Dallas Outlaws midfielder Sam Handley

How Denver Outlaws are unlocking Sam Handley in Year 2

By Topher Adams | Jun 5, 2024

Sam Handley was supposed to be the guy in last year’s college draft. In a class dominated by defensemen, Handley stood out as the best offensive piece available. His massive frame and college production made him one of the best midfield prospects in years.

But in Year 1, he didn’t often look like a special prospect. Handley finished his rookie year with an average stat line of nine goals, a two-pointer and three assists in nine games. But the underwhelming production wasn’t an indictment on Handley’s talent, just a reflection of circumstance.

On a personal side, Handley was burnt out last year. After playing a full college season, he jumped in with Chrome and was expected to be a game-changer right away. Handley is now fresher and ready to go after a full offseason.

“He's a different guy this year,” Denver Outlaws head coach and general manager Tim Soudan said after Sunday’s 16-11 loss to the Carolina Chaos. “He's fresh, he's mentally there. He’s in a good spot.”

A revitalized Handley is also playing in an Outlaws offense that is better equipped to maximize his talents. Though Denver lost its season opener, Handley finally looked like the two-time All-American the Outlaws drafted a year ago.

Handley tied his career high for points with four (3G, 1T), and more importantly, he set a new career high with eight shots. Denver was able to get Handley more looks and more dangerous opportunities to create. 

That’s thanks to matchups.

Opposing defenses swarmed Handley with long-pole matchups a year ago, and he struggled. He shot just 5.6% (1-for-18) against poles, but he did well against short sticks. Handley shot 36.4% (8-for-22) against short sticks last year, which is on par with the best midfield shooters in the world.

Against Carolina, Denver let Handley attack those favorable matchups more often. Two of Handley’s goals came when he got to dodge one-on-one against a short-stick defensive midfielder, the Chaos’s Zach Geddes.

Geddes is a good player, but he was no match for the 6-foot-5 Handley barreling downhill. 

Personnel played a big role in generating more short-stick looks for Handley. Denver started first overall pick Brennan O’Neill alongside Handley in the midfield for most of the game. O’Neill needed a long pole, and that forced Carolina to either short-stick Handley or double-pole the midfield.

Double-poling did stifle Handley -- some of his worst plays of the game came against the Chaos’s Will Bowen -- but that allowed attackmen Cross Ferrara and Jack Myers to attack against short sticks. 

Allowing Handley to dodge short sticks isn’t the only thing Denver did well against Carolina. The Outlaws also created step-down opportunities for their second-year star.

Last season, Handley had 12 assisted shots in nine games. Through one game this year, he already has four. Adding more dodging threats like O’Neill allows Handley to be more of a shooter, giving Denver the field spacing it desperately needs from midfield. 

O’Neill has so much scoring gravity that when he draws a short stick or wins his matchup up top, the defense has to react. That creates open looks for Handley to uncork a rocket from range.

Building on this relationship with Handley and O’Neill should be the bedrock of the Outlaws’ offensive game plan moving forward. These are the cornerstone pieces, and in Week 1, we saw glimpses of how they can make each other better. 

In the future, we can see more two-man games and big-little sets to create mismatches and space for O’Neill and Handley to get downhill.

The next step for Handley and the Denver offense is unlocking more playmaking ability. Handley finished his college career with 90 assists, and he drew comparisons to Myles Jones, one of the best midfield passers of the last decade.

Jones is able to create early offense for his teammates with his vision and willingness to take risks with his passing. 

Maybe Handley’s playmaking will never look quite like Jones’, but he proved at Penn that he has the vision to turn his scoring gravity into opportunities for teammates. Improved ball movement and cohesion throughout the offense will improve this for Handley, as well.

When the ball was moving against Carolina, Handley was able to create shot opportunities and hockey assists for teammates. 

Denver needs to find its offensive leaders early in the season. Even the offenses that share the ball the most have their alphas (Jeff Teat with the New York Atlas, Tom Schreiber with the Utah Archers). Handley should be one of the Outlaws’ go-to weapons, and it’s finally looking like that’s happening.