Is It Time For The Boston Cannons To Panic?


Leading up to last weekend, I had to ask myself if the Boston Cannons were panicking at all. At 1-4, their hopes of making Championship Weekend were starting to erode just a bit, and for a team with the amount of talent, veteran leadership, high expectations, and past consistency, that the Cannons have, this was all pretty shocking.

(Also check out Tony Lowe’s Behind The Scenes Look: Running An MLL Game)

My gut said they would take care of business against Rochester down in Georgia on Friday night, but they dropped the game 16-14 after leading for much of the contest, and now they sit at 1-5, with a game against Charlotte up next.

Then today, we got the news that Steve Duffy has been removed as the Cannons’ Head Coach, and replaced by John Tucker, who was an assistant.

So NOW is it time for the Boston Cannons to panic? Or have the Cannons made moves at just the right time?

With 6 games under their belts, and 8 big ones remaining, the statistics say it’s not time to panic, as Boston is still in it. Phew. That was easy. The best they can do right now is (obviously) 9-5, and a record like that gives anyone a great shot at the playoffs. I’d figure a 9-5 team as a lock. But can the Cannons win 8 straight games? That might be a lot to ask.

With two very winnable games against winless Ohio, and four total games against Charlotte, Rochester, and New York (the three teams directly above them), Boston can definitely make up some ground, and potentially do so pretty quickly.

Of course, while there is opportunity here, there is also danger, because if Cheseapeake, Hamilton and Denver keep up their winning ways, only one of four playoff spots is left. Any loss to CHA, ROCH, or NY not only means the Cannons get another L, but it also means a team they are competing with gets a W. That’s a full game swing either way in the race for fourth, so if the Cannons are going to turn things around, it needs to start happening immediately, and definitely against the teams in their middle tier of the standings.

So now we know that Boston is still very much alive, at least mathematically, even though their record is pretty dismal. Can they right this heavily listing ship?

I spoke with Coach Duffy before Friday’s game, back when he was still the Head Coach, and while he noted that the Cannons had played well at times, and in spurts, they were not playing well often enough, or with nearly enough consistency:

At times we played well in the New York and (1st) Denver games, but we didn’t play well enough to win either. It seems as though in each game, poor transition defense, and a lack of consistency both on offense and defense had hurt us.

Coach Duffy immediately noted that the guys on the team were NOT panicking, and that a mindset like that would not help. I’ll be interested to see what tack the new HC takes in this regard. No matter what, as Duffy noted, the focus must remain on winning the next game, and if that was true at 1-4, it holds true at 1-5 as well, even with a new coach.

When I asked Coach Duffy where a potential change had to come from, he said, “I think the spark will come from the great leaders and veterans (on our team)“. And while there is a new man at the helm, do we really think that he is going to have a different answer in only six days? Highly unlikely.

The MLL is a player’s league, so really, the spark has to come from them. That being said, a new face in charge could play a part in creating a spark, as well as making some changes. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. Since Coach Duffy is now out, it made even more sense to talk to the leaders of the team, right? I did just that and caught up with Mitch Belisle, one of Boston’s three captains (Paul Rabil and Ryan Boyle are the others).

Mitch was really open about the changes that have been made, and could be made moving forward:

The coaching move is a change from a lot of perspectives, but we still have the majority of the same talent, so we need to figure out how to make that work for us.

Ultimately, a lot of the guys on the team are trying to do it right, and we are finding ways to allow younger guys to step up. We really just need to put it all together as a team.

I also asked him about who was standing out, either in a positive or negative light, and who other players could feed off of:

Not too many people are standing out right now. Everyone has to do their little bit. We all need to pick it up, and do a little bit more. That will get us in a better position to win games. But it has to come from all of us.

We’re going to have to make some changes, and that could happen all over. We dress a lot of defenders, and we have new college players as well. It’s all part of the season (in the MLL). The change has clearly started already at the Head Coaching level, but we can expect some more changes. We will do whatever we have to do to win.

So now you’ve heard what the ex-Head Coach, and one of the three captains think. Let’s get to some outside analysis! My favorite kind!

The Cannons’ offensive production was better against Rochester, but Boston did not posses the same fluid offensive motion that Chesapeake, Denver, or Hamilton have shown so often this season. The ball seemed to get “stuck” in certain places on the field at times, and Boston would have to completely reset their offense, or force a long skip pass. The O looked better than they had earlier in the year, but at times, it still looked a little stagnant and predictable.

By adding in dynamic players like Will Manny, Boston got a boost, as Manny consistently pressed the defense with his quickness and ability to move the ball to adjacent players. And with another week of getting to know each other, this unit could continue to improve, but some other changes may need to be made. I’d personally like to see the Cannons move Rabil back to midfield exclusively, and maybe drop Manny to attack as a starter, as PR99 gives them a great option up top to pull the defense high, makes Stone and Buchanan considerably more dangerous, and gives them a nice early offense option in transition play.

With Rabil low, teams can slough in more, as few of the other Cannons players will instill the same fear with their outside shots. Stone and Buchanan become exponentially more dangerous along the 2 point arc when they play with Rabil, as they get more free space, and are allowed to dodge and be involved, playing to their strengths. With Rabil down low, they get more attention, and become more dodge and move it type guys, which is good, but doesn’t produce goals like the Cannons need right now. I’ll take a Manny, Sussman, Boyle (mix in Poskay of course!) attack line any day. PR will put up numbers anywhere, but from the midfield, his production may help more.

Quick ball control guys who can score in tight and off the dodge down low, shooters and dodgers to draw slides up top. You have a two-point line… and you need to use it! This is how Chesapeake works so well, and it is why other offenses struggle at times against a disciplined defensive unit. Even Denver has re-worked their offense in this model to a certain extent, and seen more success. And the pieces are all there in Beantown.

Defensively, the Cannons don’t look great, and this one is particularly confusing. Mitch Belisle, Brian Farrell, and Kyle Sweeney all have lots of experience playing together. Ryan Nizolek has been with the team for 2 seasons now, learning the ropes, and is playing pretty well. Scott Ratliff has been playing better and better. Jordan Burke has been a stud in the past, and knows this D group well. How this group is not better is THE great mystery of 2013.

One thing that stands out as an immediate positive (didn’t think I’d go there, did you?) is Boston’s long pole transition game. Sweeney, Ratliff, and Farrell are all looking like scorers, and they give Boston a unique advantage. I’d probably keep any of those guys out there on O. (probably why I’ll never coach in the MLL) It helps to make up for the fact that their short stick D-middies are not quite as offensively talented, and it more than makes up for some of the missed checks the Boston poles can throw on the outside at times, in coverage.

My read on things with this defense overall is that they are simply not dictating possessions.

The scheme seems to be slow to slide at most times, while sloughing in heavily to the middle, all while firing out hard on defensive possessions. To me, this is going to result in a LOT of goals against most MLL teams if the communication is not perfect. It’s a high-risk, high-reward system.

Short stick defenders are too often put out on islands, and slides are late to come, or don’t come at all. Poles are playing too far out, with little support, and good opponents are getting a lot of open looks from 12 yards or closer, sometimes before half the shot clock has run down. Against any threatening offense, especially when mixed with bad communication, this is not going to work.

It’s not to say that the Boston scheme can’t work, because I believe it can. Boston is blessed with talented and rangy poles, along with athletic SSDMs. These guys CAN play this style of D, and it can be effective, but I believe they need to reign it in a little in terms of playing guys so far out, and commit more to effective and consistent sliding, when the time is right. Packing in a bit early on in the shot clock could also help, to put the pressure back on the offense, as the seconds tick off. THEN you go out and get more aggressive.

The above might be news to you, but it’s certainly not news to the Cannons. These guys know the game, and are an excellent group of players. That’s what makes it so confusing. So while Boston’s offense definitely looks like it is coming together, albeit a bit slowly, the question for the Cannons in their next game in Charlotte is, Will The Defense Show Up, and Play TOGETHER?

It’s a simple as that. Jordan Burke needs to command this defense, and own it. The D has to listen to him, and respond with vigor this weekend. When you have talent, the little things really can be a difference maker. A little patience, a lot of talking, and solid team play, and this group is back.

Staring a 1-6 record in the face is NOT what the Cannons need, so a win simply must come this weekend. The O should do their part, but the core of this team, its defense, really has to show up and play well, and begin leading the way again, by dictating pace of play.

One or two more losses and this team is getting into extremely dangerous territory. While the O may come around, it’s the D that is going to need to lead Boston Cannons out of it.

Click to read Tony Lowe’s Behind The Scenes Look: Running An MLL Game.