Below is an edited version of a column from the July 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, a benefit of membership in US Lacrosse.
For a brief time in my adult life, I lived in Austin, Texas. I quickly learned to love and embrace the city's quirky motto: "Keep Austin Weird." Being a member of Team USA on three occasions, I would assert that Austin has a friend that shares its spirit — the FIL World Lacrosse Championship.
Historically, only two countries have been champions. The world championship has always come down to the United States and Canada. Since 1967, the United States has won nine times. Canada has won twice, most recently in 2006 on its home soil.
During my three Team USA tours, I have seen the rivalry evolve due to external circumstance and the evolution of field lacrosse in Canada. In 2002, MLL players could not participate in the international games, which led to an unusual roster of elder statesmen, successful post-collegiate club players, freshly graduated collegiate players and underclassmen puppies still with NCAA eligibility (like me). In an effort to intimidate this motley crew during the "meaningless" round-robin contest, Canada focused more on punishing the U.S. than winning the game. This strategy did not prove effective. The underdog U.S. team won that match as well as the gold.
In 2006, with MLL players on the roster, pundits billed the U.S. as the greatest team of all-time. One problem — the best faceoff midfielder in the history of the sport, Paul Cantabene, was on the sideline watching as a coach instead of competing. That oversight proved too costly given the importance of possession time, and Canada dominated the ball. On a team with lacrosse legends Gary Gait, John Grant Jr. and Brodie Merrill, Canada's faceoff specialist Geoff Snider proved to be the most outstanding player and the difference in the championship game.
This year, I truly believe the U.S. and Canada are evenly-matched. While Team USA's historical dominance of the sport speaks for itself, Canada has won three of the last four matchups (2006 championship, 2010 round robin, and 2012 Duel in Denver). In the past, their roster featured fish out of water — box players doing their best within the field parameters. Now they have significantly more depth with legitimate NCAA and MLL experience.
The rivalry seeps off the field as well. Outside of the games themselves, teams typically stay in nearby dorms and live a campus lifestyle, including meals at the cafeteria. Your most hated rival could belly up at the next table over.
Canadians Patrick Merrill, Jordan Hall and Matt Vinc were my teammates on the New York/Orlando Titans of the National Lacrosse League. For years, we battled in extremely physical games, made deep playoff runs and enjoyed lighter times off the field. Balancing these friendships and the competitive tension is challenging.
Cliques of players walk around campus within their national affiliations. Friends from opposing countries can try to share a few words outside of the glaring eye of their teammates. Otherwise, a respectful nod or shoulder shrug recognizing the rivalry's competitive nature is the understood social norm.
Even the games themselves are weird, in part due to the rare scenarios that emerge in the international game. Japan, for example, utilizes a tightly packed zone defense that typically creates an outside shot. They instruct the defender closest to the goal to sprint to the endline on every single shot.
The first time we played against Japan in 2010, I got beat to a missed shot on several occasions, resulting in a turnover. I got an earful from coach Mike Pressler despite my intention of staying involved in the half-field offensive set.
Arguably the strangest, and most critical, on-field sequence occurred at the end of the 2002 title game. With Team USA pulling ahead of Canada, its staff boldly called a stick check on Mikey Powell to change the momentum. Powell's stopper prevented the ball from falling out when rotated upside down, which we did not believe was illegal in international play. The referees interpreted the rules differently, and suddenly Canada had a man-advantage for three non-releasable minutes.
Naturally, they mounted a comeback. After a Canadian man-up goal cut the lead to one, a distraught coach Jack Emmer called for a stick check of his own, targeting John Tavares, who had just scored Canada's last goal. Tavares' stick was also illegal, disallowing his last goal and reversing the man-up situation.
Canada then called another stick check — on me. What they didn't know was that after Powell's penalty, I removed anything from my head, shaft, helmet, shoes and socks that might raise an eyebrow, including a similar ball stopper. After my stick passed the test, the dust of the stick check tailspin finally settled, and Team USA rode off into the sunset.
Because of this atmosphere and stories like these, I am forever grateful for my three tours with Team USA.
Let the weirdness begin.
Ryan Boyle played in three FIL World Championships as a member of Team USA. He plays for the Boston Cannons and is a co-founder and CEO of Trilogy Lacrosse.