June 9, 2014
With a swiss-army-knife set of lacrosse tools at his disposal, Matt Abbott was the subject of plenty of chatter following his solid play at Champion Challenge in January. (Scott McCall)
With a swiss-army-knife set of lacrosse tools at his disposal, Matt Abbott was the subject of plenty of chatter following his solid play at Champion Challenge in January. (Scott McCall)

American Hustle

On a U.S. Men's team featuring some of the biggest names in lacrosse, everyone was talking about Matt Abbott coming out of camp

by Sean Burns | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Want to watch Team USA defend its 2010 FIL World Championships gold this summer? Purchase tickets to the July 10-19 event in Denver at worldlacrosse2014.com

Matt Abbott isn't sure who coined the phrase, but remembers first hearing it during his junior year at Syracuse. Teammates and even some fans started calling him "Human Clear" for his ability to singlehandedly navigate a turbulent sea of players to deliver the ball from one end of the field to the other.

"You know, we had set clears, but it just seemed like when we were out in transition, I'd somehow find my way back to the ball and get the outlet pass," he said. "Then I could always just leg it out."

Seven years later, Abbott no longer wears the orange of the college team for which he, his father Tom (Syracuse '78) and grandfather Larry (Syracuse '52) played, but he's still bringing that do-everything mentality to the lacrosse field.

After helping Syracuse win back-to-back NCAA championships in his junior and senior years, Abbott has spent five seasons with the Chesapeake Bayhawks, who have won three Major League Lacrosse championships in five years since his arrival. Now he's in the running to fill the same role for the U.S. men's team at the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship this summer in Denver.

Things like clearing and blunting opposing midfielders usually don't make headlines. But on a team featuring some of the biggest names in lacrosse, the name on everybody's lips coming out of January's Champion Challenge was Matt Abbott. "No matter what the criteria is, Matt Abbott does more for his team than any player I have ever been around," Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle tweeted. "To replace him, you need two guys."

ESPN broadcaster Quint Kessenich was even more effusive, calling Abbott "the best all-around lacrosse player on the planet. Plain and simple."

Team USA trimmed its roster from 50 to 30 after the US Lacrosse event headlined by a nationally televised Blue vs. White scrimmage. It wasn't that Abbott had some blowout offensive show to draw the praise. He did score once, but it was the usual array of clearing, defense and overall effective play that got everybody talking about him.

Bayhawks teammates Dan Burns and Jeff Reynolds and the LXM Pro Tour's Kyle Harrison joined Abbott as the players to advance in the short-stick defensive midfield group. Besides Harrison, a former Tewaaraton Award winner at Johns Hopkins who's trying to make this U.S. team at a more specialized position, these players traditionally toil in anonymity.

Just like his slightly more glamorized kin, the long-stick midfielder, the shorty has to play airtight defense against another team's top offensive horses, help on faceoff wings, capitalize on potential turnovers by getting the ball off the ground and take advantage of opportunities to push the ball the other way in transition.

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For Team USA, that versatility will be put to the test against teams like Canada — with a much-improved midfield rotation headlined by reigning MLL MVP Kevin Crowley — and the Iroquois Nationals.

"Having a 23-man limited roster creates a higher sense of urgency to be able to keep guys that can do more than one thing," Team USA assistant Jeff Tambroni said. "If you can do one thing and do it well, you make a case for yourself, but I don't know if there's anybody out there at any position that can do more things than Matt Abbott right now."

Cottle has plenty of familiarity with this group, having also coached both Burns and Reynolds at Maryland. He rated Reynolds as the best individual defender of the three, with Burns bringing great energy and showing a keen ability for the slide and recovery that the midfield-happy MLL requires. Harrison is the wild card of the group.

"The same reason Team USA feels that [those players] are valuable is the reason we feel they're valuable," Cottle said. "They all bring something different, but they also understand each other's strengths and weaknesses. And they understand the Canadian players."

So how did Abbott become so well rounded, to the point where he's getting the most hype on a roster filled with some of the biggest names that the game has ever seen? A lot of it started back with his high school career at Nottingham (N.Y.).

"We never had a lot of depth at Nottingham," Abbott said. "I was more offensive-minded than I am now. We didn't really specialize much. Everybody did everything, and that became my path to get on the field at Syracuse too."

After scoring 212 points at Nottingham, Abbott followed in the family footsteps to Syracuse — the only college he seriously considered attending — and played in every game over his four years there, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior in 2009.

Along the way, he picked up a great nickname and assisted one of the craziest plays in NCAA championship history, the "Foxborough Flip" of 2009.

Trailing Cornell by one goal with the final minute ticking away, Syracuse tied the game on a circus-like sequence. After Kenny Nims and Joel White managed to get the ball on the ground rising, Stephen Keogh found Abbott with a pass near the restraining line. Abbott got tied up by multiple Big Red players, but somehow managed to float a pass over Roy Lang's head to a streaking Nims on the crease. Nims scored the tying goal with 4.5 seconds left.

The Orange went on to win the game in overtime on Cody Jamieson's goal.

"It was just one of those plays where a number of things happened the right way for us," he said. "But it's one of those things where if you hustle hard enough, you can create your own luck. If we had a million tries to get that sequence again, we probably couldn't, but I still watch it on YouTube and get goose bumps every time."

Since joining the Bayhawks, Abbott has averaged about a point per game, but he also has led Chesapeake in ground balls in three of his four full seasons with team.

"He does the job of two or three men, and he's totally fine with it being the unheralded things," Cottle said. "The team loves that."

Working in finance and as a part-time assistant coach alongside his brother Mike at Colgate, Abbott said he maintains that hustle by staying on top of the running and fitness program put together for Team USA by coach Jay Dyer.

Having been through the U.S. selection process four years ago — he also made the training team in 2010 was not among the 23 players chosen to travel to Manchester, England — Abbott knows how much it takes to get this far. He just hopes that his Swiss army knife spectrum of skills is enough to get him one step further.

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