COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — In his excellent preview of the gold-medal game, Brian Shanahan explained that in 1978, the Canadians needed (and got) a miracle in order to beat the Americans. In 2006, they were simply a better team. In 2014, they would need to play a perfect game.
Asked whether Canada played a perfect game on the field after an 8-5 win, assistant coach Gary Gait said, “Yes, I think we did.” It was a sentiment several folks around the Canada camp shared: They were glad not to have to win a best-of-seven series against the United States, but knew that there was a clear path to a gold medal if they executed their game plan flawlessly.
But how did the game unfold? Why did the U.S. lose?
1. Either the offense didn’t get good looks, or players didn’t can their shots early
It depends on your perspective.
The United States took 30 shots Saturday, nine in the first quarter. Canadian goalkeeper Dillon Ward made three saves, which means six shots went wide.
The pro-U.S. crowd got used to sounding a chorus of “Ooooh”s when one shot after another went just past the pipe or just over the crossbar.
Those were tone-setting plays U.S. coach Richie Meade acknowledged could have totally altered the course of the game. One notable moment came at the start of an end-to-end sequence when Max Seibald, who was held scoreless on six shots, unleashed a beautiful right-handed sidearm shot on the run while sweeping across the top of the box. The effort hit the pipe.
A goal would’ve opened the scoring shortly before the 11:00 mark, and the Americans might have been off and running. Paul Rabil (Johns Hopkins) had a left-handed shot on the run that he put just wide, and Garrett Thul missed a shot in the slot to the left of the cage.
The inability to finish those plays and others was the biggest reason Canada was able to establish a pace to the game, which compounded the Americans' issue of not being able to seize momentum from the start. By the time Kevin Leveille got the United States on the board, they were already in a slugfest. And when the Americans seized momentum in the second half of the fourth quarter — partly the result of desperation — there simply wasn’t enough time left. Shooters began to press, again losing their touch.
2. “The defense was built to stop the U.S. offense”
That’s what one member of the Canadian contingent said after the game, noting that U.S. close defenders Tucker Durkin (Johns Hopkins), Mike Evans and Lee Zink (Maryland) are at their best when playing the ball behind the cage, something Canada wasn’t very interested in doing. In Matt Abbott (Chesapeake Bayhawks), Kyle Harrison (Johns Hopkins, Friends) and Dan Burns (Maryland, Severna Park), the United States had short-stick defensive midfielders who were exceptionally fast, but it needed more of a ground-ball presence in the interior of the defense.
Canda won the ground-ball battle 35-22, and many of those came between the restraining boxes. However, several important ones — including one that led to Kevin Crowley’s second goal — came in the U.S. defensive zone.
Heading into 2010, there was a strong emphasis from the U.S. team to bring personnel adept at defending the two-man game, which had come into vogue in college lacrosse as well.
Defending two-man games wasn’t the issue Saturday: Dave Pietramala’s system of attacking picks has shown to be pretty effective, and Canada didn’t run many two-man games. Offensive coordinator Matt Brown’s offense is more motion oriented, emphasizing attacking on the back side, passing on the move and feet-set shooting off the catch.
Another loss in the title game, even if it was one in which the United States gave up just eight goals, calls to mind the issue of preparing for foreign and divergent styles, maybe setting up the conversation for what the United States will do over the next four years.
3. They weren’t ready at the opening whistle
Meade said afterward that he was disappointed his team didn’t come out of the gate with more energy, and it’s hard to ignore whether the Americans’ extended time between competitive games undercut their ability to make plays in the first quarter.
Whereas the Iroquois Nationals played Canada tough in pool play and gave it a competitive game in the semifinals, the bronze medalists didn’t put a scare into the United states, whose 22-3 win over Australia in the semifinals also offered little more than preparation than a walk-through. That meant that it had been nine days since the United States' three-goal win over Canada to open the tournament. That’s a long time to keep an edge sharp.
Canada’s win extends this series’ streak of “Lose in pool play, win in the title game” to three. The expression is: “Two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend.” There’s something to the idea that the loser of the first U.S.-Canada game wins the rematch because of the added focus taken from the initial setback.
The defeat was a disappointing outcome for a U.S. team that had been remarkably dominant on its home soil leading up to that point. But whereas Canada needed to play a “perfect” game, the United States didn’t play a wholly imperfect game. It simply allowed Canada to execute to perfection.