and improving with each of these games since we are learning so much, so I think we're just trying to play to our potential each game."

After Wednesday's 2-1 loss at Belgium, Team USA returns to the pitch in the Netherlands on Sunday (10 a.m. ET, watch on B/R Live).

These teams have played in the league once already, a 5-0 masterclass in February delivered by the top-ranked team in the world. After all, the coach of the American squad is Janneke Schopman, who won an Olympic gold medal and world championship as a Dutch player.

Aside from that game, Team USA has been in its other six games, which included a shootout win over Belgium. As the Americans chase their first regulation win, there's a balancing act between wanting results now and finding positives to give the young players confidence moving forward.

"We do have young girls, but they're so skilled and so athletic and they can take on anyone in international hockey," Sharkey said. "So I think just making sure that they actually believe that and they're showing that on the field."

To fully understand just how youthful this team is, a glimpse at their collective birthdates will do the trick: All but one player on the Team USA roster were born in the 1990s.

The exception is Allessie, who was born in 2001. Danielle Grega, the team's leading scorer in FIH Women's Pro League play with three goals, is 22 years old and has eight caps. Midfield standout Erin Matson just turned 19 and already has 48 caps. Striker Margaux Paolino, who has broken out in her 15 appearances, is 21.

"I like the speed of the game (internationally)," Matson said.

"I would say different just intensitywise," Paolino added. "Competitiveness is definitely a little higher."

It's an even bigger jump for Allessie, who will play collegiately at Ohio State but has literally gone from high school competition to playing against the best players in the world. The Pennsylvania native and her teammates have studied their competitors on film in order to continue to develop their games.

"So much different, so much faster," the midfielder said. "But honestly the team's so great. They're like a family to me already. They're great role models. I can look up to every single one of them and trust them, and they are really supportive."

Their drive and youth is evident everywhere. After the 5-4 shootout win against Belgium in March (after the teams tied 1-1 in regulation), Matson and Paolino reviewed their penalty shots (Paolino scored, Matson did not) and then jumped into trash talk about March Madness.

Both play significant minutes at the international level while also starring at prominent college programs. A score update revealed Matson's North Carolina Tar Heels were down by 15 points, which drew a laugh from Paolino, who had plenty of confidence her Duke Blue Devils would win later that night (they did, barely).

"Like we know we're kidding...kind of," Matson said about their rivalry discussions.

"But there's some competitiveness deep down," Paolino confirmed.

It's that juxtaposition—young and inexperienced at this level, but competitive about everything—that points to such a bright outlook for Team USA.

Another key to that future is the home facility where the team plays and trains.

Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is the largest indoor sports complex in the United States and serves as the U.S. women's national team's home base in a deal that runs through 2022. The 700,000-square-foot facility features multiple turf practice fields and courts, weight training and fitness rooms, a hotel and restaurant, a domed practice pitch and a 2,000-capacity outdoor stadium.

Spooky Nook sits in the middle of the nation's field hockey hotbed, evidenced by the fact that 11 of the 25 players on the U.S. roster are from the Keystone State. On a cold weekend at the end of March, two near-sellout crowds watched Team USA's shootout victory over Belgium on Friday and a 3-1 loss to Great Britain on Sunday in the team's first two league games at the complex. The players noted the energy they felt throughout the matches. FIH specifically wanted every game of its season to be played at a country's home stadium for that reason exactly.

"Especially the atmosphere and the energy, it's so exciting to come to a pitch and facility like this where everyone's supporting and there's so much going on," said Paolino, who's from Villanova, Pennsylvania. "It just makes it 10 times more exciting."

     

In the United States, you can watch every FIH Pro League game (men's and women's) for every team here on B/R Live. For the full league schedule, go here. And to stream each Team USA game on B/R Live, go here.

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