The US Olympic Curling Trials Process: Where Three Equals Five and the Points Don’t Matter

The 2016-2017 curling season has come to a close for all but three teams in the United States (Jamie Sinclair and John Shuster will play in the Humptys Champions Cup next week, while Heath McCormick will be in St. Gallen, SUI this week for the European Masters). With that being the case, attention is now devoted to which teams will be part of the US Olympic Curling Trials this November in Omaha. The process by which teams gain entry takes most of the work out of the hands of the teams and rests it with a committee who can decide to use whatever criteria they want to choose the number and names of those teams. I will say at the outset that I disagree profusely with the process, but since this is how the field will be decided, I will present the case for the other contenders and let the reader decide who should/shouldn’t be in Omaha.

We start first with the direct entry criteria. In order for a team to gain an automatic berth to the Trials, they must either:

  1. Finish fifth or higher at the most recent World Curling Championship;
  2. Finish in the top 15 of the World Curling Tour Order of Merit (two-year point total) standings; or
  3. Finish in the top 15 of the WCT Order of Merit Year-to-Date standings

Team John Shuster and Team Nina Roth both qualified for the Trials by way of #1 (Shuster finishing fourth in Edmonton and Roth fifth in Beijing). As for #2, the closest unqualified teams were Craig Brown’s at 25th and Jamie Sinclair’s at 31st. #3 also looks to not render a qualification (Heath McCormick’s foursome ranks 19th, 23+ points behind the 15th position with two other teams competing in the event between them and 15th, while Sinclair is 28th). With only one team of each gender qualified directly to the Trials, a Trials Selection Committee will convene to choose which other teams will be included to fill out the field (minimum of two choices, maximum of four).

Because the field can be anywhere between three and five teams and the men’s and women’s competition do not have to have the same number of teams in them, determining how many and who should be included can be a tough question. On the men’s side, three teams currently reside in the top 30 of the WCT Year-to-Date standings (McCormick at 19th, Shuster at 20th, and Brown at 29th) and in my opinion should all be in Omaha. With two more possible selections (remember, the committee CAN stop here and go with just three), here are the 2016-2017 resumes of three teams that could be considered to fill one or both open spots:

Team A: 8-5 record against teams under consideration, 4 wins over top-20 YTD teams, winning percentage of .542.

Team B: 2-4 record against teams under consideration, 2 wins over top-20 YTD teams, winning percentage of .500.

Team C: 4-5 record against teams under consideration, 5-6 record against HPP teams, winning percentage of .600.

Which, if any of these teams, do you select?¬† A and C have better numbers than B, but are those numbers good enough in comparison to Shuster, Brown, and McCormick? I don’t think either team would be out of their depth in Omaha and given their performances at this year’s USA Nationals (3rd and 2nd, respectively) could challenge for the Olympic berth.

Now to the women. The only women’s team with a clear case for inclusion is Jamie Sinclair’s (USA Nationals champion, qualified for playoffs in eight events, 4 wins against potential Olympic opponents). Beyond that, selecting one or more teams to join Roth and Sinclair is difficult. As with the men, here are this year’s resumes of three contenders:

Team A: 4-1 record against teams under consideration, average finish of 67.5 (on a scale of 100, lowest result dropped).

Team B: 1-5 record against teams under consideration, 6-1 record against HPP teams, 3 wins against top-20 YTD teams.

Team C: 3-2 record against teams under consideration, 1 win over top-20 YTD teams, 2 semifinal appearances in WCT events.

Who do you choose? B is clearly better against the top teams in women’s curling (the 6-1 against the HPP teams stands out), but A is best of these three teams head-to-head and is more consistent in her results. I would invite both of these teams to Trials as their accomplishments show they are legitimate contenders for the Olympic berth. Unfortunately, I don’t believe one could justify adding Team C to the mix as their 0-6 record against Roth/Sinclair would seem to indicate that they would have trouble staying in contention after the first round-robin.

Click the links, shout at me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/backseatgaffer), and hopefully we will see USA Curling make selections that benefit the game in this country and provide incentive for teams to play the tour in the hopes of one day representing the US in international competition.

An Exercise of Convolution: The Canadian Olympic Trials Process in a Nutshell

As the 2016-2017 curling season comes to a close this month, all eyes are starting to focus on qualification for the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials. The WestJet Players’ Championship in Toronto will be the last opportunity for teams to pick up Canadian Tour Ranking System (CTRS) points in the hopes of gaining a direct berth to the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings (the fancy name for their Olympic Curling Trials) in December in Ottawa. The process for direct entry to the Trials seems fairly straight-forward on paper, but is riddled with convolution that would make even the sanest person wonder “who the heck came up with this?”. Break out your abacuses and lawyers-on-retainer as I explain.

Nine teams of each gender will compete at the Roar of the Rings. Seven teams gain direct entry by way of winning either the 2015 or 2016 Canada Cup (slots 1 and 3), the 2016 or 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts (women) or Tim Hortons Brier (men) provided they make the podium at that year’s World Championship (slots 2 and 4), or by finishing first in the two-year (2015-2017) CTRS standings (slot 5) or first or second in the one-year (2016-2017) CTRS standings (slots 6 and 7). The remainder of the field on both sides will be determined at a pre-trials event in Summerside, PEI in early November with twelve teams competing for the final two spots. Looks pretty simple, right? Not so fast, as the four “events-based” direct entries were not collected by four different teams. On the women’s side, Rachel Homan won the 2015 Canada Cup and the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts (coupled with a gold at the World Championship) while 2016 STOH champion Chelsea Carey failed to medal at that year’s World Championship, thus not earning the entry. As for the men, Kevin Koe won both the 2015 Canada Cup and the 2016 Tim Hortons Brier (plus gold at the World Championship). 2017 Tim Hortons Brier winner Brad Gushue can secure his direct entry to the Trials by medaling at this week’s Ford Worlds. So how do those open spots (one or two for the men and two for the women) get filled? This is where Curling Canada has created much confusion. First, they determined that Carey’s position would be filled by the highest-ranked team in the 2015-2016 CTRS standings not already qualified, which was Jennifer Jones. Jones would go on to win the 2016 Canada Cup, thus leaving THAT direct spot unfilled. Logic would indicate that you put in the replacement teams AFTER you fill in all spots based on the prescribed qualification method (and the language used in the process documents would lead one to believe that would be the case, in that the replacements are the highest-ranked teams in the CTRS not already qualified). Curling Canada, however, states that they will fill in the spots IN ORDER (#1 through #7, with the replacement being slotted in even if they would have qualified in their own right through the one-year or two-year slots). Below are the direct entry positions 1) as they exist with duplicates, 2) as they exist with open spots in slots 1-4 filled in at the end, and 3) as they are to be filled with replacements slotted in order:

Women

  1. Homan, Jones, Jones, Homan, Homan, Homan, Jones.
  2. Homan, Jones, (Michelle Englot), (Tracy Fleury), Val Sweeting, Allison Flaxey, Casey Scheidegger.
  3. Homan, Jones, Flaxey, Sweeting, Carey, Scheidegger, Englot.

Men

  1. Koe, Koe, Reid Carruthers, Gushue, Gushue, Gushue, Carruthers.
  2. Koe, (Steve Laycock), Carruthers, Gushue, Mike McEwen, Brad Jacobs, John Epping.
  3. Koe, Gushue, Carruthers, Jacobs, McEwen, Epping, Laycock.

Not a WHOLE lot of difference (the same seven men qualify via methods 2 and 3, while there is only one change amongst the women), but going down to 5th on the two-year standings because the 3rd and 4th-ranked teams were slotted in as replacements for slots 3 and 4 and 5th to fill the one-year leader spot for the same reason when it could be done “cleaner” (meaning that the highest-ranked teams in each of those standings that did not qualify through Canada Cup or Scotties/Worlds would gain their entry via the CTRS slots) just seems a bit odd to me. Additionally, moving Gushue out of his “earned” spot into a replacement spot also looks goofy.

Dear Curling Canada: Clean up the language in your documents to say what you mean along with an explanation of its purpose and/or use a more transparent method of filling in the field when spots go unused. Also, please provide examples using current teams of how things would work if you get duplicate qualifications or, much like the Grand Slam of Curling does with regards to Humptys Champions Cup qualification, publish periodic updates to the field starting December 1 of the year preceding the Trials.

I’ve said my piece, now let me hear yours, either in the comments here or at @backseatgaffer.

USA Nationals Review

The teams led by John Shuster and Jamie Sinclair were crowned USA Curling National champions on Saturday in Everett, WA, with Shuster defeating Todd Birr in the men’s final and Sinclair beating Nina Roth for the women’s title. My halftime report gave some insight as to what the trends looked like as round-robin was heading for the finish line, but there were still surprises that came from the final draws prior to the playoffs. Here is my wrap-up of the event.

HITS

  • Shuster and Potter.¬† I called these two teams the ones to watch in my preview of USA Nationals and neither one disappointed. Shuster ran through the field, posting a 9-0 round-robin record, then proceeded to dispatch defending national champion Brady Clark in the Page 1/2 game and Birr in the final to complete a perfect week. Team Potter got off to a 5-0 start and made the playoffs despite playing their last two matches short-handed due to illness.
  • BAD LOSSES. I stressed this concept in both the preview and the halftime update, and those pesky things upended the field. Craig Brown, despite beating Clark and incoming year-to-date points leader Heath McCormick, ended up in a tiebreaker with Pete Fenson because of losses to Hunter Clawson and Alex Leichter. Cory Christensen missed the playoffs altogether after losing her last two round-robin matches to bottom-half teams (this after defeating both Sinclair and Roth in earlier draws). Even though they hadn’t defeated another top-half team, McCormick was in the mix to make a tiebreaker until his loss in Draw 8 to Fenson.

CLOSE MISS

  • Brown and Christensen. I had declared both of these teams as my second choices should the favorites (McCormick and Roth) not end up winning the event, and both teams started round-robin at 4-1. Brown’s three-game skid that included the loss to Leichter and Christensen’s losses to Cora Farrell and Jessica Schultz ended up taking the shine off those predictions.

FLASHES

  • McCormick. I did not adequately factor in their gradual slide that started at the Canadian Open in the preview and continued to believe that they could “turn the corner” after their 1-3 start because the schedule was in their favor. In the end, the hole dug by the Draw 1 loss to Birr and subsequent losses to Shuster and Brown proved too big to climb out of even with a last half of round-robin that could have produced five straight wins (they went 3-2).
  • SINCLAIR! I completely missed on how this team would perform at Nationals, even ignoring reasonable opinions from other curling analysts (yes, I mean you, @suss2hyphens and your insistence that the Continental Cup did them a world of good) to justify my pre-conception that their inconsistency and lack of a “next level” result during the tour season (manifested by their losing to Roth, Christensen, and Potter at the US Open to miss the playoffs) would see them not make the podium in Everett. In the halftime report, I even poo-pooed their 3-0 start to a favorable schedule and had nearly started with their eulogy following the loss to Christensen in Draw 4. It was only after they beat Roth in Draw 5 that I began to give them credit, but still felt like they would lose to Potter in Draw 6 and possible stub their toe at the end to miss the playoffs. Jamie, Alex, Vicky, and Monica, I am very sorry for doubting your ability and hope you will not burn this column in effigy.

Shuster and Roth will be heading off to Worlds in the next few weeks as Team USA to attempt to secure enough placement points to get the US berths in the 2018 Winter Olympics. On the tour, Sinclair will be heading to the Humptys Champions Cup along with Shuster as a result of their wins. A new rankings will come out next week with some expected movement up and down the chart.

 

USA Nationals Halftime Review

With the USA Curling Nationals reaching the halfway point of round-robin play, some stories have come to the fore. On the men’s side, the 1-3 start by Year-To-Date points leader Heath McCormick has put the team’s playoff chances in peril. Meanwhile, Team John Shuster is 4-0 and showing that their improvement over the past three months is no fluke. For the women, the 3-0 start by Cassie Potter has given her team a leg up towards the playoffs while Jamie Sinclair is also at 3-0 ahead of matches against the other Team USA rinks today.

Let’s look back at the three things I mentioned in my Nationals preview on how to win the title and see how the teams are doing:

  • Form. Shuster and Potter were on good form heading into Everett and that doesn’t seem to be fading. On the other hand, McCormick’s team has slipped a little since the start of the year, beginning with a three-and-out at the Canadian Open and continuing with a quarterfinal appearance at the Golden Wrench in Phoenix. Something seems to be off and hopefully they can right the ship today with wins against a pair of down-table teams.
  • Luck. Luck on the ice is well and good, but the luck of the schedule seems to be playing itself out. Sinclair’s 3-0 has come against the bottom half of the table and now she will go on a gauntlet of matches today and tomorrow against Cory Christensen, Nina Roth, and Potter. Potter, on the other hand, has gotten over a pair of hurdles in her first three matches (a top-three win and a nervy match-up against Jessica Schultz in the opening draw) and has a less-daunting pair of fixtures today before closing against Sinclair and Roth. Christensen’s match with Sinclair wraps up her battles with the top half in the round-robin and she closes with three matches against teams in the bottom half of the standings. McCormick has four of his last five matches against teams with a collective 5-11 record (2-7 against the foursome of Shuster, Craig Brown, Brady Clark, and Todd Birr), while Brown will close the round-robin against a pair of teams that are both 1-3 thus far and Shuster finishes off with Clark and Birr (both 3-1).
  • NO BAD LOSSES. On the women’s side, there hasn’t been a bad loss to date (8-0 in top-half/bottom-half match-ups), and only two on the men’s side (Pete Fenson over Birr and Hunter Clawson over Brown) in 12 matches. Those two will surely tighten the field as the top half begins playing one another in round-robin, but there is no cause for alarm heading into today’s games.

So who makes the playoffs? For the men, it will be Shuster, Brown, McCormick (they’ll get the ship righted), and the winner of Clark and Birr. The women’s playoff field will be Christensen, Roth, and Potter. Tune into all the action at the USA Nationals site.

USA Nationals Preview

The USA Nationals begins on Saturday in Everett, WA, and for eighteen teams (ten men’s and eight women’s), the opportunity to be declared the top curling rink in the United States and the possibility of representing the US at the World Curling Championships are on the line. Heath McCormick and Nina Roth are currently ranked #1 both on the World Curling Tour Order of Merit year-to-date standing and in the most recent US Curling Power Rankings and have to be considered slight favorites to leave the Pacific Northwest next Saturday with national titles, berths to the World Championships, and qualification for the Humptys Champions Cup.

Both the men and women will play a full round-robin (nine games for the men, seven for the women), followed by playoffs for the top four men’s teams and top three women’s teams. So how does a team go about winning this event? I can point to three key elements that will be essential for a team to finish at the top of the podium.

  • Form. A team needs to be peaking heading into the event as well as within the competition. Get off to a slow start and you might not have enough games left to climb into a playoff position. Also, a hot start that isn’t sustained can result in running out of gas by the end of the round-robin.
  • Luck. Yes, you need to be a little lucky, both on-the-ice and with the schedule makers. Not every game will go perfectly (caused either by a tough opponent or less-than-stellar shooting), and teams that want to win nationals need to grind through a bad game to get results. As for the schedule, a front-loaded one can put one behind the eight-ball on qualification if the wins don’t come, whereas a back-loaded one might give a team a false sense of security heading into the final matches of the round-robin.
  • NO BAD LOSSES. Teams need to take care of business against opponents they expect to beat if they wish to be around for the playoffs. A top team that stumbles against one down the table brings more of the pack into play for tie-breakers and/or playoff positions, while a team around the bubble who gets upended can miss them altogether.

With that said, how do I expect things to shake out? I will give you three teams that CAN win or be in the mix when the games finish (a favorite, an “if not” team, and one to watch out for).

Favorites: Heath McCormick and Nina Roth. McCormick has won four titles on the World Curling Tour this season along with compiling an 18-3 record against other US rinks. Roth has one title and two finalist appearances on the season and her extra competition schedule (Curling Night in America, the Americas Challenge) has kept the team on a roll during this down portion of the season.

If Nots (meaning who wins if not the favorites): Craig Brown and Cory Christensen. Brown has had a respectable season (eight playoff appearances, 18-6 record vs. US rinks) and could snag this title from McCormick if they meet twice in the playoffs (Page 1/2 and the final). Christensen has been consistent in the US-based events this season (qualified for playoffs in all four, including a title in St. Paul) and has beaten Roth twice in three meetings to date.

Teams to Watch: John Shuster and Cassie Potter. Shuster’s team has rounded into better form over the past two months (final at Duluth, final at Curl Mesabi, playoffs at the Canadian Open) and have the big-game experience to be in the mix when the playoffs arrive. Potter has been relatively consistent in a limited competition schedule and, should she take care of business against the bottom half of the field, could pip Jamie Sinclair for the third playoff spot (currently on a three-game winning streak against Sinclair).

Live streaming and results can be found on the 2017 USA Curling Nationals website.

US Curling Power Rankings – First Half Recap

With no curling action this past week, the rankings take a break as well. Instead, we will recap the first half of the 2016-2017 season and the teams that have brought much joy and consternation to the US curling community.

Team Heath McCormick started the season off with a bang, finishing runner-up at the OCT Fall Classic in Oakville (ON) and third at the Harbin International event in China. Their first of four wins thus far came a few weeks later at the St. Paul (MN) Cash Spiel, with more hardware taken home from the Huron ReproGraphics Oil Heritage Classic in Sarnia (ON), the Coors Light Cash Spiel in Duluth (MN), and the Curl Mesabi Classic in Eveleth (MN). At 46-17, they have 12 more wins this season than the #2 US team on tour and 20 more than #3. Up next for the rink is the Canadian Open, their first Grand Slam of Curling event (more next week, along with highlights of my interview with lead Tom Howell).

Team Craig Brown has gone 34-21 so far this season, qualifying for the playoffs six times in nine events, and making the finals at St. Paul in addition to three other semifinal appearances. Their latest result was a fourth-place finish at the Qinghai International event in China two weeks ago. With McCormick not competing at the US Open this week, now is as good a time as any for Brown’s rink to break through with a win and build some additional momentum heading into USA Nationals in February.

Beyond those two, the rest of the US men’s contingent has been a little underwhelming. Outside of Todd Birr, no other team is more than one game over .500 this year, with defending world bronze medalist John Shuster sitting at 26-28 with only three playoff qualifications (the three US-based tour stops) in 10 events and defending US champion Brady Clark at 24-23 and two semifinal appearances from their five playoff qualifications. The five aforementioned teams have qualified for USA Nationals, with the men’s challenge round (four berths available) to be played next week in Blaine, MN at the Four Seasons Curling Club/US Olympic Training Center. Can an up-and-comer such as Stephen Dropkin, Brandon Corbett, or 2017 World University Games representative Alex Leichter put together a solid week to snag a berth at Nationals and then ride that train to a high finish in Everett?

On the women’s side, this season has been a tale of no clearly dominant team. Team Jamie Sinclair sounded the first shot with a semifinal appearance at the OCT Fall Classic and has been the most consistent team so far (six playoff appearances in nine events, most points year-to-date, 30-22 record). Nina Roth‘s foursome has the best winning percentage of the US teams on tour (30-17) and has picked up a first (Duluth), a second (St. Paul), and a third (Qinghai) in their five playoff qualifications. Cory Christensen‘s band of upstarts defended their title in St. Paul in October and has qualified for the playoffs in all three US-based tour stops, but a 20-18 record hampered by three-and-outs in multiple events shows that consistency is an issue. Those three rinks along with Team Jessica Schultz picked up auto-berths to USA Nationals and will avoid the challenge round in Waupaca, WI next week. 2006 Olympian Cassie Potter and her team will be the overwhelming favorites for one of the three berths, but who among the other five teams will find enough form to pick up the other two spots?

This week is the US Open of Curling in Blaine, MN. With the Canadian Open starting immediately afterwards, McCormick and Shuster have opted to skip this event, but the rest of the US men’s and women’s qualifiers are in the field, alongside Qinghai finalist William Lyburn, defending Canadian junior champion Matt Dunstone, former world champions¬†Alina Paetz and Bingyu Wang, and past Scotties Tournament of Hearts representatives Tracy Fleury, Krista McCarville, Sherry Middaugh, and Robyn MacPhee. Action begins Friday at 2pm and runs through Monday afternoon. We’ll recap the event along with publishing the new rankings and preview the US challenge rounds in next week’s edition.

A Second Go For The Bruce

On Tuesday, Bruce Arena was installed as manager of the US Men’s National Team following the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann the previous day. Let’s be clear, these moves are not made without the US Soccer Federation first prioritizing qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup above EVERYTHING ELSE in the national team program and then seeing said goal being severely threatened by the team’s results in its first matches of the Hex (a 2-1 home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica). For those of you who believe Arena will magically move the Yanks into a qualifying spot after the matches in March, news for you: not gonna happen. For those who see this change of course as a step backwards, news for you: it’s not nearly the disaster you are wishing it to be. For the soccer writers singing the praises of Jesse Marsch, Tab Ramos, and Oscar Pareja as Il Bruce’s successor, news for you: they lack the goods right now. Allow me to break this down logically for you.

The rest of the Hex will be a slough, but there is light at the end. The US sits on zero points after two matches, with 24 points available the rest of the way. A reasonable pathway for the US to qualify is to go 5-1-2 over the last eight matches, which is 17 points and would match their 2001 qualifying total, where they punched their ticket to the 2002 World Cup with a game to spare. Those 17 points are most likely gotten this way: win the remaining home matches (12 points); draw at Panama and Honduras (2 points); win at Trinidad and Tobago on the last day (3 points). Could they do better than that (for instance, a win at either Panama or Honduras or a draw at Mexico, which have been achieved in previous qualifying cycles)? Sure, but let’s not bank the life savings on it. Patience is vital, as this accumulation of points would put the US at four points after four matches, seven points after six, eleven points after eight, and requires winning the last two matches to reach 17.

This is a stop-gap, not a turning-back. Bringing in Arena to rescue the qualifying campaign is not an admission that the path USSF took five years ago to hire Klinsmann was bad or that the progress made under him will cease. Klinsmann was brought in at a time where the current system had reached its zenith with the tools at its disposal, and a fresh perspective was necessary in the evolution of the national team program. Much as Klinsmann’s tenure was a step on the evolutionary path, Arena’s will be as well. We will see a re-calibration of the program in the short term to insert things that have been lacking recently (such as spirit and collective will that teams without elite-level weapons rely upon to slug it out with more talented sides, along with mental acumen), all with an eye to get this team to Russia by whatever means necessary. Following the World Cup, that evolution can progress on a path best-suited for the times and be led by a manager who fits the direction the Fed wishes to go.

Different times call for different visions. National team programs evolve over time, and one point in the path requires different tools and skills than another one. Klinsmann’s vision as an outsider was necessary to “move the goalposts” of where the US existed in the soccer world (prior to him, king of CONCACAF was the pinnacle and the direction was geared to that end) and how we would go about moving closer to the top end of that world. I held after the 2014 World Cup that the US needed to take its next step in that path, and the person to lead it would need two specific qualifications: significant US National Team playing experience and professional managerial experience. Those three names mentioned in the opening (Marsch, Ramos, and Pareja) don’t meet that criteria in full (Marsch was not a critical piece of the USNT player pool, Pareja didn’t play for the US National Team, and Ramos hasn’t spent time leading a professional soccer team). Can they make up for that in some way? Sure, but in my opinion it would require being part of Arena’s team in this interim period with a succession plan in place to take over following Russia 2018. Barring that, we should consider others who meet both criteria and wouldn’t require such an internship. The names at the top of my list in that regard are Dominic Kinnear and Peter Vermes. Both have won multiple trophies in their coaching careers, both earned more than 50 caps for the US National Team in their playing careers, but I would place Kinnear ahead of Vermes based on the tactical flexibility he has exhibited during his tenure in Houston and San Jose, a trait that is key when dealing with an ever-changing player pool.

That’s my take. What’s yours?