Eight Things to Watch When Team USA Plays Canada
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – It's on. Eight things may be a lot to watch at one time, so maybe pick out a handful and stick with those, but each of these storylines may unfold in some form or fashion when the United States faces Canada at 9 p.m. ET Thursday in the opening game of the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship. The game will air live on ESPN2 and LaxMagazine.com will have live and post-game coverage.
On paper, this is a home game for Canada
The crowd in Denver at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is likely to be pro-USA and this largest international lacrosse event ever is hosted by US Lacrosse, but when breaking down the rosters on paper, this matchup, at least, is decidedly a home game for Canada.
Eleven of Canada's 23 players either live in Denver or play for the NLL's Mammoth or MLL's Outlaws: Dillon Roy, Wes Berg, Jeremy Noble, Cam Flint, Dillon Ward, Dan Coates, Adam Jones, Mark Matthews, Zack Greer and Curtis Dickson, plus John Grant Jr., who is not playing but serving as an assistant coach. Compare that to the U.S., of which defenseman Lee Zink is its only Colorado resident and only he and goalie Jesse Schwartzman play for the Denver Outlaws.
"Almost half of our team is kind of based out in Denver," Team Canada general manager Dave Huntley said. "In a lot of ways, if we had the tournament in Vancouver we wouldn't have as many as guys living in Vancouver. Maybe even Toronto. It would be close."
The team is also dorming and practicing at Denver University, where assistant coach Matt Brown serves in the same role with the Pioneers. It's hard to say if the familiarity will make a difference on the field, but it shouldn't hurt. Either way, the bulk of players on both teams have been at the high altitude since at least Sunday and most have traveled to Denver before to play in various pro games.
|Team USA defenseman Lee Zink is
the lone Colorado resident on the roster, compared to a half dozen
on the Canadian that either live or play regularly in
Denver. (Bill Danielewski)
Every Canada player has NCAA experience, like the U.S.
For the first time ever, every member of Team Canada's roster either has played American outdoor collegiate lacrosse, or is currently on an NCAA roster. Mark these world championships as another milestone for trend of proliferation of Canadians in the field game.
Even four years ago, at last half a dozen members of the team were indoor guys trying their hand outside. Of course, every member of the U.S. squad has a ton of outdoor experience as well.
Pace of play
There has been a lot of discussion in the lacrosse world about pace of play in recent years, and a shot clock at the collegiate level will be at the forefront of talks within the NCAA men's rules committee in August, but it's important to note the international game can tend to be slower than some fans would expect.
There is no shot clock, and no two-point line, like there is in Major League Lacrosse. The rules lend themselves to longer possession. Teams work to value possessions and be efficient on offense. Facets like goaltending, faceoffs, ground balls and forced turnovers may take on an even greater role as do two-way midfielders, with natural change-of-possession plays fewer and farther between than most are used to, outside of FIL play every four years.
Team USA's offense vs. Canada's defense
Rob Pannell is the quarterback of the U.S. offense and team captain and MLL all-time leading goals scorer Kevin Leveille is the designated finisher, but how will the rest of the front-end play out? Swingmen/slasher-types Marcus Holman and Brendan Mundorf figure to be the primary attackmen to play alongside those two, given how the U.S. staff has run Ned Crotty and Garrett Thul through the midfield at times during the lead-up to the world championships. Both of them are X-factors, along with a few others on the roster. The first midfield projects to include Boston Cannons teammates Paul Rabil and Kevin Buchanan, with Max Seibald. David Lawson and Kyle Harrison are the other offensive midfielders on the roster.
Canada has the ability to move All-World defenseman Brodie Merrill from long-stick midfielder or close, depending on their preference and how the game goes. In 2010 in Manchester, England, Canada double-poled the midfield with Merrill drawing Rabil, matching arguably the game's top defensive player against arguably its top offensive player. It could happen again, but Team USA's variety of weapons might make it difficult to isolate too much attention on Rabil. Former Cornell defenseman Jason Noble is also an important cog for Canada's back-line.
Canada's offense vs. Team USA's defense
The absence of John Grant Jr. will be a talked about storyline. The news late last week that he wouldn't be playing came as a shock to both sides of international lacrosse's fiercest rivalry. Grant has moved into a coaching role for Canada after being denied a medical exemption to use prescription medication, including testosterone, during the games and he withdrew from Canada's 23-man roster. Not having the 39-year-old, three-time Major League Lacrosse MVP and two-time National Lacrosse League MVP in uniform is a blow to Canada, and Team USA needed to adjust as well after working with the premise for about a year that defenseman Lee Zink could draw the Grant matchup.
"No matter what, when you don't have a player like John Grant, it changes things," Team USA defensive coordinator Dave Pietramala said. "He's one of the best players in the world and it's been that way for a long time. It does change to a certain extent, but they have very good coaches and they have talent all over, they'll just move someone else around.
"I don't think it will change anything in terms of how they play offense," Pietramala said. "Instead of dealing with a big, strong physical guy maybe you're dealing with a smaller, quicker guy, or maybe they take a Mark Matthews and put him down there. There's so many different things they can do."
From Canada, expect to see plenty of two-man games initiating offense and lots of ball movement. Grant isn't playing, but as attackman Curtis Dickson said, "Pretty much everyone on our offense can play attack." That goes for guys like Wesley Berg, Jesse King and Zach Greer. Jordan McIntosh, Grant's replacement on the roster, isn't filling in for him on the field; he's a midfielder who can also help with some faceoffs if needed.
Dickson scored four goals in Canada's 11-9 win over the U.S. at the Duel in Denver two years ago, and that was coming off of injury. For the first time, he played MLL this summer in preparation for the world championships and has lit it up, with four goals in his first two games and 16 points overall in five games for the Outlaws.
"I wanted to get some outdoor lacrosse under my belt since I haven't played since college [at Delaware]," Dickson said. "It's good getting those games in. I'm feeling healthy, body feels good, especially after a pretty long NLL season. I'm heading into here with a little bit better feel for the game."
Team USA has a bunch of versatile pieces on defense, guys who can play close and long-stick midfield like Mitch Belisle, Kyle Hartzell and Jesse Bernhardt, who, with short-stick defensive midfielders Matt Abbott and Dan Burns, could be difference-makers with the possession grabbing plays they can make.
The faceoff battle
It will be a key battle. The U.S. staff chose two faceoff men – Chris Eck and Greg Gurenlian – to the 23-man roster with the idea both could battle Canada's Geoff Snider and share some faceoff duties throughout the 10-day tournament.
Last time out just two weeks ago in MLL action, Eck went 16-for-25 for the Boston Cannons against the Charlotte Hounds' Snider, and the pair are just about 50 percent against each other in their careers. Gurenlian hasn't faced Snider this season. As always, wing play will be important, too.
|All-World defenseman Brodie
Merrill said Team Canada is playing inspired with the memories of
Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller with them. (Jack
Jesse Schwartzman projects as Team USA's goalie and former Bellarmine netminder Dillon Ward as Team Canada's, based on observations made throughout the tryout process and this week. A hot goalie can go a long way in this tournament, and certainly in the USA-Canada battles, where, as stated, possessions are at a premium.
Ward had an amazing senior season at Bellarmine, leading the nation with a 66.2 save percentage in 2013, and current Cornell rising junior Brennan Donville is the other goalie on Canada's roster, as Angus Dineley was the last cut when final rosters were submitted to the FIL. Schwartzman has familiarity with Pietramala's system – he played for him at Johns Hopkins – and the New York Lizards' Drew Adams is one of the best in the world, too, if it's he who gets the call.
In big games and events, intangibles, the things you can't measure, can go a long way. The U.S. is the defending champion and the world championships are being played on their home soil for the first time since 1998 at Baltimore's Homewood Field. There will be some pride on the line to defend the turf. There's also pressure to win the U.S. a tenth world championship, but it's also probably important to keep in mind the title will not be decided Thursday in the tournament's opening game, but 10 days from now in the final on Saturday, July 19, when these teams could play each other again. How much will each side give away game plan-wise?
Canada is playing with the memories of the late Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller on their minds. Both former Team Canada goalies passed away within the last three years from cancer; Sanderson in June 2012 and Miller in June of 2013. At practice Wednesday, the team wore reversible red and white pinnies with the No. 17 on the front and No. 35 on the back, and will wear them throughout the tournament pre-game and at practice. Sanderson wore 17 and Miller 35.
In 2008, Sanderson was given nine to 12 months to live, but played in the 2010 world championship, and was named to the All-World Team. Miller was diagnosed with cancer during his junior year at Cornell, and fought off the disease to be one of Canada's goalies in 2006, along with Sanderson, when Canada beat the U.S. for their last gold medal.
"It's kind of strange for me personally not to have them here," Canada's Brodie Merrill said Wednesday of Miller, whom he grew up with and first tried field lacrosse with, and Sanderson, whom he credits with paving the way for his NCAA career, "but the guys are doing a great job or rallying behind that and using that as a source of inspiration."
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