June 8, 2009

Team USA Tryouts, Day One: Saving Face

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Faceoff specialist Chris Eck (No. 25) battles counterpart Alex Smith for possession Monday during the first day of tryouts for the 2010 U.S. men's team.

SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- Alex Smith's frustration snowballs with each unsuccessful retreat to the sideline.

"Sorry boys," he moans after losing a faceoff.

"It's alright," Paul Rabil assures Smith. "There'll be another one."

Following a Steven Brooks goal, Smith is back in faceoff position, wrestling with Chris Eck. Smith's lack of familiarity with Eck shows. Eck wins again.

"I haven't gotten beat like this since high school," Smith says.

"You gotta get it out of your head," Rabil says. "There'll be another one."

There were 114 faceoffs taken Monday during the first day of tryouts for the 2010 U.S. men's team at Bryant University, with each one scrutinized and charted by Team USA faceoff consultant Paul Cantabene, among others.

Eighty-four players are vying for 40 spots on the team's exhibition roster with hopes of ultimately being among the 23 players tasked with restoring U.S. supremacy when the FIL world championships reconvene next year in Manchester, England. After two tryout sessions of two games apiece Monday, there will be two more Tuesday and a final session Wednesday before the 40-man roster is announced.

Team USA opted not to carry a faceoff specialist in 2006, favoring more versatile midfielders. Antagonist Geoff Snider had his way with the faceoff by committee and sparked Canada to a victory over the U.S. in the gold medal match -- only the second time in history Team USA has failed to win the world championship.

Four years later, the search for a dominant faceoff specialist has put Smith, Eck, Anthony Kelly and Peter Vlahakis under a particular spotlight here in Smithfield, R.I.

"It's close, real close," said Cantabene, the Stevenson University head coach who is considered one of the game's all-time great faceoff gurus. "We're looking for guys who can improve as the game goes on and adjust, who work well and communicate with their wingmen."

Monday's first session primarily pitted Smith against Vlahakis and Eck against Kelly.

Smith, the NCAA's all-time leading faceoff specialist at Delaware and currently leading the MLL as a member of the Washington Bayhawks, corralled 16 of 28 faceoffs against Vlahakis (Long Island Lizards) and company. Vlahakis went 13-for-29.

Eck (Boston Cannons) outdueled Kelly (Chicago Machine) in their matchup, with Eck going 9-for-17 and Kelly going 9-for-20.

In the second session, Eck bested Smith and won 18 of 29 faceoffs, while Vlahakis (13-for-21) and Kelly (8-for-22) had their timing compromised by several procedure violations.

Kevin Cassese, Doug Shanahan, John Glynn, Max Seibald and Stephen Peyser also took faceoffs, but the bulk of the reps went to the Eck-Kelly-Smith-Vlahakis foursome. Kelly, nicknamed "A-Train," and Vlahakis present a size advantage, while Eck and Smith are more tactical specialists.

"It's highly competitive. We have some insane talent here," said Eck, a 2008 Colgate graduate. "Some guys really focus on what they're doing; some guys focus on what the other guy's doing and try to enhance themselves... I try to be a smart faceoff guy, not just a force guy. I'm constantly taking mental notes."

Eck received a late invitation to tryouts as a replacement for Andy Corno.

"I was disappointed that I wasn't originally invited, but a shot's a shot," he said. "I'm here now."

Cantabene and other members of the player selection committee have also examined specific specialist-wingmen combinations. The committee includes several figures, like BJ O'Hara and Pat McCabe, whose familiarity with the MLL led Smith to intimate that the search for a dominant faceoff specialist could stem beyond these tryouts.

"The real tryouts are against Toronto," Smith said of the MLL's Nationals, whose Canadian-rich roster includes one future opponent of note. "Who can beat Snider?"

Knee injury sidelines Curtis

Defenseman Ryan Curtis, a member of the 2006 U.S. team who was not among the original 84 invitees but joined tryouts as a replacement for injured Zac Jungers, suffered a suspected torn ACL and potentially torn MCL in Monday's first session.

Sidelined for the remaining tryouts, Curtis can still qualify for the 40-man exhibition roster -- as can the 12 original invitees who could not make tryouts due to preexisting injuries or personal obligations.

Polanco posts despite injury

Nicky Polanco, nursing an injured MCL, observes tryouts at Bryant University.

Nicky Polanco, a highly active and visible leader of the 2006 U.S. team and previously an alternate in 2002, could not participate in tryouts due to an injured MCL.

But that did not keep the vocal defenseman from making the trip up from Long Island.

Polanco, the only injured invitee to attend tryouts despite being physically unable to perform, said he spoke with Team USA coaches to reaffirm his dedication to making the team.

Polanco cited head coach Mike Pressler's opening speech to the 84 players Sunday as proof that he belongs. Pressler took a no-nonsense approach and emphasized the importance of role players in his address.

"In 2006, there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. I'm just an Indian, man. Tell me what I gotta do, and I'll do it," Polanco said. "It's all about character... I'm not just going to make this team -- I'm going to be the captain of this team."

Polanco expects to return to action for the Long Island Lizards on Saturday.

Powell, minus brothers, impresses

Ryan Powell is flying solo and letting his play speak for itself.

After netting two goals and an assist in Monday's first session, Powell tore up the second session with four goals and three assists. He had a hand in each of his team's first six goals, including a nifty, Derek Jeter-like backhand flip to a streaking Brandon Corp for one goal.

Powell, who is taking the MLL season off following another successful NLL campaign with the soon-to-relocate Portland LumberJax, is the lone Powell brother trying out. Casey, Mikey and Ryan Powell were teammates for the first time on the 2006 U.S. team, a much-publicized union of the fan favorites. Casey Powell was a team captain.

"I know Mike's very serious about his music. That's his decision," Powell said. "A lot of people have been asking about CP here, but I don't know."

Powell, 31, cited redemption for 2006 as his primary motivation for returning.

"I'm hungry to get the gold back. It's very disappointing to be on the squad that went there and won the silver," he said. "I do think about the gold medal and the fact that the USA doesn't have that. When I get geared up to go out for one of these sessions, I do think about that. I'm hungry and aware of it."

News and notes

Fatigue was a factor for the 22 members of the Chicago Machine and Denver Outlaws trying out for Team USA. Denver defeated Chicago, 15-11, on Sunday. Players from both teams did not arrive in Smithfield until midnight. Monday's first session was at 9 a.m... Prior to the tryout, Outlaws defenseman Tom Garvey was invited as a late replacement for John Gagliardi, who injured his back... Blake Miller, Matt Ward and Brandon Corp netted three goals apiece to lead first-session scorers. Ryan Powell and Ryan Boyle netted four goals apiece to lead second-session scorers... Mickey Jarboe made eight saves in each of his halves in the cage. Kip Turner made 10 saves in the day's top goalie performance... Tryouts resume Tuesday with games from 9-11:50 a.m. and from 6:30-9:20 p.m.

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