Lacrosse players dream of scoring the game-winning goal, winning the crucial fourth-quarter faceoff or making the big save. How many dream of good footwork and good stickwork? How about sprinting back and forth between offense and defense?
Those dreams are few and far between, likely even nonexistent for young lacrosse players. In reality, these are some of the key attributes for the game’s most undervalued, yet important positions… short-stick defensive midfield.
There’s an important disclaimer. The position is undervalued in terms of the average spectator’s view, not in coaches’ eyes. In fact, coaches across the board couldn’t speak more highly of the position’s significance.
“The position typically isn’t heralded or glorious, but it’s incredibly important to the overall success of a team,” said Lehigh head coach and current U.S. assistant Kevin Cassese, who played defensive midfield for Team USA in 2010. “We typically look for the guys who are the toughest and most selfless.”
One definition of selfless is “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own.” Short-stick defensive midfielders rarely have stats. They record some groundballs and some transition goals here and there, but a defensive midfielder often enjoys a standout performance without recording a single stat.
In this day and age of television and new media that promotes individual performance, defensive midfielders are a breath of fresh air. They are truly most concerned about team success. In making their decision to play the position, they decided to forego most opportunities for individual recognition.
“Going in, you know that it’s an unsung position,” said Dan Burns of the Chesapeake Bayhawks who was named to Team USA’s 23-man roster on Monday. “If someone doesn’t say you had a bad game, you’ve likely had a good game. If you don’t get yelled at, you’re not really going to be told good game. It’s a different type of person who plays the position.”
Defensive midfielders are expected to perform the same task as close defensemen and long-stick midfielders who have a six-foot pole. It’s like a baseball player trying to hit a fastball with a smaller bat or a basketball player shooting into a smaller hoop.
“You’re at a disadvantage, but you have to go back to your fundamentals and remember that you’re not really playing with your stick,” said Burns. “Your whole game is in your legs. Offensive guys have the slick sticks while we care about our legs, fundamentals, playing angles and conditioning. Our main focus is being in shape which goes a long way at our position.”
These players need to be well conditioned because they play more than anyone else.
“For us, we don’t win a lot of faceoffs so we put our shorties out there to play defense,” said Chesapeake head coach Dave Cottle. “They’re playing against the other team’s first and second lines.”
To stay in tip-top shape, short-stick defensive midfielders need to have a work ethic unlike any other.
“Defensive midfielders have to work extraordinarily hard. They’re the ones who get targeted by the opposing team,” said Cassese.
With that hard work, defensive midfielders take pride in stepping up to any challenge.
“When your opponent screams ‘take the shorties,’ you sort of pump your chest and ‘say bring it on,’” said Burns. “It’s a team sport, but you take that one-on-one matchup very seriously. If you can take that guy out of his game without needing the defense to rotate, it goes a long way. You need a bit of an ego in that respect… and a lot of confidence.”
“They’re the toughest guys on the field because they get taken every game over and over again,” said Cottle. “They need to have a cornerback mentality and be able to put a play behind them.”
The Bayhawks feature three of the four short-stick defensive midfielders who made Team USA’s cut of 31 players and two who made the final roster of 23 (Burns and Matt Abbott). Burns was almost primarily a defensive midfielder in college (where he walked on at the University of Maryland) while Jeff Reynolds began his Maryland career as a defensive middie and played some offense as well. Abbott is the classic “two-way midfielder” who played both ways at Syracuse and has settled into a defensive role in the MLL, although he has seen his fair share of time on offense as well.
Short-stick defensive midfielders come from many different backgrounds with each having their own mix of strengths. There are significant common denominators which all shorties face.
“Those guys typically have an incredible chip on their shoulder,” said Cassese. “They just have to be relentless. For Team USA, we need those type guys at the highest athletic level possible.”
Why would someone play a position that requires so much work, but so few tangible rewards? It truly takes a team-first approach. It’s a position where if you’re not noticed, it usually means you had a good day.
“Defensive midfield is a gritty position,” said Reynolds. “You could score goals in transition, but if you stop people from scoring and are not noticed, you did your job. It’s not very glorifying.”
“We don’t really care about who gets credit,” said Burns. “We care about playing good team defense and helping each other out.”
Defensive midfield is arguably more challenging in the professional ranks than college. Because of the MLL’s elite talent level, teams can match up elite talent with their long poles, but the offense’s fifth or sixth options were likely All-Americans themselves.
“You pick your poison out there,” said Abbot. “There are no weak links in this league. You start with a game plan of putting a pole on one guy and matching up short sticks on the other two. Sometimes you have to make adjustments. Guys get hot, guys get cold, but it’s our job to play good one-on-one defense and play good team defense to the best of our abilities.”
The position has grown in importance and recognition over the past few years (remember Josh Hawkins who led Loyola to the 2012 National Championship), but still isn’t getting the attention or recognition it deserves.
How many times do you see TV make a “player spotlight” on a defensive midfielder? The focus is usually on the goalie, close defense or even long-stick midfielder when in reality, short-stick midfielders are the glue that holds a defense together. Remember, offenses usually start with “attacking the shorties.” Success of a defense begins with short-stick defensive midfielders doing their job.
“Lacrosse is such a team sport,” said Abbott. “You want to play one-on-one well and win your one-on-one matchup, but on-ball defense is a small part of the equation. There is also playing off ball, communicating and working together. Not only playing good defense, but getting the ball and pushing in transition.”
The dynamic of the position is different at different levels. For example, with no shot clock in college and the international game, the defensive midfielders usually help clear the ball then leave it for the attackmen and offensive midfielders. You see transition opportunities, but not as frequently as the MLL with its 60-second shot clock.
“In the MLL, you get push opportunities,” said Reynolds. “In the international game, you might as well get it to the offense so they can get the possession and get a good look versus pushing and making a dumb shot.”
Even though it’s less prevalent in college, transition goals are still a common occurrence in college. One example is Loyola’s Pat Laconi, who had 11 goals this season from defensive midfield.
If you’re an aspiring lacrosse player and may not have the stick skills to be an attackman or the quickness to be a goalie, but are incredibly tough, resilient and team-oriented, then short-stick defensive midfield might be the position for you.
“If your skillset matches up for you to be a good defensive midfield—you’re a good athlete, you’re quick, you’re physical and have good stick skills (because you can’t play defense then not pick the ball up)—then go for it,” said Abbott.
Abbott, Burns and Reynolds are three examples of players who may not receive the glamor or recognition of a goal-scorer, but they are among the elite players at an incredibly important position. Abbott and Burns get to represent their country at the game’s highest level (World Lacrosse Championships) while Reynolds was among the last 31 players in the nation on Team USA, which isn’t too shabby itself.
For all the extraneous aspects of the position, everything goes back to basics. The number one priority and focus is clear.
“Stop the ball,” said Reynolds. “You’re going to be attacked. Before you even think about transition, before you even think about getting the ball to offense, you’ve got to stop it. We contribute to that, but it’s a team defense and we want it to be that way.”