Photo courtesy of Dylan Goodman

How the Waterdogs’ crowded midfield unit stacks up

By Wyatt Miller | Jul 26, 2023

The Waterdogs have champaign problems. Sitting at 4-1 and second place in the league, the ‘Dogs have eight starting-caliber midfielders when healthy, but can only dress five or six each week. 

The midfield unit has accounted for 47 of the team’s 99 points halfway through the season, and two-way players like Zach Currier and Ryan Conrad have made their presence known on both ends. We already saw Conrad, who was a top scorer on Team USA, benched last week due to sheer numbers. And as Connor Kelly returns to the lineup, head coach Andy Copelan will have weekly personnel moves to make in a stacked offensive midfield.

“There’s a ton of variables,” Copelan said. “I think it starts with if we are dressing a faceoff guy or not, and then if we choose not to dress a faceoff guy, then you kind of do the 5 o-mid and 4 d-mid type deal, but even within that, it’s not necessarily that black and white.”

There’s no formula to this, and Copelan doesn’t look past the game in front of him. Knowing that, here’s a tiered list of the Waterdogs’ midifielders and what their contributions could look like moving forward:

Tier 1: Lineup Locks

Zach Currier

As a wing on the Waterdogs, Currier’s versatility makes him arguably the most valuable player on the roster. Without a faceoff specialist, the importance of Currier’s job collecting ground balls and causing post-clamp turnovers is at an all-time high. He also owns the team’s highest faceoff percentage (41.7%) in 12 attempts this season and sits at 100% after the clamp. 

Even when they dress one of the young specialists at the stripe, the ‘Dogs’ identity lies in winning gritty loose ball battles and then pushing the pace. That’s Currier’s speciality. Widely considered the best two-way middie in the world, Currier’s value in those transition opportunities is unmatched, not just on the Waterdogs, but throughout the league. He’s irreplaceable.

Connor Kelly

The team leader in total goals and league leader in two-pointers is certainly a must-start when healthy. Kelly’s 9-point performance and two game-winners in three weeks caused his teammates to dub this the “summer of CK.” But after injuries cut his Team USA run short, Kelly is looking to get back in action shortly after the all-star break.

“I think CK is pretty darn close,” Copelan said. “Whether or not we are going to actually dress him this weekend is still TBD… I struggle with taking a little bit of an unnecessary risk with those hamstring things at this stage in the season.”

Whether it’s this week or next, Kelly’s addition will give the ‘Dogs a massive boost in range. His dominance from the outside will open up more dodging and passing lanes, while taking some attention off of Sowers at X, whose shooting percentage has left much to be desired. Kelly’s presence alone is invaluable to this offense.

Jack Hannah

The young gun came out smoking corners against the Whipsnakes last game. After missing the previous three weeks due to injury, Hannah lit up the stat sheet for six points. He got the scoring started in the first, added an assist in the third and then bounced a calculated two-pointer past Brian Phipps. He sat the final three minutes due to a complication with his wrist guard, but Copelan said that “he’ll be in the lineup the rest of the way.”

The 23-year-old also showed some style, throwing no-look passes and getting open looks all over the field. He now owns the seventh-highest point opportunity percentage in the league and ranks first on the team. Attacking the defense with a collection of creative dodges is exactly what Hannah does best, and he hasn’t missed a step. 

“We felt his absence,” Copelan said after Hannah’s return. “Once we got the word that he got the green light to play this week, it was a no-brainer. He just puts so much pressure on a defense when you see him screaming out of the box, the defense kind of gets on their heels.”

Tier 2: Likely Starters (even with a FO)

Jake Carraway

Jake Carraway has officially been relabeled as a midfielder on the Waterdogs’ roster. Before he signed with the team, Carraway was determined to assimilate to Waterdogs culture immediately, and his seamless transition into the midfield has personified that commitment. After playing attack his whole career, Carraway has come out of the box without complaint, and added to his skill set to succeed in the role.

“Making that transition is extremely hard, and just him being selfless… and then producing on top of that, it’s pretty special to watch,” said Kieran McArdle after the win over Chrome. “I walked into the locker room and said to Mikey Sowers, ‘damn, Jake turned the corner. He’s really going to be big for us.’” 

That’s high praise from the team captain, and Carraway’s stats have backed it up. He’s scored 11 points on 8 goals, including a two-bomb, while being active in the pick game and relentless on the ride. As long as he keeps his motor high and his shot fast, it’s hard to imagine Carraway not on the field.

“I always felt like Carraway was athletic enough to play in the midfield,” Copelan said. “He’s scored left alley goals and creative goals and he just puts pressure on the defense in a lot of different ways.”

Thomas McConvey

Thomas McConvey has yet to be unleashed. In two appearances, he’s made three-of-four shots and ranks 11th in the league in point percentage – plus, he’s already shown strengths that are unique to him on the Waterdogs. McConvey’s size combined with a high off-ball IQ is extremely valuable to a team that makes its living on speed and transition prowess. 

The rookie has impressed Copelan already, especially after scoring a clutch goal late against the Whipsnakes. He and McArdle also marveled at McConvey’s size and his ability to use it on settled possessions. He’s literally backing down defenders inside the arc. Nobody else does that. Everyone wants to see what he’s capable of in a larger role, and he'll be dressing a lot going forward. On top of all that, the typical rookie drawbacks don’t seem to apply to McConvey. 

“He’s just like a cool cucumber,” Copelan said. “He can play in big moments, doesn’t try to do too much, plays well within the system, and he’s also in the pick game.” 

Tier 3: On the Bubble

These three players are in jeopardy of being the odd men out in a loaded midfield unit. As the ‘Dogs continue to wade into uncharted waters at the stripe, their weekly roster card will shift based on the matchup. Of the eight potential starters, these are the midfielders who could be affected most by the weekly changes.

Ryan Conrad

It’s hard to believe that Conrad, who accounted for 17 goals in 11 games last season, could have the worst shot percentage over expected (SPOE) in the league (-30.1%). But that’s the reality. Despite scoring 10 goals for Team USA in the World Championship, Conrad hasn’t scored one for the Waterdogs. But Copelan has far from given up on the fifth-year middie, who will play against the Archers this weekend.

“I think we’re a better team when Ryan Conrad’s playing the way that he’s capable of playing,” Copelan said. “Ryan’s going to be back in the lineup this weekend. I’m excited and I know he’s excited too to just kind of work through some of these short term funks, and come out the other side just smelling like roses.”

Scoring nine points in three games, Conrad was arguably the team’s best player in last year’s playoff run, Copelan said. And if he can get back to being the dominant power dodger who helped the ‘Dogs get there, he should be in contention to play every week. How Conrad continues adjusting to the shorter clock will factor into his playing time, as will production from younger players like McConvey and Jeff Conner. Some games, it’s just about the numbers.

Mikie Schlosser

Mikie Schlosser is still rehabbing from an ACL injury, and Copelan said that he’d be “surprised if he was back this year.” Even if he returns this season, it seems unlikely that Schlosser will be healthy and practiced enough to earn playing time in this group, in which case he’ll stay on the injured list through the end of the year. Regardless, Schlosser’s roster spot is safe because of his active leadership role in the locker room. 

Jeff Conner 

Jeff Conner has played well this season as a two-way middie, but he’s just not dynamic enough to warrant playing over guys like McConvey and Carraway. There’s not much more to it than that. He’s good at a lot of things, but he isn’t great at any one, and that’s what he needs to stand out in this group. Conner will dress a few more times this season, but once Kelly comes back, it’s difficult to imagine him starting consistently over any of the players listed above. 

“I just thought Jeff Conner deserved to be in the lineup,” Copelan said about starting Conner over Conrad last game. “He’s a great athlete who plays with no ego, and I just wanted to see a larger sample size there.”