The U.S. Men’s National team kicked off their campaign for the 2018 World Championship this past Sunday at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Coach John Danowski debuted as the head coach for the US as they rolled to 22-6 victory over the defending Division I champions Denver. The coach had plenty of experience and depth on the roster even without all world midfielder Paul Rabil recovering from an injury. The game was actually very close for ten minutes into the first quarter, even with Denver not dressing several key players from last season’s roster. Then Team USA took a page from the New York Lizards championship season and dominated the face offs and continued to feed their offense the ball and play aggressive defense. Keep the ball away from the other team and feed a deep and talented offense to build a lead and make the other team play from behind. So what was learned from this weekend?
First and foremost, MLL players are the best in the world and they exploited their size, skill and experience to win. Coach Danowski’s “culture of sustainable excellence has started.” Second, Denver rested their injured and used the game to get playing time for their younger players. The US team gets few opportunities to play actual games together and even had their practice session rained out this weekend. Many Denver fans bemoaned the score, but the Pioneers goal is another championship and this allowed the coaching staff to see what they have going into next season. In short, the Pioneers had experience to gain and nothing to lose.
The much anticipated matchup between Greg Gurenlian and his protégé Trevor Baptiste never materialized as he did not dress for the game. Baptiste’s absence highlighted the importance of face offs as Denver did not have an answer for the two headed monster of Gurenlian and Brendan Fowler. Team USA seemed very content to alternate their face off specialists and the duo went 10-10 in the 2nd quarter as their teammates reeled off 9 points to build a 14-1 lead over the Pioneers. Fowler as not mentioned in the face off hype, but his college record speaks for itself and he has shown how he can take over a game (see Championship Game against Syracuse). Fowler and Gurenlian coach at The Face Off Academy and were both MLL all-star selections last season. Team USA finished 24-30 on face offs and won the ground ball battle 36-13.
With the US winning the possession battle it allowed their offense to build an early lead and move the ball quickly and efficiently. Casey Powell was Casey Powell and assisted on 3 of the first 4 goals. The theme of quick crisp ball movement and sharing continued as 15 of the 22 goals scored by Team USA were assisted. Denver could not catch a break as one after another of the National Team found the back of the net. The size advantage favored the U.S. midfielders as they scored 7 goals. The offense definitely moves through the attack as they put up 14 points. Matt Danowski and Jordan Wolf each had 4 goals, Marcus Holman had 3 goals, and Casey Powell and Tom Schreiber had 2 apiece. If there is a weakness in this offense it maybe the man up unit, but then it only had one opportunity. Keep in mind Paul Rabil did not dress for the game, but even without him the midfielders are big, strong and fast while the attack is talented and plays with their heads up looking for the open man. The best way to beat this offense will be to make sure they do not get the ball and do not give them second chances when they do.
Denver’s offense with its hybrid box elements was supposed to give the U.S. defense fits, but the reality proved far different. The defense shone for Team USA as Tucker Durkin, Michael Evans, Joe Fletcher and Ryan Flannigan were athletic, physical and aggressive down low while Kyle Hartzell, Scott Ratliff, Brent Adams, and Jake Bernhardt disrupted the Pioneers, caused turnovers and generated transition offense. The LSMs and SSD midfielders on Team USA are going to be one of their strengths. Durkin and Evans laid enough lumber to stock a home improvement store. I winced as Cannizzaro drove from X to goal line extended, but the Pioneer did not back down and kept coming. The checks he took from Durkin could were felt and heard well up in the stands. Fletcher never seemed to be out of place and Hartzell threw an incredible over the head check. The check was called for a hold, but illustrated how Denver could not gain any traction offensively. Ratliff and Evans communicated well and marked the Pioneers easily. Both goalies, Adams and Galloway, made three saves each, but were never really tested. The Pioneers only scored 2 goals on extra man opportunities, but the 7 penalties are a cause for concern as the Canadians and Iroquois will make the U.S. defense pay for excessive penalties. I would not want to face this defense because they will make you pay if you try and go to the cage. Fail to take care of the ball and they will force a turnover and start a fast break.
This version of Team USA looks like a very sound unit from top to bottom. Look for possession to favor the Americans unless Canada or the Iroquois find a counter to Gurenlian and Fowler. The offense simply has too many weapons and depth for any defense to counter. They are looking for assisted goals and to get everyone involved in the offense. The defense may be better equipped to deal with the hybrid box type offense that Canada and the Iroquois play so well. Team USA is made up of some of the best players in the MLL and the world. As Coach Danowski’s culture of excellence develops, the only thing capable of defeating the U.S. may be themselves.