The game between Croatia and Spain was between two teams in very different parts of their history. For Croatia, this was their first world championship. For Spain, they are a program in the midst of a rebuild.
After a disappointing 2014 showing, they (in the words of their head coach Mike Bartlett) want to make sure that “Spain is on the lacrosse map” by the end of the tournament. Given their opening-round loss to New Zealand, this game was going to be their next best chance to establish that path.
The game started with a quick, 3-0, lead by Spain before Croatia was even able to answer back. But as the cliché goes, lacrosse is a game of runs, and Croatia put together three straight of their own. Most impressive for Croatia were midfielder Ryan Gorup and attackman Harry Kucharczyk. The two of them had a hand in nearly every Croatia goal, whether it was setting it up or scoring themselves.
A string of penalties by Croatia, however, turned the game in Spain’s favor. The first was following their third goal when they were called for a high hit, causing them to go down a man for two minutes. Then there was a miscommunication that left six defenders on the field, causing them to be down two men. Spain predictably capitalized on that by scoring quickly off a nice feed inside to Josep Casuto Kittle.
Following that goal, Krunoslav Cvitaš for Croatia was called for a late hit, sending them down two men once again. Another Spain goal off an assist from team captain Carlos Rodríguez Romero gave them a 5-3 lead. Jonas Nienau then scored another quick goal to put Spain up, 6-3.
A penalty by Spain gave Croatia the opening they needed for Gorup to feed Kucharczyk for a time-and-room bullet from the top while the defense was rotating. They pulled within one while in transition, Kucharczyk scoring again by cutting across the middle while the defense was still unsettled. Spain answered back, but a pair of goals by Croatia tied things up at seven just before halftime.
In the second half, Spain made the adjustment they needed to take things over. They traded goals early on, but another three-goal run from Spain was enough to seal things out. While Croatia did score a late goal to pull within two (11-9) off a goal from Brian Mattessich, Spain clinched their win with a very late goal from Romero, leading to the final score of 12-9.
After the game, Croatia’s head coach Dino Mattesich was describing how this was the first real test for much of their team and how their lack of depth was the reason behind their late-game fatigue. While Gorup and Kucharczyk were still making plays, Spain’s defense made their halftime adjustments to balance them out. Ion Rodriguez and Darrel Hunter were both wreaking havoc on defense throwing takeaways checks nearly every other possession. Spain used the first half to identify their ideal matchups and really made a strong effort to exploit those in the second.
As Spain’s coach Mike Bartlett summed it up perfectly by saying “we tightened things up.”
Next up for Croatia is New Zealand.
As Mattesich said, “It will take a gallant effort for us to stay with them.”
They can gain quite a bit of confidence from this game as it helped introduce much of their team to what’s needed going forward. They have some great pieces to build around and Spain recognized their goalie Erik Mikelinich as the game MVP for the number of fantastic saves he was making.
For Spain, their march towards rebuilding continues with the first win under their belt. Their goals for this tournament are:
“To make history and finish in the top half of the table…” according to Bartlett.
What I liked most is how they really did play as a team. It allowed the coaches to make changes as needed and adapt to what their next opponent shows them. In a tournament like this, that can be an incredible asset to have.