Five Keys to Victory in the 2023 Cash App Championship
By Sarah Griffin | Sep 24, 2023
It all comes down to Philly.
“I do feel like at the end of the day, the two best teams are playing in the championship and that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan said following the team’s victory over the Cannons on Long Island.
The reigning champs split the regular season series with the Archers 1-1, both resulting in one-goal thrillers. The two most well-balanced rosters in the league, there’s no shortage of storylines in the biggest game of the season.
While the Waterdogs look to go back-to-back, the Archers enter Subaru Park in their first ever championship appearance. In a battle of repeating history versus making history, one thing is for certain: Sunday afternoon is going to be must-watch lacrosse.
The Five Components to Victory
1. A battle of the Canadians between the pipes
Ward’s professional accolades speak for themselves: 2014 World Games MVP and gold medalist, 2022 NLL Finals MVP and champion, and of course - 2022 PLL champion.
Following in his footsteps, Dobson has his sights set on a winning career like Ward’s, and the 23-year old has the opportunity to ignite the start of his legacy this Sunday. All he has to do is outplay his role model.
“There’s always the young buck chasing the stalwart, the vet, who he’s looked up to,” Archers head coach Chris Bates told Lauren Merola. “I like the subplot.”
In his first year as a starter, there’s never been a question of confidence when it comes to Dobson. Right out the gate he found his stride opening weekend in Albany, making 16 saves against what turned into be the best offense in the league in the Cannons.
As is the case for any young buck, Dobson had his share of learning moments throughout the season, but how can you not stay confident when you’re backed by the most effective defensive unit in the game?
Like all good young athletes, he only got better as the year went on, and the Archers goalie came to play on the big stage. He tied his season best in saves with 19 stops and a 78.3% save percentage against the Redwoods in the semifinals, making him the most effective goaltender in that playoff round.
To no surprise, Dillon Ward wasn’t far behind him with a 72.2% save percentage against the Cannons, stopping 13 shots.
Everything has come together for the Waterdogs over the course of the last month in terms of getting guys healthy, but even with some key players out of the lineup, they continued to win.
While a number of factors contribute to the ‘Dogs winning culture, there’s one major detail you can’t overlook: they’re undefeated when Ward is in net.
6-0 in the regular season and now 2-0 in the postseason, the guy knows how to win. But most importantly - he knows how to win against the Archers. Ward made 16 stops against the Archers in Salt Lake City to help lead his team to overtime victory; he’s built for big moments.
Sunday is no doubt going to be a showcase of offensive starpower, but to me (and likely every Canadian PLL fan), the goaltending clinic we’re in store for could be the real show.
2. The faceoff question
As Nick Zoroya put it, Sunday afternoon will be a clash of old school versus new school when it comes to the faceoff stripe.
Rookie Mike Sisselberger dominated this year with an 86% faceoff percentage versus the Waterdogs. Unfortunately, that number actually doesn’t mean much.
The ‘Dogs employ a “two-headed monster” as Zoroya puts it when it comes to the faceoff. LSM Eli Gobrecht starts the game playing a “prevent style” to concede the clamp and force his opponents to play with the 32-second shot clock. Gobrecht’s immediate role is to keep Sisselberger from capitalizing in transition. From there, he and the Waterdogs aim to play settled defense while also eating up time with the shortened clock.
As the game progresses, Coach Copelan then puts in the best two-way player in the game in midfielder Zach Currier at the stripe. Currier’s the last guy you want to be in a ground ball battle with, face-off specialist or not. Even if Sisselberger wins the clamp, you don’t want to be one-on-one with him. He’s disruptive, he’s aggressive, and if you give him the chance, he can turn things right around and capitalize in transition with ease.
As mentioned, these teams went 1-1 against each other in the regular season. There’s not going to be any surprises at the faceoff stripe on Sunday; both sides know what strategy to expect from one another. It all comes down to who executes their plan better.
3. Connor Fields’ usage or, lack thereof
After coming out of the semifinals game versus the Redwoods with an injury, Archers attackman Connor Fields was listed as doubtful to play on Wednesday in the Championship injury report.
I don’t think it needs to be said, but this would be a huge loss for the Archers offense. An Attackman of the Year nominee, Fields leads the Archers in 1-point goals (28) and points (39). He’s a late shot clock cheat code and boy does he put defenses in a bind. So the question is: do you risk playing him with an injury in the most important game of the season, or is it next man-up?
While I’m neither Coach Bates or Connor Fields so I can’t answer that question, if they do decide to go with the next man-up, there’s no need to panic for the Archers.
With Fields listed on the 19-man roster, they’re also carrying Reid Bowering as an attackman on the reserve in case Fields doesn’t play. Though he hasn’t seen any playing time this season, he’s slotting into an ideal offense: one led by MVP Tom Schreiber.
I’ll get into the specifics of the Archers powerhouse offense in a moment, but while the loss of Fields would indeed be a huge blow, they have more than enough weapons on attack and in the midfield. No one is asking Bowering to put up Fields’ production, though, I don’t think anyone would be mad if he did.
And if Fields does play? Well, Dillon Ward and the Waterdogs defense better be ready. Fields has gotten the best of the ‘Dogs this season; with a 5-point game shooting 30% against Matt DeLuca in July, and then a 6-point game shooting 60% against Ward in August, he’s played his best against them.
Connor Fields’ presence, or lack thereof, is going to be a game-changer for both teams either way.
4. Archers offensive starpower versus a staunch Waterdogs defense
That being said, with or without Connor Fields, this Archers lineup is scary.
O’Keefe was the new kid on the block at training camp after signing with the Archers in free agency, and he’s been as advertised. The young midfielder was always good with Chaos, but his talents have really been unleashed with the Archers.
“If your hands are free, I’m never going to tell you not to shoot,” Coach Bates told O’Keefe ahead of the second game this season.
He’s versatile, he’s accurate, and he’s unpredictable - a goalie’s nightmare. Ranking second in the regular season in scoring points with 30 (22 1-point goals, 4 2-point goals), O’Keefe’s been riding a season-long high, most recently with a hat trick in the semifinals.
“Without a doubt, I consider him one of the best shooters in the pro game,” Bates told Jerome Taylor.
Taylor spoke to goalies throughout the league about their approach facing O’Keefe. One proved Bates’ point perfectly: “Similar to basketball, [he’s] like a stretch shooter… Got to get a hand in his face the whole time, don't let him get comfortable on the picks, go over the top of the ball screens and stuff like that so he can't get his hands free to shoot.”
It also doesn’t hurt O’Keefe’s been reunited with his Penn State teammate Grant Ament, who since moving back to his natural position of attack has been a straight up baller “back in 2021 form,” as Zach Carey put it.
“A fully healthy Ament is one of the most dynamic players in professional lacrosse, and the Archers were already the best team in the league before he found his groove again,” Carey said. “Now that he’s comfortable and at full strength again within an offense that knows how to cater to his skills and has the pieces to support him, the Archers’ offense boasts yet another problem for an opposing defense to solve.”
Again, one of the pieces to support him - literally Tom Schreiber. Nothing else needs to be said.
So how in the world is the Waterdogs defense going to contain this group? I’d say they’re prepared for the challenge.
The Waterdogs held the league’s best offense in the Cannons to just SIX goals in the semifinals. Asher Nolting, Marcus Holman, and Matt Kavanagh all scored one goal each. Matt Campbell and Ryan Drenner were held off the scoresheet entirely.
If that’s not a testament to the efficiency of Dillon Ward and the Waterdogs’ defense, I don’t know what is. SSDM Jake Higgins caused two turnovers, Currier, Gobrecht, Ben Randall, (and even known defensive weapon Michael Sowers) all had one as well. This group isn’t phased by starpower, especially when they’ve got plenty of it on their own.
5. Containing Michael Sowers
Graeme Hossack is the complete package when it comes to a defenseman: he’s physical and aggressive, but as Michael Sowers told Wyatt Miller, “He’s very cerebral, but at the same time he plays his angles well, he’s strong, and I think he’s deceptively fast.”
Hossack held opponents to 3-for-40 shooting (7.5%) as the closest defender this season. But as Miller pointed out, two of those three goals were scored by none other than Sowers.
“Hossack will revisit his toughest cover of the regular season, and their matchup could determine the course of this game,” remarked Miller.
Maybe a not as obvious storyline, Adam Lamberti pointed out the recent trend with the Waterdogs of Sowers scoring relatively easy goals in transition using SSDM picks.
The Waterdogs boast the best shooting percentage in transition in the PLL (40.5%), and the chemistry between Sowers and the SSDMs is an important reason why.
Lamberti described it as a game of cat and mouse and though it’s not exactly rocket science, it’s very hard to defend when the ‘Dogs are pushing in transition.
“The SSDM will have an offensive midfielder on them that doesn’t help the close defender on Sowers,” explained Lamberti. “So when [Matt] Whitcher, [Jake] Higgins, [Christian] Scarpello, or another Waterdogs SSDM sets a pick, the offensive midfielder will ‘velcro’ or stick to the SSDM and leave the close defender fighting through to get to Sowers, which is not ideal given Sowers' quickness.”
Hossack is without a doubt the guy on Sowers when playing settled defense, but this tactic by the Waterdogs continues to force opponents to make tough decisions on the run. Do you put an offensive midfielder like Schreiber or Ambler on him, or let a close defender try and keep up with the fastest feet in the game pushing in transition?
Watch it all play out in the 2023 PLL Cash App Championship on ABC this Sunday at 3PM ET.