On an even playing field, pro lacrosse players would be better than their college counterparts, pro lacrosse teams would be better than college teams, and the pros would represent another step in the evolution of the game. But in our existing lacrosse reality, this even set of circumstances rarely presents itself, and because of the current set-up, elite college teams are often better than their pro counterparts.
It’s hard to define the concept of “better” simply, or by a single measurable metric, without focusing on wins and losses. But since the MLL and NCAA teams don’t play any “real” games, the wins and losses argument has to be thrown out. One can always look at scrimmage scores and use those as a basis for comparison, but we all know scrimmages aren’t games, and teams prep for them a little differently. The point is that we can’t take a lot away from the results of a college vs pro scrimmage… but we can take a lot away from the scrimmage action itself. So let’s look closely, and see what we can see!
Check out the recent Denver Pioneers (NCAA) vs Denver Outlaws highlights from lax.com as an example.
Yes, the college team “won”… but I already told you not to pay attention to that. Did you watch the actual action? If yes, continue reading. If no, go back and watch the video again, please.
What did you notice?
I noticed that the Pioneers played like a team. They moved the ball with precision, knew where other players would be and managed to score a lot of assisted goals. They combined individual play with team play and created a ton of open looks by doing so. They generated outside looks for their shooters, and inside looks for their finishers, and they looked like a real deal team. Oftentimes, the 3rd or 4th pass ended up being the assist on a goal, and when the Pioneers did dodge, they had lots of space to do just that.
The Outlaws, on the other hand, got most of their goals off individual efforts, and maybe one pass. The Outlaws produced some pretty goals, and they have some unreal talent on the roster, but NONE of their goals were as pretty as some of the Pioneers’ markers. Connor Martin and a host of other Outlaw players went really hard in the game, and created some SportsCenter quality highlights… but not a lot of good team play, and if the pros want to elevate their game above that which is played in college, this is something that simply must change.
The Denver Pioneers looked like a practiced team, and at times like a well-oiled machine. They spread the ball out, moved it quickly and played dynamic team lacrosse. They dodged when they needed to and moved the ball nicely out of doubles and slides. They played together, and it was beautiful.
The Outlaws, while athletic and skilled, seemed totally discombobulated. They just didn’t have the same flow as the Pioneers, and because of this lack of chemistry, they were forced to play individual lax. And when it comes down to it, this is what separates college from the pros. College lacrosse is a team game. The pro game is all about individual success. One can argue that the Outlaws didn’t have all their players, and that this is their off-season, which is fair, but this is kind of what a Denver game looked like this past Summer. It still looks like MLL style lax.
The single thing that will change the current stack of dominance is practice.
College teams practice… A LOT. Pros teams don’t practice at all. And please don’t try to tell me that the walk through pro teams do the day before a game counts as practice. Some teams may go hard, but it still doesn’t count. One day of lacrosse before a game is simply NOT enough.
Now I understand that the MLL can not afford to make its players full-time lacrosse players. I get that. But in order for the MLL to rise above college lacrosse, they have to make it happen somehow, and I have some ideas on how that could be done.
1) FORCE players to live in the area of their home team, or at least force them to spend more time there. If Paul Rabil decides he has to live in Baltimore, then fine, but during the MLL season, he owes Boston 3-4 days a week. Game day is one of those days, and the other two should be required for… you guessed it… practice! This may drop a couple of guys off of current rosters, but in the end, the league needs this to happen, so if guys won’t go along with it, the MLL needs to replace them. It’s a harsh approach, but it would do a lot for the quality of team play in the pros.
2) Use more LOCAL TALENT! I’ll stick with Boston and Paul Rabil here… Yes, the Cannons just won the MLL Championship, and PR99 was a huge part of that run. But that doesn’t mean that the current approach is the best one, just that the Cannons were the best at it. And it doesn’t mean that the Cannons didn’t use local talent as well, because they did. Mike Stone and Greg Downing are two guys who come to mind right away. Neither of them are really big-name players, but they both provided a big boost to Boston, and they both lived in the area, and dedicated themselves to the team in a major way. These are the kinds of guys who would practice 4-5 days a week, and it would barely cost the team any additional money. They make up the backbone of the team, and their style of team play allows guys like Rabil more room to operate.
3) INCREASE ROSTER SIZES. You don’t have to increase the number of guys who can play on game day, but the number of players that can be on a team should increase. This way more local players can be picked up, and practice can happen more often. Teams can then easily develop more local talent, and give more guys a shot at a spot. It would also put a lot more pressure on the guys who fly in to play for a team to be there more often.
4) The MLL needs to take a better look at PRO PLAYER STICKS. The pockets are too deep, and the heads are too pinched. Pro players can rely on dodging because the ball just doesn’t come out of the stick. I don’t think the MLL needs to go crazy here, but adopting the Universal head requirements for their sticks would be a great first step. The top width has to be 6.25″ or more and then the throat has to follow current college regulations. This would give MLL players the widest required sticks on the planet, and would definitely decrease the dodge-first attitude that is so prevalent in the pros right now.
The professional players are some of the most skilled the game has ever seen. Some of the pros are in better shape than any other laxers in the world. Teams are littered with big names and these guys put on a show every time they hit the field. But in order for the MLL to be considered better than college lacrosse teams need to play together more, and they need to play better team lacrosse. Star players are great, but the beauty of lacrosse is found in BOTH individual play and team play, and the pros are seriously lacking when it comes to the latter.