USA Field Hockey going to new heights without a net in goal

Playing without a backup goalie on active roster
United States goalkeeper Jackie Briggs makes a save against Australia during the Olympics. To save a roster spot, Briggs is the only American goalie who suits up for games.
United States goalkeeper Jackie Briggs makes a save against Australia during the Olympics. To save a roster spot, Briggs is the only American goalie who suits up for games.

Alesha Widdall, the backup goalie for the U.S. women’s field hockey team, was getting ready for the team’s final game of Olympic group play, against Britain on Saturday at the Olympic Hockey Center.

Except that Widdall was not suited up in her leg pads, boots and other body armor. She was not sitting on the team bench alongside the rest of the substitutes. Instead, she was wearing a white jacket and black pants and preparing to watch the game from the stands in the company of her parents and many other U.S. fans.

In a calculated move by Craig Parnham, the U.S. coach, Widdall has been left off the active roster because the Olympic tournament allows him to dress only 16 players. That leaves him with only five substitutes in a sport that, at the elite level, is played at an unrelenting pace for 60 minutes.

Players get winded; fresh legs are needed. And Parnham wants five sets of fresh legs as the game proceeds, not four, which would be the case if he gave one of his 16 spots to Widdall. Even if Widdall were on the active roster, she would play only if the starting goalie, Jaclyn Briggs, was hurt.

“We play with a big tempo — we need the numbers,” Parnham said in explaining his decision.

Parnham, who became the coach of the U.S. team at the start of 2013, has built a formidable group that has relied on its speed in this tournament and will continue to do so when it takes on Germany in the quarterfinals today.

During the past week, as the United States won four games and lost just one in group play, American players were substituted freely; there are no limits on how many times a player can enter or a leave a game. And many of the other teams took the same approach Parnham did: one goalie, no backup.

But what would happen if Briggs were injured in the middle of a game this week? The answer, essentially, is that things would get a little complicated.

Widdall could replace Briggs in goal but only in the next game, not while the current one was going on. Widdall would have to remain in the stands, and Parnham would have to consider two options, neither of them great.

One would be to have one of his position players suit up in goalie gear, get in front of the goal and hope for the best. None of his players, it should be noted, are former goalies.

“I haven’t played goal since I was 6, when my sister stuffed pillows under my shirt,” midfielder Melissa Gonzalez said.

The other option actually has a name: the kicking back. Parnham would designate one of his position players to stand in front of the goal and act sort of like a goalie — in other words, use her legs and feet to stop the ball, which position players are not otherwise allowed to do.

The advantage of a kicking back is that the player would still have the mobility to stray from the goal and join in the action down the field. The disadvantage is pretty obvious: She might have to try to block a hard ball, struck with force, with nothing more than her shin pads and a stick.

There are two situations in which the rules take pity on a kicking back. On penalty corners (field hockey’s version of soccer’s corner kick) and penalty strokes (field hockey’s name for penalty shots), the kicking back can don a face mask. Thanks.

So what would Parnham do if he had to choose one of these options?

“We have a strategy in place,” he said, smiling. He would not say exactly what it was, or which not-quite-lucky player might be summoned to guard the goal, but he did indicate that the later in a game an emergency arose, the more likely he would be to go with a kicking back and gut it out.

The odds are, of course, that he will not have to do any of that. At the most, his team has just three games left to play in the tournament. And Briggs made it clear that she was not inclined to leave a game.

“Listen,” she said last week, “I’m on the field until I lose a limb and they drag me off.”

She has good reason to feel that way: At the 2012 London Games, she was the alternate goalie, the role that Widdall fills now.

Widdall said she had had several months to prepare for the unusual role she would be asked to play in Rio — being part of the team but not quite, taking part in practices but then having to become a spectator.

Her focus, she said, is “making sure everything is good with Jackie.”

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