Canada's defeat of the United States in the World Lacrosse Championships is the best thing to ever happen to international lacrosse. After being pushed around for three decades, the Canadians turned the table on their rivals, beating Team USA for the first time since 1978. They proved they were the better team -- a more potent mix of talent and role players than Team USA.
They have 10 percent of the players that America has. They are underfunded. The rules don't favor their style of box lacrosse. Canada was 1-13 versus Team USA prior to Saturday afternoon. Still, Canada prevailed.
"There was no self-doubt from our players. ... When we teed it up on Saturday, there was no doubt we were going to win," said Canada assistant coach Dave Huntley.
The loss will be a wake-up call for U.S. Lacrosse. The directors of the U.S. national team must re-evaluate the entire process. Are selectors at the Team USA tryouts familiar with the professional talent assembled? Do they judge players from their memories of the players' college days? They need to be careful, because guys mature, regress and evolve.
Many feel that most college coaches are out of touch with what's going on in MLL and might not be best suited to managing, motivating and getting the best out of a bunch of 26-year-olds. It's not their fault -- following MLL is not their job. They are busy recruiting and running summer camps.
"We selected in June. Canada selected in October, which may have been a subtle advantage," said Jody Martin, the men's division director at U.S. Lacrosse. "The coaching staff worked hard. We were very happy with them. We'll sit down and look at the whole process."
Still, U.S. Lacrosse turned the support up a notch. The players were given world-class resources.
"We only do this once every four years, so there is a letdown. Canada played their A-game as a team," Martin said. "They were so prepared, the matchups worked their way. We didn't match their intensity."
The U.S. team was an All-Star team lacking role players, grinders and complementary parts. Lacrosse is a team game -- superior teams are defined by balance and the contributions of role players. But this mix of hyped All-Stars whose styles and skills didn't necessarily mesh with one another didn't work, and Canada's did. The defensive end was most alarming. Team USA applied no pressure. The off-ball defense was nonexistent. With the exception of John Gagliardi, the clearing game struggled. The U.S. face-guarded John Grant Jr., which created a five-on-five game. And that's what the Canadians do best.
Because of the loss, the 2006 version of Team USA will be remembered for who wasn't selected for the squad: goalies Greg Cattrano and Brian Dougherty and faceoff specialist Paul Cantabene. Cattrano and Dougherty were injured and did not try out last summer. The selection rules state that an athlete must participate in the tryouts.
But hasn't Cattrano earned the right to represent the U.S.? He has led his team to the MLL final in all five years of the league. When you leave, in my opinion, the best two goalies at home, you are asking for trouble. The U.S. has historically had superior goalie talent (Larry Quinn and Sal LoCascio) -- but Chris Sanderson outplayed the U.S. netminders. But to be fair to Trevor Tierney and Chris Garrity, most of the goals came from the doorstep.
"You can't pin this on Tierney or Garrity," Huntley said. "Look at it goal by goal. We got inside. Our guys crashed the middle and picked loose balls up."
I have been sending up a warning flare for more than a year, and the failure to address the faceoff position cost Team USA the championship. Look at the stats. Watch the game. This is not debatable.
I said last summer that it was an injustice and a mistake to leave Cantabene off the roster, but the warnings went unheeded. Geoff Snider was able to dominate the U.S. in the final. Does anyone remember Rodney Tapp engineering the comeback of 1998 in Baltimore with a similar indoor stick and clamp? Cantabene was an alternate, not on the active roster.
"Paul worked with the faceoff guys in practice and charting the games," Martin said. "He's a team guy and his heart hurt, but he still stayed there and was a huge part of our team."
Team USA never developed a signature style, never found its flow. The U.S. had a significant advantage in team speed yet never got running. The U.S. midfielders are much faster than their Canadian adversaries, but this advantage was rendered useless by a conservative collegiate style. They attempted to play slow-down with the Canadians, to match them shot for shot. And guess what happened? The guys in the red jerseys are better shooters than Team USA. It's always been that way.
Canada's defenders joined the rush. They flew up and down the field. Brodie Merrill is the biggest difference between this team and Canada's squads of 1994, 1998 and 2002. He's the best player in the game.
It appeared Team USA struggled with the international style of play. World championship lacrosse is different. It's not the NCAA, and it's certainly not the MLL. Tierney detailed the differences in his MLL blog.
"To really understand what international lacrosse games are like, you have to be there," Tierney said. "You have officials from all over the world who have their own interpretations of how the game should be called. You have water breaks and TV timeouts every three minutes. There is no time limit on how long you have to clear the ball over midfield and there is certainly no shot clock. Really, it is a whole different game. There is no flow and no consistency. It also raises the point that the MLL probably has the best rule that the rest of lacrosse should follow, which is the 60-second shot clock. It keeps the game flowing, makes the players play, and usually the team that plays the best comes out on top. This is the way that the game should be played."
Meanwhile, the Canadians rallied around a retiring Gary Gait.
"It was the only championship I'd never won," Gait said. "And now that I've finally got it, I can fade away into the sunset."
Twenty-two years ago, Gait tried out for Team Canada as a 17-year-old. Geoff Snider was a baby.
"Gary's an inspiration," Snider said. "He's truly the ambassador of our sport. If I can become a fraction of what he is as a person and as a player, I'll consider myself fortunate."
U.S. coach John Desko spoke of "unselfish" play during the scrimmages -- to me that was a warning that his team had shown signs of selfishness. The two best passers in America either rarely left the bench (Ryan Boyle) or didn't try out (Conor Gill).
Jay Jalbert became the catalyst, although he wasn't 100 percent after battling concussion syndrome. His play was terrific. "He competed hard and was their toughest player," Huntley said.
Canada's defense was well-crafted, with an emphasis on stopping the Powell brothers. "We forced Ryan Powell to his left hand," Huntley said. "Mikey got banged up, and Casey was a threat on extra-man offense. We had tremendous respect for the Powells."
Team USA's pre-Games schedule was not well-crafted. Games with a bunch of college kids from Syracuse and Team Ireland were a waste of time. Team USA should have played a well-coached college team and done a five-game promotional tour against MLL teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco and then against the MLL All-Stars.
These games could have been scheduled on Thursday nights to allow members of Team USA to play for their normal MLL teams on Saturdays. That would have been beneficial for both Team USA and the MLL, and most of all for the fans. A bunch of those games in packed MLL arenas across the country and on ESPN2 would have had positive implications for the growth and promotion of the sport.
Team USA never developed a rallying cry or a cause bigger than itself. They never gelled; in fact, they played worse as the tournament wore on. The 13-10 victory in the semifinal over Australia should have been a red flag. On Saturday, Canada played with tremendous emotion in its 15-10 victory, while the U.S. waited for a spark.
"I don't know if we had the team chemistry that was necessary. It wasn't selfishness, but we didn't quite gel," Martin said. "The demands of their professional lives and the MLL make it difficult to spend a lot of time together."
Team Canada had one goal: Beat the U.S.
"Everybody had a role," Gait said. "We didn't necessarily have all the best players [in Canada], but we had guys who fit into the puzzle and accepted their roles."
Gait focused all his energies on playing. He knew there wasn't much fuel left in the tank, and he rationed it to perfection. He inspired his teammates who idolize him. "I've never seen him that excited about winning," Huntley said.
"We wanted to win, they wanted not to lose," Huntley said. "They had no emotional buttons to push. We didn't play field lacrosse. We rejected playing classic American field lacrosse. We didn't want to lose our identity. Our goals are scored by guys driving to the net, not alley dodging."
What you saw was lifestyle lacrosse. Blue-collar won on Saturday.
The U.S. failure was summed up for me in one play. Casey Powell scoring Team USA's 10th goal -- a one-handed shovel shot between his legs with less than a minute to go -- was the visual example of what was wrong with the U.S. All style and no substance. The Americans seemed burdened by the pressure of expectations. The Canadians played with a chip on their shoulder. The Americans seemed paralyzed by past success. They strutted and basked in the limelight, but wilted in the spotlight.
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