Two years ago the then-Long Island Lizards hit the reset button after failing to make the playoffs. The organization departed with longtime veterans, such as Brian Spallina, Nicky Polanco, Chris Fiore, Stephen Berger and Tim Goettleman. Enter a young core of new faces, like Matt Gibson, Tommy Palasek, CJ Costabile, the former Maryland duo of Grant Catalino and Ryan Young, superstar Max Seibald, and veteran Brian Langtry. Oh, don’t forget new head coach Joe Spallina. Other than Seibald, the roster was filled with complimentary pieces that were expected to compete, but not battle for a postseason spot until first round draft pick Rob Pannell joined the squad.
Well Pannell never came due to a foot injury, while the Lizards surprised the league as one of the more upstart teams, earning a spot in the postseason. Gibson and Palasek came out of nowhere to form a dynamic attack duo from X. FOGO Greg Gurenlian (returning from an ACL injury) and goaltender Drew Adams gave their team a chance to win every game. The sand-paper defense held while the defensive middies created fast break chances. With the enthusiasm from their head coach and veterans, the Lizards became a balanced team on both ends of the field. Gibson, Adams and Spallina came away with rookie, goaltender and coach of the year awards.
Another busy off-season followed with the reacquisition of Berger, trades for Mark Matthews, David Earl, Jack Reid, and Steve Waldeck. With an all-star line-up that could win the MLL title before the year started, the only issue just seemed to be the chemistry.
Fast-forward to today, it’s proven to be the Lizards downfall. With so many players that need the ball, the players have struggled to find their roles on the field. In fact, New York actually had a decent start to the season (2-2) entering week 5. Once the number one overall pick Rob Pannell joined the team, it was an overload of talent that has dragged the offense into the ground. The Matthews proved to be disastrous. The attackman has played alright, but has proven to become a Goettleman 2.0. Entering Sunday’s game vs Denver, it will have been a month since Matthews’s last game in a Lizards uniform, ironically against his old team. In addition, his presence has displaced Gibson, forcing Spallina to try and force him into the midfield ineffectively.
Earl has started to find his rhythm, but the rest of his linemates have struggled all year. Seibald doesn’t seem to have recovered from his foot injury. Peyser has become a predictable shooter again. Rookie JoJo Marasco looks lost. Berger, the only real dodger from up top, was usually taken out by a long pole. He was dealt at the trade deadline to Boston for Pannell’s old Big Red buddy, Steve Mock. While they’ve found some of their old Cornell magic, it’s far from enough to kickstart the scoring.
Defensively, Adams has not looked like a dominant keeper, but he’s been left on an island at times. To be honest, the back unit is not playing bad. The issue is that they lack the gritty, in-your-face persona that Brian Spallina (and even Chris Passavia had last year) brought to the old dark green uniform. The Unterstein Brothers, Kevin and Mike, remain two of the best at their position. The defense overall just can’t create fast break chances like last year. While Costabile remains a threat, the loss of Tim Henderson (not playing due to military obligations) has taken away a tough, athletic pole. With Waldeck sliding down to close defense, its now limited the team’s speed at the midfield.
With the playoffs out of the picture, the team needs to hit the button next to the one they pressed two years ago: the one that says re-tool. Balance throughout the roster, having players know their roles on the field are going to be vital for New York to bounce back next season.
Pannell and Palasek are the two consistent drivers on offense. They create, threaten and capitalize with or without the ball. But that third spot has not become a consistent factor. What they need is that role player figure like a Langtry or Gibson. They understand they are not the primary option but can provide sneaky off-ball play or gain a mismatch with a third defender. Frankly, I’m not sure if Matthews would still fit next year. New York could trade him and get a big physical presence down low.
Unless his foot injury becomes a lingering issue, Seibald should return to his all-star stature next season. When he’s on his game, the whole unit performs at another level. That would help Peyser find more shooting space and help create more like he did in the previous year. The team will have to make a decision on Marasco. Can he accept a role as the fourth midfielder that chips in 8-12 goals? There’s also former Stony Brook standout Jeff Tundo who didn’t look out of place when he played this year.
That can’t be said for the entire 6v6 unit. It’s apparent the trickling in of talent, along with lack of quality practice times, hurt the team meshing together. With a full year under their belt we might see a more complete combination of skill, speed and crisp passing. If the midfield can engage more towards the net, that will stretch the defense. When that happens, the attack opens up for the one on one battles that Pannell and Palasek can take advantage of.
As for the defense, Karalunas distinguished himself as the number one defender on the Lizards. The camper could add more size to duel the bigger attackman easier, but he’s the only long pole that can create turnovers when battling with their opponent. If they can add a physical inside defender, it would make Adams job easier. If the offense can figure out their issues, that alone would make the defense better. It takes away possessions from the opposition, keeps the defense fresh, and keeps them from playing tight, perfect lacrosse to make up for their lackluster offense.
New York doesn’t need an overhaul, but small, smart moves to fine-tune this engine to properly work.