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Getting The Launch Back on Track – An Opinion

Written by Lee Roggenburg on . Posted in .
  The season has been a major disappointment so far as the Launch have stumbled to an 0-5 start in the face of higher expectations coming into the season.  In a league that only plays 14 regular season games the minimum target to getting into the playoffs is 8-6.  Rochester and Boston finished tied for 3rd and 4th with that record last season to make the playoffs and this season, right now, it takes a 3-2 record to make the last playoff spot.  And three home games are already played, so any late run is going to mean winning road games.  At New York.  At Ohio this weekend.  At Boston. Frankly, the statistics show that there is a lot of work to do. The Launch are dead last in offense with 56 points (53 goals, of which 3 are 2-pointers) in 5 games played.  Rochester, just ahead of the Launch in the standings, has scored 59 in only four games, as has Charlotte.  Defensively the team has given up 82 points in those 5 games and only Denver has a slightly worse defensive Goals Against Average but they have scored 72 points and found a way to win twice in five games. Eleven points a game with a team with this firepower? Not acceptable. Have the losses been competitive?  Only if you accept the late run in the first game that fell short and relatively close games at Charlotte and Chesapeake.  But the last loss was a rout by an expansion team.  A pretty darn good one, but still in its’ first year. Not acceptable. After that last game the coaching staff was, shall we say, pretty ticked off.  I get to stand near the team bench and I have access to the dressing area outside the door and the anger was palpable.  Some of the players were pretty ticked off too . . . probably all of them.  But I don’t see inside the locker room after the game so I can only assume that.  
  The MLL is among the most exclusive leagues in all of professional sports.  If you have 26 roster players and 9 teams that’s 234 plus other players that are protected due to injury, college, military duty, etc.  Call it about 300. MLB rosters are about 800, NBA is about 450, etc. This is a damn big deal to make a roster and anyone who takes it for granted is cheating their teammates, coaches and most importantly those who pay the money to allow them the opportunity to play.  This is a big commitment in a few ways: keeping yourself in shape without a team structure around you, being willing to get on a plane pretty much every weekend and give up a social life to play for a limited amount of money, and helping to market a sport that does not yet have a firm fan base outside of a few locations. MLL attendance is up this year, even in Florida.  The last two games have been the most attended (by ticket sales) in franchise history.  Florida draws a lot more than Ohio and Rochester but is dwarfed by Boston, which leads MLL at over 7,000 per game. Time to give the fans a better performance.  This market feeds off winning; a playoff run will definitely put a lot more fannies in the seats. Most of the MLL has issues with competition for its’ players.  The indoor NLL has first dibs on the players, not only because the calendar starts earlier but also because the NLL attendance allows them to pay far more compensation.  In 2014 NLL lamented the fact that attendance at an average game fell to about 9,400!  No one in MLL approaches that figure.  
  College tournaments make the availability of top drafted talent spotty.  Liam Byrnes might not have made his debut last game if UNC doesn’t block the game tying effort late four weeks ago.  Top picks Matt Landis and Henry West were not available.  Steve Pontrello and West played Monday in the championship game. That’s all now behind the team.  And when you look at the lineup that dressed against the Atlanta Blaze two Saturdays ago it featured Lyle and Miles Thompson, Casey Powell and Kieran McArdle. There’s a pretty wide disparity so far this season between that foursome. Casey Powell – 5 games played, 8 goals and 10 assists.  Only 19 shots taken.  9 ground balls and 16 turnovers.  Many of those turnovers while having to try to make things happen as a feeder while trailing. Kieran McArdle – 5 games played, 9 goals and 7 assists.  43 shots taken.  6 ground balls and 11 turnovers Lyle Thompson – 2 games played, 2 goals and 1 assist.  12 shots taken.  3 ground balls and 13 turnovers Miles Thompson – 2 games played, 1 goal and no assists.  7 shots taken.  1 ground ball and 5 turnovers  
  And now Owen Blye is back from injury.  In 3 games he has 6 goals on 11 shots.  2 ground balls and only 3 turnovers. As an aside . . . Casey and Kieran have 17 assists total and the rest of the team, in 5 games, has combined for NINE.  This is not winning lacrosse. Last season the Launch traded Kevin Rice as the main piece in the trade with Rochester to acquire Miles Thompson and now Kevin is on Atlanta due to a 6-player trade with Rochester. Kevin Rice, in FOUR games, is second in the MLL in scoring with 26 points, including 19 goals.  Leads the league at points per game with 6.5.  And went 4 goals/2 assists against Florida. Ouch. And he plays in a way that the Launch are missing . . . a quick, change of direction dodger who beats his defender and opens up options. Is it unreasonable to ask the unthinkable?  Has either Thompson earned their starting position?  Not with those numbers. Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger, on defense. Start with the faceoffs. Chris Mattes spent this college season as an assistant coach with Maryland.  Long playoff run.  Not always available.  31 for 55 at the circle/dot/whatever when he played. John Ortolani fills in and has to face reigning MLL kingpin Greg Gurenlian.  Held his own in the first half.  Early in the Atlanta game he injures a knee and struggles the rest of the way.  34 for 86 on the season.  Only 6 ground balls according to league stats so many of those wins comes from the wing play.  Mattes has 16 ground balls for his 31 wins. There’s a qualitative difference there.  More fast break opportunities.  And less wear and tear on the wing players.  
  The GAA is 16.4 per game.  Not many games are won with that number. According to the league’s statistics the Launch have committed 73 turnovers and only caused 22.  Of course not all turnovers are caused.  In 5 games Chesapeake’s numbers are 76 and 39 while Denver is 76 and 33.  The defense is not causing a lot of turnovers and that means better looks on goal for the other team’s offense. The team decided to go with a split goalie system this season with Austin Kaut and Brett Queener.  So far the stats show that to be a failure in the won-loss record more than in raw data.  Matt Poulion was forced into action for one game due to an injury in pre-game warmups against NY and was lit up for 21 goals against.  Kaut has played about 175 minutes and given up 45 goals even though the league shows him with a save percentage of .554.  Queener has played 65 minutes, given up 13 goals and has a save percentage of .567. With save percentages like those you would think the defense would be set.  But the goals given up have, to be fair, been pretty head-scratching at times.  To be honest, some have been bad goals, at bad times in a game.  And when you look at the games you have to admit there’s been a number of open looks in front that are just too easy for the defense to give up. Defensively Tucker Durkin continues to perform at his high level but the injury to Ken Clausen really hurt as he was counted on to fill a need.  Clausen and Durkin combined for 31 groundballs so far.  Casey Ikeda was lost in the expansion draft and his role on the wing on faceoffs has been taken by Pat Frazier.  But there is still a need to find that complimentary piece to play with Durkin and Matt Landis pretty much needs to fill it as soon as possible.  Landis got banged up late in the Notre Dame loss to UNC and is recovering so it is week to week for him now.  Liam Byrnes showed great promise in his first game and Coach Ross will face a decision as to whether to go with Byrnes at close defense when most of his college career was as a long stick middie. Special team numbers are middle of the pack league-wide. To give the readers a perspective, first place Ohio has the following stats:  64 turnovers and 50 caused, an 87% penalty kill (the Launch are 64%).  Looks like they make you earn everything on offense.  
  ———————-   So where do we stand? This team needs to go 8-1 to end the season to make a playoff push.  Not impossible but not likely either.  Which raises the question of whether the Launch need to make some hard decisions about the rest of the year.  Look to be respectable in the second half or prepare for 2017. There really is no easy middle path that accomplishes both.  The last two college drafts has been rich in talent but not all of it is still here and much of this year’s draft has not stepped onto a field yet. Another possible question to ask is can this offensive collection of ball carriers find a chemistry together?  Last year they came together late in the year and frankly I thought the ‘learning curve’ would have been smaller the second time around.  Casey has already announced this is his last year and I see no reason to doubt him at age 40.  And even with his level of play, which is remarkable for that age, he can’t be relied upon for a 60-minute game in the climate of South Florida. Does the team need to pick a direction?  Kieran McArdle is available from day one of a season and Lyle Thompson made his debut in game four only because his team was eliminated from the NLL playoffs.  Who do you build around? As another aside . . . anyone who has been around the sport for a while can see that there is an imbalance between ball carriers and off ball movers in this group.  Never thought I’d mention this but the offense needs someone who can take advantage of a slide by filling a gap behind the slide and no one right now is comfortable doing that except for Miles and he is not getting into position enough.  Past Launch players like Kevin Cunningham filled that role.  The offense needs someone even to just change up the look and widen the options.  Devin Dwyer, the pick from Harvard is that type of player too but there seems to be little urgency there.  Fans need to remember that just because a player has been drafted that player might well decide to skip on a pro career and just get on with their work life.  That’s a dynamic that you rarely see in other pro leagues.  I listened to the Coaches Conference Calls today and one of them mentioned how they won’t draft a player who majors in Finance.  An interesting insight. One thing that also stands out as I watch the games is that there is not a lot of breakaway speed on this team and it really stands out in clears leading to fast breaks and to a lesser extent getting back on defense against the break.  This league puts a premium on a two-way middie who can score and the Launch really don’t have that commodity.  Connor Buczek is really effective offensively, both on dodging down the alley as well as the trail option on the break but is not really strong on the defensive side of the ball.  There are a number of defensive middie options but none of the middies are going to give you more than the odd offensive thrust.  Steve Brooks also gives a 2-point possibility but is now at age 30 and Buczek has started to take over that role.  Brooks has taken 27 shots so far and only 8 have hit the net.  But neither would be considered fast for a middie in this league and over time that has to be addressed.  Charlotte’s John Haus is the prototype of what the team needs and we will see if Henry West can fill that spot.  
  On defense we need to see how a Durkin, Landis and Byrnes trio can gel; if it does then the next step is to address the goaltending longer term.  Brett Queener has had a terrific career but he turns 32 this year and there becomes a point where you need to think longer term.  Kaut is only 24 but has only played 13 games in his MLL career.  Gunnar Waldt was drafted out of Bryant and had quite a good college pedigree but after watching this league for a number of years I can confidently say playing goal in this league is an acquired taste and not a lot can handle it.  But still, this team also drafted Niko Amato and traded for Charlie Cipiriano and neither is still here.  Matt Poulion was an emergency call up from NY and did not look like a long term solution either.  Waldt needs to be given a shot to see if he can be put in the mix.  While preparing for this article I looked at the available goalies not currently under contract to a team and one name that stood out was former Army goalie Sam Somers.  Somers has military obligations but I thought very highly of him at Army in his college days and maybe he could get a look down the line. The midfield needs some overhauling.  At faceoff Mattes just turned 28 and Ortolani turns 30 in a week.  The Launch did not draft a FOGO specialist either this year or last and that might need to be a focus in the 2017 draft.  Missing Mattes during the playoff run for Maryland has definitely hurt and the Launch cannot go into next year exposed on the roster like this if Chris reprises his coaching again next year as Maryland will be favored to make a deep run again. Defensive middie has a lot of depth but there is no one All Star defensive middie on the team.  Isaiah Davis-Allen of Maryland is a senior next year and he might well be a target for next year’s draft.  Buczek is rapidly establishing himself as a star in this league and it would be good to pair him with a fast player who can clear and pull out defenders for a trailing Buczek to get open looks.  Steve Pontrello was that type of player until he was moved to attack for UNC this past season and no one questions his speed.  That is a combo looking for a chance to pair up.  Put either Lao-Gosney with them and you have a nicely balanced group and Lao-Gosney can stay on the field on defense.  Another player who currently is not on a roster who impressed in the defensive middie role in the past was Pat Laconi; maybe he can get a look too.  
  The tough part comes down on who are the depth players on the midfield.  With the Durkin/Byrnes/Landis/Clausen grouping at close defense (don’t overlook Robbie Haus down the line either) there is less room for long poles specializing on the faceoff wings.  Byrnes fits well if he ends up as LSM and Pat Farrell or PT Ricci can specialize on that but roster limitations make a middie capable of playing the wing a necessity and either the Lao-Gosney route or Jovan Miller might be best suited for that.  Where Henry West eventually fits in is also open but one thing he showed in the NCAA playoffs this season was a keen vision in passing and the Launch certainly could use that from the midfield. One more consideration is whether Steve Pontrello can play a hybrid role and also fill in on attack.  If he can that opens up another possible avenue of adding another middie and not replacing Casey next season.  If that doesn’t work there is a kid named Dylan Malloy waiting to play his senior season next year and he would give the Launch a rarity in this league, a physical and versatile attacker who has great vision and can get his shot off in a phone booth. Right now the Launch would draft first overall.  They still have their second round pick, 2 3rds and 2 4ths.  Plenty of ammunition to rebuild the roster and find some roster solutions to cover for next year’s possible early season holes. Tough decisions are coming up.  0-5 starts will do that. Stay tuned.