2015 MLL Championship: An Analysis

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It seems like few things in the sports world rarely follow the script that appears to be written.  Few champions are ever undefeated.  “Teams of Destiny” always seem to be watching someone else celebrate at the end of a game.  Underdogs pull off the unexpected upsets.  For the 2015 MLL season, this will be one of the few times that the season long favorites finished with a championship.  The New York Lizards defeated the Rochester Rattlers 15-12 in Kennesaw, Georgia to become MLL champions once again.

The Lizards have made it clear over the past few seasons that they have had nothing but a championship on their collective minds.  Trade after trade netted them a roster full of veterans, and some of the top players at their positions at nearly every spot on the field.  Those efforts were put into concrete this year as they traded for Paul Rabil, who with Rob Pannell, put the two of the most skilled, hyped, and marketed players in the game on the same offense.  Along with them were this year’s Goalie of the Year in Drew Adams, Defender of the Year in Joe Fletcher, and league MVP Greg Gurenlian taking faceoffs.  This was a team meant to win now.

The Rattlers were not exactly a underdog story themselves.  In 2014, they were the top seed in playoffs and lost the championship game by just a single goal.  While most of their team did return, seven of the players in last year’s championship game were not suited up for the Rattlers in 2015.  Most notably was Mike Manley, whose season ended early due to injury.

Speaking of returning players, consistency is something that the Lizards were able to really use to their advantage all year long.  While most MLL teams begin the year with missing players due to NLL commitments, NCAA coaching duties, or completing their NCAA season, the Lizards were largely immune to this.  Just three players from their opening day roster were not suited up for the championship., which equates to 16% of the team.  Compare that to the Rattlers, who saw nine new players join the team in that time (47%).  Not only were the Lizards a good team on paper, they were the almost the same team all year, allowing them to really form a strong chemistry together.  In a league where practices are limited and seasons are short, this is never something that should be understated.

Now onto the game.  The Lizards started out very poorly.  Right out of the gate, the looked confused on offense, were trying to rush things a bit too much, and force opportunities that weren’t there.  It did not look like New York.  On their first offensive possession, Paul Rabil rolled off a defender directly into fellow New York middie JoJo Marasco.  It was not a pretty start.  Rochester took full advantage of this.  Kyle Denhoff opened scoring just forty seconds into the game and helped the Rattlers to a 6-2 lead after the first quarter.  By the second quarter, New York would become comfortable once again.  The score was nearly reversed as the Lizards outscored the Rattlers 5-2, making the halftime score 8-7 Rattlers.  Rochester’s eight goals were incredibly balanced, coming from eight different players.  Denhoff was join by fellow midfielders Randy Staats, John Ranagan, Dave Lawson and defensive midfielder Jack Near.  All three starting attack (Kevin Rice, Jordan Wolf, and Mark Matthews) would also notch a goal.  For New York, Rabil, Ned Crotty, Marasco, Tommy Palasek, and Matt Gibson would all score a goal while Pannell would notch two.

The third quarter would remain just as close.  Pannell opened scoring with his third straight for the Lizards to tie the game before Matthews answered back with a pair of his own.  This is when Gurenlian showed why he was league MVP.  He won the following faceoff and took it right to the goal to stop the Rattlers’ run and cut their lead back to just a goal.  Denhoff responded before Rabil and Gibson closed out the scoring for the period.

In the final frame, Rochester got a quick goal from Wolf, but that would be their last goal of the evening.  Four more New York tallies would top off their season and allow them to hoist their trophy.

So what worked well for New York?  Gurenlian was a very large part of this game for the Lizards.  He finished the game right around 70% at the X and had 11 ground balls with his 16 faceoff wins.  With ground ball vacuum Joel White roaming the wings, that is a fact which cannot be ignored.  Rochester’s Mike Poppleton did his job and really prevented Gurenlian from winning clean faceoffs, but Gurenlian still fought through and did what his team needed him to do.  What made him an MVP for the season, could have earned him the same award in this game.

Rochester had also been running very low numbers of longpoles after Manley went down with his injury.  This meant White spent most of his time playing close defense instead of alternating runs at longstick middie with John LoCascio, where they are at their best.  LoCascio really had trouble guarding New York in 1:1 matchups.  John Lade also had issues all night trying to be a good help defender while carrying the responsibility of occupying Pannell.  It did not turn out well on several occasions.  As good as Rochester’s defense is, they were simply unable to play to their strengths and New York took full advantage of every opportunity granted to them.

Both goalies really played well.  John Galloway finished with a few more saves, but he let in a few that you could tell he felt responsible for.  There were several doorstep saves he didn’t make, but one could hardly expect him to as well.  Drew Adams for New York made a few more of those key saves.  The one that stands out in my mind was late in the game, Mark Matthews found a hole in the middle of the defense.  He caught the pass, turned, shot, and Adams turned it into a quick outlet pass going the other way.  Plays like that are what earn you a championship.

After the game, New York was awarded the trophy and Rabil was named game MVP for his game high six points (3G, 3A).  Unfortunately, Rabil also found it was appropriate to wear a WWE championship wrestling belt over his shoulder while accepting this honor.  He is a well-known wrestling fanatic, but it’s just disappointing to see the player who is widely considered the face of the game accept an award on a national broadcast while essentially saying “This MLL Championship is nice and all, but a wrestling belt really shows that I won something”.  While teammates like Gurenlian had never won a team championship before in their life and even Pannell suffered heartbreak after heartbreak since his freshman year of college, Rabil minimized the importance of the honor given to him and what his team had just accomplished.  This action was in stark contrast to his opponents in the Rattlers who won the MLL Team Sportsmanship award for the second straight year or even his own teammate in Gurenlian, who paired his MVP award with the league’s individual Sportsmanship award.

It will be interesting to see what happens this offseason.  There is an expansion draft coming up with the new team announced in Atlanta.  Will New York go the way of many veteran-heavy championships teams and slowly dissolve, or will they be able to keep the group together and go for a repeat?  It will be harder to do with the league adding a team, but the Lizards and head coach Joe Spallina have shown that they are willing to make things happen to get a winning team together.  Those efforts finally paid off in a big way this year, and there is no way that they will be content with this year’s title.

Another thing to watch is if New York’s success this year impacts how other teams build.  None of their key contributors played in the NLL this season and they had one rookie active for this game.  Will this further drive a divide between the indoor and outdoor leagues, forcing players to choose?  Will the ability for rookies to make a roster and have an immediate impact also be minimized?  When the supply of veteran talent far outweighs the demand in a league this size, it is certainly possible.  This offseason will be very telling with regards to where the heads of coaches and GMs are around the league.