December 20, 2013

Many American Stars Opt Out of NLL for 2014

by Sean Burns | | Twitter

Several American stars, among them Paul Rabil and Mitch Belisle, are not playing professional indoor lacrosse in 2014. (Minnesota Swarm Photo)

For fans of both Team USA and the National Lacrosse League, this week's announcement of final rosters for the upcoming season left a few pretty big question marks. Names like Rabil, Hartzell, Snider and Belisle -- fixtures in years past -- were missing.

All told, of the 11 players in the final stages of U.S. men's team selection for the 2014 FIL World Championship who either played in the NLL last season or were drafted this year, just three -- Colorado Mammoth forward Drew Westervelt, Philadelphia Wings defender Kyle Sweeney and teammate Garrett Thul -- are on active rosters to start the year. Two others -- Brendan Mundorf and Max Seibald -- are listed on Philadelphia's Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning they are injured and not expected to participate, at least initially.

The rest of the players are either on their team's protected list or are restricted free agents, meaning that teams hold their rights but do not have them on their active or inactive rosters.

"We're in a unique year," said Wings co-owner Brad Brewster, whose team has had a high number of American-born players on its roster in each of the past several seasons as well as the typical stable of Canadian products like captain Brodie Merrill.

"Generally speaking, having the World [Championship] this summer, players know they have tryouts, and it almost adds another season to things when they've already got a full dance card."

The Wings have a similar number of Americans as in years past -- 13 on the roster announced Monday and approximately 30 who came through their free agent camp prior to cut-downs -- but some of the bigger names are not expected to play in 2014 at all.

For the players, the reasoning was varied as to why they said they were opting out of 2014's indoor season. Injuries were certainly a factor. Mundorf and Seibald being on the PUP list is indicative of this fact, while Rabil had surgery to repair torn abdominals in the fall. For others, staying fresh for Champion Challenge in January – after which the final 23-man U.S. roster for Denver will be chosen – was part of the decision. There is also the overlap between the NLL and MLL seasons. The NLL regular season ends the same weekend the MLL season starts and players in the indoor playoffs can miss extended MLL time. Others simply moved their homebases and it became less convenient to make it to practices and games.

"If it had been just one of the several things, I would have played," said Swarm defender Mitch Belisle, who has a wedding to plan and increased job responsibilities at Trilogy Lacrosse in addition to the Team USA and MLL complications. "I could have participated in both Team USA and the NLL, no problem, but while no one thing was a deal-breaker, all of them combined forced me to make a tough choice."

Recent draft picks Tucker Durkin and Rob Pannell, both selected by the Wings and hopefuls for Team USA, also opted out of the 2014 season, deciding in advance of tryout camp to focus on Team USA.

Ultimately, there was no decree from the U.S. men's coaching staff discouraging players from participating in the NLL this year. Team USA coach Richie Meade said that they only requested that players be available the weekend of Champion Challenge (Jan. 24-26).

"A lot of the players on several of the teams want the same thing," Meade said. "The Canadians, the Iroquois and the American team all have similar issues. Everybody is on the same page."

For Garrett Thul, the lone Team USA hopeful and NLL newcomer this season, the decision to participate was an easy one. "I think playing box is going to make me a better field player, with my handle and my off-ball play," he said. "I understand some guys are worried about getting banged up, but the way I play in field is a lot like how people play indoors, so that physicality works for me."

The possibility for any of these players to participate if they choose later exists, whether they make the U.S. roster or not, and most players indicated that they had no intention of hanging up their turf shoes indefinitely. And the league certainly won't mind welcoming them back if and when they do so.

"We're big supporters of the national teams and try to accommodate tryouts as much as possible," Brewster said. "We're invested in American players and we're just lucky to be in a place where we have a lot of good players to choose from."

-LM Assistant Editor Corey McLaughlin contributed to this article.

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