Team USA Defense Puts Clamps on Iroquois
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Team USA head coach Richie Meade gathered his group after its 18-5 dismantling of the Iroquois Nationals and said, "That's the way we want to play."
Start with the faceoffs, and work your way around the field: the U.S. defense squashed the Thompson-led offense, goalie Jesse Schwartzman made timely stops, two-way midfielders controlled possession and the offense lit it up, with Rob Pannell and Paul Rabil combining for 10 goals and four assists.
And yet still, when the post-game huddle broke, U.S. assistant coach Dave Pietramala made sure to remind everyone, "We can be better." Really?
Pietramala's defense was well-prepared and executed. Close defenseman Tucker Durkin marked Lyle Thompson, as he did when the pair matched up against each other in college, and limited him to two assists. Michael Evans held Miles Thompson in check (three goals) and Lee Zink blanked crease attackman Cody Jamieson and rising Syracuse senior Randy Staats when he moved down to attack from midfield where he started the game. Staats also drew the pole of Kyle Hartzell when he played midfield.
Durkin used a tough punch check to harass Thompson throughout the tilt, and got plenty of support from roamers looking to close in if the ball appeared in a stick longer than a couple seconds. The Iroquois ended up taking fewer shots (14) than the U.S. scored goals. Pannell outscored the Nationals by two goals on his own.
"We knew a lot of their dodgers are very good at keeping the ball in their stick," Durkin said. "We wanted to make sure when we doubled, we came in hard and we made sure to try to get the ball on the ground. The biggest thing for us was protecting inside, they are so good at hitting cutters backside, inside, through the defense. We wanted to protect the interior of the defense. We thought that was crucial."
The U.S. didn't watch any tape of past Johns Hopkins-Albany games in its "bunker," its converted common-room space in the dorms at Denver University, where the group meets before doing generally anything, including breaking down film. But they did watch the last couple Iroquois games here, with Lyle Thompson shifted to attack.
|Team USA goalie Jesse Schwartzman needed to make only four saves in a 18-5 rout of the Iroquois Nationals on Tuesday night. (Scott McCall)|
"The defense played great," Evans said. "When we did play defense, we stuck to the game plan. We went over it today and last night. ... Tucker played him in college and did a phenomenal job covering him and is familiar with him. And the other guys, our mentality is a team concept. It was going to be all seven of us out there, including Jesse [Schwartzman]."
The U.S. goalie only needed to make four saves, but had a few stops early that erased any possibility of the Nationals building up early momentum.
"Our goalie was fabulous when he needed to be," Pietramala said. "Early on, we played excellent defense. As the game progressed we got a little sloppy and stared off the ball a little bit. But when you hold a group like this to five goals, it's a good day. A lot of the credit goes to the guys at the X and the offense end. It was a good team win, but we can improve on that mark defensively. I think we can be better than that."
Watching from the offensive end of the field, Pannell looked at Zink, the top defenseman on the Denver Outlaws, Durkin, a MLL rookie of the year candidate last season, and Evans, a perennial all-pro, and saw what had been a nightmare to go against in the U.S. tryout process turn into a dream as the world championships have unfolded.
The U.S. has put up a lot of impressive numbers, but allowing an average of 4.6 goals in five pool play games is a pretty good one. They held Canada scoreless for more than 30 minutes in the tournament opener Thursday night.
"It's every guy I go against in the MLL on one team," Pannell said. "It's a nightmare for me. That makes them better, it makes me better, and it makes our offense better. If we can score on our defense, we know we'll be able to have success against anyone. I'm fortunate that I'm watching them play now and not playing against them. They've been great."
Notes and Quotes
Short-stick defensive midfielder Dan Burns, nursing a tweaked groin injured during the Japan game, played the first possession of the game, but was sidelined the rest of the way. Kyle Harrison, who had been held out of the previous two games as a precautionary measure, saw more time at defensive midfield, with starter Matt Abbott and Mitch Belisle, who has bumped between long- and short-stick defense throughout the tournament. Burns could have played if needed, Pietramala said.
"He's OK," he said. "The good thing is we got Harrison back. The plan was to use him a little bit more. Mitch Belisle has been a blessing. We can use him in a lot of different roles. With Danny, Kyle, Mitch and Matt we got four short-sticks we can rotate through, or we can put Mitch down low and play three short-sticks."
Iroquois coach Steve Beville agreed with Meade's assessment of Team USA: "The U.S. played like they were supposed to. They are incredibly well-coached. They are big, strong, fast, can shoot it. They won all the faceoffs. The biggest key to whole thing was Schwartzman early. He saved everything early. They are outstanding defensively in every way as well. They have outstanding individual defenseman and their coaching staff has them playing really, really good help out defense. You combine incredibly athletic guys with great coaching and great help-out, they are playing as a team. You put all those things together, and it makes it incredibly impressive."
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