Ladies and gentlemen, once again, it’s on.
It’s time for the 2014 Major League Lacrosse season to begin. Which team will end up in Atlanta four months from now, hoisting the Steinfeld Cup and doing the Nae Nae or whatever it is they’re doing in Atlanta four months from now?
No idea whatsoever, but it’s time to find out, so let’s start things off with a team-by-team season preview.
2013 was not a great year for the Boston Cannons. After a rocky start to the season (aka “losing five of their first six games”), followed by winning just enough to get their hopes up, the 2011 champs closed out the season on a four-game losing streak, culminating in a 23-14 home loss to the Rattlers.
Why will this year be different from the last? For starters, head coach John Tucker says the Cannons have changed their offensive schemes, the players embracing the adjustments. While Matt Poskay (who generally tosses in about 30 goals every summer) has been placed on the inactive list, Ryan Boyle and Will Manny are back on attack, as are Paul Rabil, Mike Stone and Stephen Berger at midfield.
If Boston can make up for Poskay’s absence, things should be fine on the offensive end. Their defense, however, has been the real issue. Last season the Cannons allowed the most goals in the league, and opponents scored an average of 14.4 goals against them each game, Boston’s worst average since 2007. To help shut the floodgates, the Cannons brought in Brodie Merrill and Jake Reid, a (two-man personification of man-ball drills), along with an increased focus on limiting turnovers and transition goals.
There’s a certain fearless quality to the Charlotte Hounds organization, whether they’re making moves for (or getting rid of) big-name players, or trotting out upwards of seven rookies like it’s nothing. The strategies have paid off, as a strong sophomore campaign allowed the Hounds to do something nobody else could do last summer: beat the Denver Outlaws. They made it to the championship game, but there’s still room to improve (they did finish 7-7, after all), and they’ve by no means grown complacent.
2013’s third-ranked offense was led by Matt Danowski, who registered career highs in goals, points and shooting percentage (along with more penalty minutes than all of his previous seasons combined; calm down, buddy), as well as Ryan Young, the dynamic fan favorite currently challenging Ned Crotty as the fastest X-to-GLE sprinter in the game. In a bit of a surprise, Eric Lusby didn’t make the 2014 roster, and has been replaced by Harvard lefty Dean Gibbons (and perhaps, ultimately, Josh Dionne). Of course with Danowski on the right side, this leaves the Hounds with two attackmen they call Dino, but that’s up to them to sort out.
With Peet Poillon joining the Bayhawks, the Hounds will look for second-year players such as Mike Sawyer and Jake Tripucka (ten points in his final three games last season) to pick up their offensive contributions in the midfield. As Josh Hawkins and Kevin Drew continue to lead the transition game, it’s going to be interesting to see how they incorporate Loyola SSDM Pat Laconi (2.08 CTs per game, 8 goals this season) if he joins up this summer, but it’s a problem an up-tempo squad like Charlotte surely looks forward to having.
It’s strange to think that the back-to-back champs could lose two of the greatest to ever suit up yet still end up better than they were last season. It’s also entirely possible that they’ve done exactly that. At attack, John Grant Jr. may have gone home to Denver, but Drew Westervelt, Ben Rubeor and the remarkably versatile Matt Mackrides are all coming off the best seasons of their careers (granted Mackrides has only been playing for two years, but still – he went from six points to 30, so he deserves recognition in his own right).
And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget 2012 MVP Brendan Mundorf, who the team picked when they sent Junior out west. Mundorf has seen two consecutive seasons derailed by injury, but looked healthy in preseason scrimmages and should be ready to contribute at the start of the season.
Even with Casey Powell gone, the Bayhawks have taken a midfield that wasn’t exactly hurting (five of their midfielders scored at least 20 points last season, more than any other team), and made it far more dangerous, adding the likes of Stephen Peyser, Peet Poillon and Joe Walters to the lineup.
Defensively, you’ve got Mike Evans and Brian Spallina down low, along with some combination of Jesse Bernhardt, Brian Megill and Nicky Polanco (at least he did it for a short time last season) shifting between close defense and LSM, and Kip Turner a defensive unit that allowed just over 10 goals per game last year.
The 2013 Outlaws were like an Indy car that lapped the competition but ran out of gas on the final lap. Exactly what do you do with a team that scored the most goals, gave up the fewest, and didn’t lose a single regular season game (before unceremoniously checking out in the semifinals) last season? How much would you really change?
There are a few changes to mention, most notably BJ O’Hara replacing Jim Stagnitta at the helm, as well as John Grant Jr. (with whom O’Hara won the Steinfeld Cup with the Rattlers back in 2008), and Matt Gibson joining the Denver attack. Gibson looked more than comfortable both initiating and finishing during the Outlaws’ preseason scrimmages, and both he and Grant should draw enough attention to make sure Eric Law and Chris Bocklet maintain their ridiculously high shooting percentages.
The league-leading defense returns largely intact, once again led by the 2013 Defensive Player and Goalie of the Year (Lee Zink and Jesse Schwartzman, respectively). One addition of note is Ken Clausen, who after multiple ACL tears, returns to the field for the first time since 2010. Clausen had a solid preseason, looks to be moving well and is fortunate to be with a staff that won’t need to lean on him too heavily right away.
The good news? The Hamilton Nationals went 9-5 last season after finishing 4-10 in 2012. The bad news? These are not the Hamilton Nationals. Not only does this franchise have a new leader at the helm (former Denver assistant Stan Ross), but they’re missing at least one major contributor at attack, midfield and defense.
With Joe Walters in Chesapeake and Jeremy Thompson, Stephen Keogh and Jordan Hall on the inactive roster, the Launch will need Kevin Cunningham, Chazz Woodson and Mario Ventiquattro to carry the offense, especially until Kevin Crowley and Garret Thul show up (which shouldn’t be that long; the Wings aren’t going to the NLL playoffs).
Casey Powell heads home to Florida, but exactly how involved will he be? Last season he came back like Jordan wearing the 4-5, put on an absolute clinic and rode off a champion, but you can’t ignore the fact that he played in five games last year, and only three the year before. For Florida’s sake, let’s hope he’s around full-time: with Walters gone, Crowley needs a counterpart in the midfield, and Powell, who was playing Jr A ball in Toronto when Crowley was six years old, is more than fluent in the two-man game.
The Nationals boasted the third-ranked defense last season, but again, these aren’t the Nationals: Brodie Merrill (Florida), MJ Kiekebelt (Rochester) and Matt Lovejoy (inactive) will need to be replaced. While PT Ricci, Joe Cinosky and Steve Panarelli are working that out, Tucker Durkin is back and Brett Queener is between the pipes (until he makes the save, then he’s 30 yards up the field) once again.
New York Lizards
This time last year, many of us were fully prepared to forgo the technicality of actually playing the season, fast forward right to the end of August and put the Lizards’ name on the Steinfeld Cup. And why not? The roster was absurd: The 2012 rookie of the year, a Tewaaraton Winner who scored more NCAA D1 points than anyone ever, two guys with their own powerade commercials, seriously, why bother? It’s a wrap for you other seven teams.
Unfortunately things didn’t quite pan out that way (4-10 record, the seventh-best offense, one win against the top half of the league), and here we are. If you didn’t believe it a year ago, you can certainly believe it now: there’s levels to this; it’s not just fantasy lacrosse.
Head coach Joe Spallina understands that there are certain intangible elements to a successful team, and he’s used terms like “calming influence,” and “veteran glue” when discussing this year’s notable roster additions, Ned Crotty and Matt Streibel being the most prolific of the bunch. Crotty and Streibel join a roster including US team participants Rob Pannell, Max Seibald and JoJo Marasco, and the US team experience has fostered a sense of familiarity that the Lizards seemed to lack last season.
And what about the defense? As a refresher, here are some draft-day comments from Greg Gurenlian, a gentleman who enjoys both winning faceoffs (an MLL-record 64% last season) and keeping it preposterously real:
Drew Adams is the best goalie on the planet, and he was getting dunked on all summer, and he didn’t deserve it, and we need to do better.
The Lizards listened to Gurenlian, acquiring the services of Kyle Hartzell and (if all goes according to plan) third-overall draft pick Joe Fletcher.
Unfortunately, since all doesn’t go according to plan, fourth-overall pick Luke Duprey recently suffered a torn ACL, meaning he most likely won’t join the squad at any point this summer.
Unless, of course, he has one of those Adrian Peterson ACLs, in which case he should be okay in about an hour.
With an abundance of talent headed their way, it’s really cool to love the Ohio Machine right now. And why not, it’s a great strategy: predict a huge turnaround now, and if they’re playoff-bound this August, hop online and post your “Never doubt me, I’m a genius” back-patting tweets. It’s a low-risk, high-reward investment. Not saying they won’t be good, but calm down, people: let’s watch them play some games, shall we?
It’s not to say the optimism is entirely unfounded; the 2014 Machine lineup should be immediately superior to the previous versions, and even more so once the likes of Logan Schuss and Kiel Matisz (not to mention Princeton’s Tommy Schrieber) meet up with the squad.
Midfield depth has quite possibly gone from a liability to a strength, with Kyle Harrison and Peter Baum joining the squad in the great LXM/MLL treaty of 2014. Both can stretch the field (the Machine scored a league-low three two-pointers last season), are athletic enough to play both ways and take a sizable chunk of the defensive focus away from Matisz and Marcus Holman.
When discussing the addition of several potential contributors, head coach Bear Davis said
We’re going to walk into gun fights this year with guns, instead of knives.
You know what? Forget that whole “calm down” thing I just said; go ahead and add a bunch of wins to however many you predicted for the 2014 Machine. When you’ve got a guy named Bear talking about gun fights, you know this team is ready to throw down.
The Rattlers were the fifth-best team (four make the playoffs, you’ll remember) in the league each of the past two years, and they haven’t been to championship weekend since they re-formed back in 2011. So what did they do this offseason? Shipped Ned Crotty and Matt Streibel to the Lizards for draft picks (and Grant Catalino, who is currently on the Rochester practice squad).
What franchise ships their two leading scorers, including their captain, in the offseason? It’s a gutsy move, but their offense was sixth in the league last year, so maybe some gutsy moves were in order.
While head coach Tim Soudan crosses his fingers and hopes rookies like Jordan Wolf (“should come in and be a Panell, Crotty-type player” according to Soudan) and Ty Thompson show up, the Rattlers offense is counting on rebound seasons from Kevin Leveille and Steven Boyle, some sort of contribution from Mark Matthews at some point and continued progress from the midfield tandem of Dave Lawson and John Ranagan.
D3/LXM legend Sam Bradman, who fans have been clamoring to see on the MLL stage since he left Salisbury, is expected to make an immediate impact, and Soudan says Dan Hardy arrived at camp in much better shape than his previous stint with the team.
Here We Go!
Now that we’re all caught up, let the games begin. The 2014 Major League Lacrosse season begins this Saturday with two games, both taking place at 7:00pm EST.
The Ohio Machine travel to Charlotte, searching for their first win over the Hounds since the two teams entered the league in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Denver Outlaws (and their 20-game regular season winning streak) face the Florida Launch and attempt to ruin their home debut.
Welcome back to the MLL, good luck to your squad and be sure to check back here for updates and analysis throughout the season.
Here’s a little teaser to get you pumped!