July 18, 2012

U.S. U19 Men Look to Regroup for Gold Medal Run

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

The members of the U.S. under-19 men's national team held a players-only meeting after a loss Tuesday to the Iroquois, its second loss of the tournament after falling to Canada on Saturday. "The two teams we lost to, the one apparent thing was that they played more like a team," defenseman and co-captain Stephen Jahelka said.
© Tero Wester 

TURKU, Finland – For about two hours on Tuesday night, the members of the U.S. under-19 men's national team held a players-only meeting in the dorm complex they are sharing with the homestanding Finns and teams from Australia and England during the FIL U19 World Championships.

It was a few hours after Team USA was stunned by the Iroquois Nationals in a 15-13 pool play loss, the first time any Iroquois team had beaten the U.S. in international field competition. The defeat was the U.S.'s second of the tournament after falling to Canada in overtime on Saturday. This time, after the Iroquois game, the team went to a dinner with family members and staff at a local Turku establishment, then took a bus back to the Petrea complex where they've spent much of their time since arriving in Finland over a week ago. There was plenty to talk about.

"It was pretty clear that even though we felt that we had better talent than the two teams we lost to, the one apparent thing was that they played more like a team," defenseman and co-captain Stephen Jahelka said. "When everything goes wrong you rely on your teammates, on the guy next to you. We talked about realizing what we have in front of us, realizing a year's journey ends in five days. Everything that we worked for since the four-day tryouts of just brutal competition is all going to end in five days. We are the ones that control how we go out of this thing."

The U.S. faces a road to a gold medal that will almost certainly include rematches with both of the teams that already beat them. After defeating Germany 22-2 in a quarterfinal game on Wednesday, the first of those rematches is set for 8 p.m. (1 p.m. EST) on Thursday, when Team USA faces the second-seeded Iroquois for the second time in three days in a semifinal game. Top-seeded Canada plays England in Thursday's first semifinal at 5 p.m.

Equipment manager Jay Bissette actually started off the players meeting by reading quotes relating to the Battle of Midway, the epic World War II battle in which the U.S. responded to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

"He said, 'Everyone is counting you out right now as the three seed. I don't know why. Every one of us believes in you.' By the end of the meeting everyone had smiles on," Jahelka said.

The meeting went uninterrupted until around 11 p.m., aside from a food drop off by assistant general manager Chuck Apel. The last 30 minutes focused on Xs and Os, with the opportunity given for players to ask questions and provide input about particular sets on offense and defense. Midfielders Ryan Tucker and Sean Mahon stepped up to provide direction about the team's man-up unit, about moving and sharing the ball. The defense talked about ways to treat the Iroquois' invert sets.

"Anything that anybody had on their mind, or on their chest that they had to get off, we did it," midfielder Mike Tagliaferri said. "It really helped us out, I think, and is going to be the difference between the first half of this tournament and the second."

On Wednesday morning at a walkthrough practice, the team worked on some of what they discussed. Now, they'll put the practice to use on Thursday in the semifinals. The championship game is set for 4 p.m. Saturday.

"We've taken our lumps, now it's time to step back up together," U.S. head coach Tim Flynn said.

For the U.S. to take its seventh gold medal, here are some things to focus on, based on the view from my seat:

USA's Keys to Gold

PLAY LIKE IT'S THE FOURTH QUARTER ALL THE TIME

The level of play has been raised by the U.S. group in crunch time, coming back from three goals down in the fourth quarter against Canada to go up one in overtime, battling back-and-forth against the Iroquois in the second half after the Iroquois used a 6-0 run to take the lead. The U.S. has showed its potential and ability to come up in big moments. It's just now time to have that sense or urgency for all 80 minutes.

Against the Iroquois, the U.S. focused on getting out to a good start. They did, leading 4-0, but allowed the Iroquois to come back, in part, because of penalties and turnovers. A three-goal spurt in the first four minutes of the third quarter helped the Iroquois run to take a two-goal lead. Against Canada, the U.S. trailed the entire game until tying the score at 7 midway through the fourth quarter. It went up 9-8 in the first OT, but couldn't close it out. The U.S. is 0-3 in games decided by two goals or less, going back to its overtime scrimmage against a group of Philadelphia all-stars. If they don't put away the Iroquois, and potentially Canada, by the mid-fourth quarter, they will have to reverse that trend.

TRANSITION, TRANSITION

The U.S. hasn't gotten many easy goals in this tournament. Aside from three transition goals in the first half of the Iroquois game, goals in unsettled situations have been few and far between. For a team that hangs it hat on having versatile, athletic midfielders who are capable of up tempo play, this is a concern. It's not a matter of if, but when to push.

"In the Canada game we felt like they dictated the tempo of play," said attackman Kyle Keenan, who had two goals and three assists Wednesday against Germany, playing more of a feeder-type role. "We're looking for the right time to push it and the right time to settle down and get long possessions."

STAY OUT OF THE BOX

This is always a focus, but even more so here. Canada and the Iroquois have potent man-up units. Canada was only 1 of 4 the first time around vs. the U.S., but the Iroquois were 4 of 7. There have been a ton of penalties called throughout this tournament on every team, more than I'm used to in the U.S., particularly at the end of scoring plays or for defensive interference. Officials have shown that they will call a penalty at the tail end of a score, on most post-whistle hits on the shooter, even ever so slight. And the timing of these penalties hurts. You go man-down right after giving up a goal. Sometimes, the U.S. has used this to its own advantage on offense, although it's man-up could also use a boost, going 2 of 6 against the Iroquois and 3 for 8 against Canada.

Notre Dame recruit Matt Kavanagh has been Team USA's go-to offensive threat during the FIL U19 World Championships.
© Tero Wester

GET KAVANAUGHTY (AND TAGLIAFERRI)

In the half-field, a bonafide set up man or point-behind attackman has not emerged. Tucker, who sat out Wednesday's game as a precautionary measure with a shoulder injury, dictates a lot of offense from the midfield, but the closest initiator down low has been lefty Matt Kavanagh, who is the team's best finisher (and leading scorer with 16 goals, 6 assists in five games). He normally sets up shop on the right wing, but that could be the good starting point. He's shown an ability to feed the center of the field from that position and find open men, set a pick, as well as an ability to score one-on-one from that spot. Against the Iroquois in the fourth quarter, he took a defenseman one-on-one to cut the lead to 11-10, then to tie the game, he drew two defenders in virtually the same spot and threw a beautiful pass to Tagliaferri on the backside crease for an easy goal. It was instant offense. Kavanagh, a Notre Dame recruit, and Tagliaferri, a California native, North Carolina-bound middie who loves dodging the alleys and is athletic enough to beat most defenders here, had all of the U.S.'s points in the fourth quarter and each finished with four goals.

"[I was] feeding off my teammates like Matt Kavanagh, Ryan Tucker, Sean Mahon and Steve Pontrello, finding my role, hitting shots when I can and moving the ball," Tagliaferri said. "Good things will happen."

As for Kavanagh, I don't think there's a defenseman in the tournament that can limit him all day. If he gets going early, it should open up things for everyone else, and then he could pick his spots when to go to goal himself. In a potential final, getting Canada's big defenders moving around in the zone is key to open up lanes to keep the ball hot. Also watch midfielder Sean Mahon, who scored two goals and hit a pipe on his only three shots against Canada, and contributed greatly the fourth-quarter comeback effort. The U.S. has also been generally unlucky, hitting several pipes in its last three games.

OWN FACEOFFS

This goes for particularly against Canada. So many times in the 11-9 overtime loss, the U.S. won the ball out of the initial faceoff, but did not secure the ground ball and possession. The U.S. maybe had one or two wing ground balls in the first meeting. Canada's starting faceoff guy Jason Lindsay lost four of the first five faceoffs he took and was replaced by Zach Currier, who was very effective. Sometimes it looked like Currier was more interested in knocking the ball away from Charlie Raffa, Tyler Barbarich or Stephen Kelly and waiting for wing help to arrive rather than winning the ball himself. The U.S. will need to adjust to Canada's faceoff and wing play.

"Our guys did a nice job of tying them and trying to scrap for ground balls," Canada coach Taylor Wray said. "For us, face off is a ground ball between two competitors. We're going to get out there and we're going to scrap, right and hopefully win the majority of the possessions."

The U.S. fared batter against the Iroquois, winning 18 of 30 draws with about an even split in wins between Raffa and Barbarich.

DEFEND THE CREASE

Goaltenders Zach Oliveri and Justin Turri have stopped basically most shots that they should have. If they have a chance to see it, there's a good chance they'll save it. But against Canada and the Iroquois, who are all about "that one extra pass," the U.S. defense has paid dearly for not covering off-ball finishers on the crease.

"We fell apart a little bit defensively off-ball," Jahelka said after the Iroquois loss. "They're very good at that, much like the Canadians."

THE GOALIE TANDEM?

Oliveri and Turri have been used in some combination in each of Team USA's three exhibition games and all but one of its tournament games here. Aside from Turri playing all 80 minutes against England while Oliveri rested, Oliveri started every game in Finland and Turri entered off the bench to start the second half -- until Wednesday against Germany. Turri started and Oliveri came in for the second half. Will this continue in the medal rounds?

Both goalies have played well. Oliveri is a great communicator as well a ball-stopper and under normal circumstances, there would be no reason to take him out at the half. But the coaching staff has gone with the tandem approach since the U.S.'s first exhibition, playing Oliveri, a righty, with the lefty Turri. Turri has played remarkably well for coming in cold, has made some spectacular saves and was steady in the second half against Canada in crunch time. Does the tandem approach help or hurt defensive consistency? And/or what rotation will the U.S. staff go with?

DON'T PANIC

The U.S. was one offsides call away from closing out Canada in the second, four-minute overtime period on Saturday. They were up one before the penalty, which gave possession back to Canada and ultimately led to them scoring the final three goals of the game. The U.S. was never able to get the ball back. Against the Iroquois, the U.S. rallied multiple times to tie the game in the second half after it looked like momentum was well in the Iroquois' favor. In short, this thing isn't over yet.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com for live coverage of the USA-Iroquois semifinal at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, and follow LaxMagazine.com/teamusa/u19men and LaxMagazine.com editor Corey McLaughlin on Twitter @Corey_McL for updates throughout the FIL U19 World Championships.


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