We are a few days in, but we still have yet to separate the leaders form the packs. You can’t help but feel overly excited for what is going to take place in the next week and a half.
A record 46 teams have traveled to Netanya in Israel to compete for international lacrosse superiority. It’s a record number of teams because this whole #GrowTheGame thing we try to do is actually working!
More and more countries have increased interest and participation over the past 4 years that they feel ready and able to send a squad to compete. Ready and able are two words that need more emphasis. For nearly every team here, there is another that will be watching from home. This is not due to them losing a qualifying game or two, but they either couldn’t generate the funds to travel or put together a full travel roster for a grueling tournament like this. And honestly, that’s OK! It just means the game is still young in many of those countries and there is still work left to do.
But we also know that this is the final year for a come one, come all style of tournament. A 46-team setup is a gigantic undertaking. It was large enough that England, one of the strongest lacrosse playing countries we have, was not able to sufficiently support it. So, the tournament was moved to Israel when Scott Neiss and company raised their hands to play host. And they deserve special recognition for being able to pull this off.
Beginning with the 2022 games, there will be more of a regional qualifier setup that teams will need to go through. How, when, and who runs that will be released over time, but we know it will happen. So that makes 2018 Netanya the last somewhat democratic version of FIL play. If you are FIL recognized and can get a squad here, let’s get you on the field and let’s play some games.
This Is It?
So what does this mean for actual on the field play? First off, I personally think this will be an incredibly competitive tournament. I don’t need to go team by team or group by group because our man Brian Witmer already did. Miss those previews? Well, take a look here:
- Blue (Australia, England, Canada, Scotland, USA, Iroquois)
- Red (Israel, Russia, Jamaica)
- White (Japan, Netherlands, Norway)
- Green (Germany, Korea, France)
- Yellow (Ireland, China, Denmark)
- Orange (Sweden, Hungary, Argentina)
- Plum (New Zealand, Croatia, Spain)
- Turquoise (Finland, Columbia, Austria)
- Grey (Czech Republic, Phillippines, Belgium)
- Gold (Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, Slovakia)
- Bronze (Wales, Bermuda, Puerto Rico)
- Tan (Italy, Turkey, Peru)
- Purple (Latvia, Mexico, Greece)
- Olive (Poland, Luxembourg, Uganda, Hong Kong)
Man, just reading that list is exhausting. There is about to be a ton of lacrosse played! When I look at how a tournament like this will shake out, I feel compelled to start with the Blue Division no matter what.
A quick reminder: the Blue Division is comprised of the top 6 teams from the last tournament. So, being the seventh team is not a great place to be when the dust settles. We will probably have a new team or two, which means someone else will be moved into another pool. This is not without contention, either. In 2010 when the Iroquois were unable to compete in Manchester, Germany was the team who came in 6th place.
Through some conference room decisions, the Iroquois were put into the 2014 Blue Division, en route to their first-ever medal in the outdoor game (Bronze). This was done under strong protest from Germany, who had played their way into the top tier, only to be moved out unceremoniously. Ultimately, Germany did not find 6th place again in Denver, which is why you see them in the Green Division this year.
The Blue Division team that did not hold onto that spot was Japan. They are an exciting team to watch because they are one of the few teams who compete at a very high level with next to no outside help. They’re homegrown and play fast, fun lacrosse. Taking their place was Scotland.
Scotland has a great coach, and the team is infused with some very talented Canadian players. The other teams looking to break into the top level are Israel and the Czech Republic who both are at the top level in the indoor game. I also am really interested to see what newcomers Puerto Rico and the Philippines do this time around. They are both very talented teams, and we only know about them on paper right now. There are also the returning teams from Mexico, Finland, and Ireland which could be pretty interesting.
Speaking of knowing teams on paper, the biggest games in the tournament for most fans will be the triangle of Iroquois, Canada, and the USA. That is not to discount England, Australia, and Scotland. But for the general lacrosse viewing public, the North American teams (emphasis on North) are the most well-known players who populate the indoor and outdoor pro leagues. But how do these three heavyweights compare to their 2014 version?
For starters, I think both Canada and the Iroquois have put together significantly better teams this time around. As we know, both of these teams struggle with trying to get a group of field lacrosse players out there. In the box world, they’re kings. But getting 23 players with high-level field lacrosse experience has been a challenge. They obviously make do as Canada has pulled off 3 gold medals in these games while learning on the job in some cases. The Iroquois were taking guys like Jeff Shattler who was always so box-focused that his first real field game (not an exhibition) was in Denver in 2014.
While there are certainly some major returning faces wearing red and white for Canada, they really stepped up their talent pool. Compared to 2014, their biggest gains are on the defensive end. Adding a guy like Graeme Hossack back there will pay incredible dividends. I also can’t wait to see Tyson Bell on the field since his most notable experience there is at OCC. That doesn’t even mention do-it-all players like Zach Currier who caused USA major problems in the all-star game. Many other players like Wes Berg are returning as established professional, veteran contributors rather than the college students they were in 2014.
The Iroquois are also a team that is much better in many respects. It doesn’t take much imagination to say that their offense is going to be incredibly dangerous. When Lyle Thompson is somewhat overshadowed by Tehoka Nanticoke, you know you have a squad. When you realize that Tehoka will probably be overshadowed by Austin Staats? Yikes. This team has an incredible number of scoring options, and they need it. Given the possession-based game that FIL play is, they will need to be hyper-efficient with the ball. Their defense took a bit of a step back and there’s no guarantee that Warren Hill will have the type of tournament in goal he did in 2014. So the question following them is not how many goals they’ll score, but how many will they let in?
Finally, USA. Now I do think Canada and the Iroquois are better than 2014. Is USA? I don’t know. But that’s not a bad thing. The 2014 team that was put together was truly incredible. At the time, I really did buy into the hype that it was one of the best teams ever put together. They were incredibly talented, they complemented each other well, and looked invincible. All I can say about the 2018 team is that they are different. Are they capable of winning every single game they play in convincing fashion? Absolutely. But with USA, it’s never a question of ability or potential. It’s going to fall on their ability to come together as a team and play the right type of lacrosse for the game they’re in. And that’s only something we can know when they’re on the field.
Eat Or Be Eaten
The biggest question for how this whole tournament will shake out though is who can hold up? Players will get injured. Some will be minor and unreported, while others will keep someone sidelined. With only 23 players available, a key injury or two can sink a team’s chances. Will any long poles need to grab short stick at some point? Will any short sticks need to play pole? Will middies be switching to attack or vice versa? Who will need to rotate in their backup goalie more? How will the heat affect teams not used to training in it? How will the faceoff guys, whether they are FOGOs or true faceoff middies hold up with all those reps? Who handles recovery and downtime best?
We’ve seen all of these issues pop up in the last couple of days, but how the teams respond to it and fight through the bracket means everything.
We could put together this whole tournament’s results on paper and call it a day. In fact, Connor is taking a stab at just that by introducing lines for the first round of games, but that’s only part of the fun. Let’s see these teams out on the field. Let’s see the upsets, the superhuman performances, and the new team surprises. It’s been a great tournament so far, but it’s only just begun!