August 19, 2009

Fourth Pole? MLL Does Not Miss a Beat

by Corey McLaughlin | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

What do you think about the fourth long pole in the MLL?
Love it, great battles between the lines.
Ditch it, go back to the high-octane offense.
Does not matter either way.

View Results

Purists got their wish this season when Major League Lacrosse allowed four long poles on the field for the first time in the league's nine-year history. But how much of real impact did the rule change have on the game?

With the regular season finished and championship weekend up next, now seems an appropriate time to take a look.

Scoring dropped slightly, from 14.78 goals per game in 2008 to 13.96 this season. The drop in scoring can be attributed to the rule change. Contraction from 10 to six teams also played a role as it helped concentrate better defenders onto fewer teams. But the overall level of offenses also increased, so the impact of contraction on scoring is a wash. The biggest difference from last year to this year is the addition of the fourth long pole.

But game plans haven't really changed all that much. The top long stick defenders are still assigned to the top midfielders. The only difference is that now another long stick defender can stay on an off ball, non-dodging attacker, which typically didn't happen in the past. Says Boston Cannons longstick Kyle Sweeney: "In the past, I'd bump up to the best middie and [we would] just short stick their crease attackman. So it is still the same concept but just with a defenseman on the crease guy."

It was anticipated that the rule change would limit scoring from midfielders, and to an extent that happened, but not to the top middies. The elite midfielders still put up points -- many points. Paul Rabil, a midfielder, is the league leader with 53. Joe Walters and Kyle Dixon each have more than 40 points. Beyond them, however, there is somewhat of a noticeable decrease from last season. This season, zero middies scored between 31-40 points, five had between 21-30 points, and 15 were between 11-20 points. By comparison in 2008, five scored between 31-40 points, 11 between 21-30 points and 14 between 11-20 points. Scoring among the elite midfielders didn't go down, but production among the second-level group did.

The change has most greatly impacted substitutions, team defenses and play in the middle of the field. The most obvious change is probably more on-the-fly substitutions. Also, college LSMs can now continue their role in MLL. Beyond that, Denver coach Brian Reese says he's seen a lot better slides and second slides because of the fourth pole, and that play between the offensive zones has become more intense. "I noticed the change in the first game of the season," Reese says. "It really seemed like clearing and riding were much more prevalent than in the past. Previously, it would be pretty easy for a middie to just run out an easy clear. With the long stick, the middle of the field got a lot more competitive."

However, overall, the rule change hasn't altered the game too much. "I thought it was a bad idea when it was introduced and I now think it's a non-event," says Toronto Nationals coach Dave Huntley. "If we really want to make a meaningful change we should follow basketball and have faceoffs go the way of the jump ball."

Here's one certainty: The MLL rule change aligned the game with college and high school levels. Some, like Huntley, say this is not a good development if the league wants to make the game more appealing to fans. Others think it is. "It has certainly helped manage the scores," says Toronto Nationals longstick Brodie Merrill. "In the past, some scores were getting a little out of hand. I think fans like scoring, but also appreciate good defense. The fourth pole allows for more balance. It also provides the fans with a more traditional style of lacrosse."

The rule change did not destroy the product on the field by any means. Look for four long poles to return to MLL next year.

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