“There will be some highlight reel plays. I can guarantee that.”
That’s what Chaos LC’s Josh Byrne said in the weeks leading up to the PLL season. Well, it only took three quarters until that guarantee was followed through on.
The game was well out of reach at that point. Chaos struggled mightily with Whipsnakes faceoff athlete Joe Nardella, seemingly going without possession for the entire first half. Their defense was overwhelmed, and the offense never really got a chance to establish a rhythm as the Chaos lost their first game. But not before Byrne put home the most impressive goal of the weekend.
Mac O’Keefe came over to pick for Byrne, but Byrne rejected it. He instead looked to get an inside angle on Whipsnakes defender Matt Dunn, but Dunn is one of the stoutest defenders in the league – the reason that he drew the Byrne matchup. Dunn forced him below goal-line-extended. Byrne’s angle was gone, so he leapt. It looked desperate, ill-advised. But he reached out and shot, performing the lacrosse player’s equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The referee’s arms went up.
The more you watch it, the more it defies belief.
Chaos lost the game, but that play offered a snapshot of the team at its peak. With their collection of talent, they can score goals that other teams just don’t score. They find windows that other teams don’t consider.
With each passing year, Chaos acquired more and more players that turn a dead play into a goal. It just so happens that a lot of these players share a similar background – they cut their teeth in the fast-paced, confined-space, gritty world of box lacrosse. And the best box lacrosse occurs north of the border.
Chaos LC has more Canadian players than any other team in the PLL. They form the core of the team’s offense and give them a definitive identity. Ian MacKay, a Canadian player who, like many others, began elsewhere in the lacrosse world before finding his way onto Chaos.
“When the league first started and I saw the rosters come out, I was a little confused why I wasn’t on the Chaos right away,” he joked.
The Canadians are prominent, but the architect of this team, Head Coach Andy Towers, makes it clear that it isn’t just about finding players with a maple leaf on their passport.
“More than anything else, were looking for the best fit for each respective spot than we bring in,” Towers explained, “and while we definitively have more than our fair share of Canadian players, the reality is that we’re just looking to bring in the best person, and the best locker room guy, and the best player with the skill set that fits into our respective schemes.”
Two of their top offensive guys, Jake Froccaro and Sergio Salcido, are American with styles of play that befit their nationality. Their defense is built on American long poles with a star American goalie, Blaze Riorden. Moreover, Austin Staats, Miles Thompson and Kyle Jackson are also all Indigenous players with box backgrounds that are a part of the Chaos as well, with the first two not currently on the active roster for various reasons. To simply call Chaos “the Canadian team” downplays the contributions of many of these guys.
That said, when Towers talks about acquiring skillsets that fit into their respective schemes, that often entails getting players that are comfortable in a box-style offense. Just look at their offseason.
They brought in the aforementoned Jackson and Challen Rogers in the PLL Entry Draft, two outstanding players in the NLL. They traded for Wes Berg, a Canadian who is a force in the indoor league. They picked up O’Keefe in the first round of the PLL College Draft. O’Keefe is American, but spent time with the Orangeville Northmen, a Jr. A box lacrosse team in Ontario. Tanner Cook and Ryan Smith, taken in the later rounds, are two big Canadian scorers who grew up dominating the indoor game.
In addition to vying for the right skillsets, Towers also noted that the team is “looking to bring guys in that maximize our chances of getting connected.”
With so much talent loaded up on PLL rosters this season, that little extra influx of chemistry and connection can make an immense difference. When players all have box experience, they can run offense a certain way and make unique plays on the field. When multiple players have experience as teammates, it can amplify that effect.
Byrne and Dhane Smith have been, in many ways, the beating heart of the Chaos’ Canadian flair. This offseason, also brought in Chris Cloutier and MacKay through trade, and nabbed Chase Fraser off waivers. Those players are five of the top eight scorers on the NLL’s Buffalo Bandits from their most recent season, with Byrne, Smith, and Cloutier representing numbers one, two, and three respectively. What’s more, they’re all roommates.
If you’re looking to mix a tough, skilled, connected, and creative Canadian lacrosse cocktail, that house is a pretty good place to start.
So, what does that offense look like? How does it differ from other PLL offenses? To answer that, look no further than the playoff round of the PLL Championship Series in 2020.
After the team didn’t start the tournament as they wanted to, MacKay noted that, “in the playoffs, which is what really matters, you could really see the two-man game and the ball movement and that kind of thing really start to show.”
Chaos subbed in Thompson on attack in lieu of 2019 standout Connor Fields and went all-in on a box style offense predicated on the pick-and-roll – particularly when Smith and Staats shared the field. They upped their shots created from two-man games from 3.8 all the way to 8, according to the PLL. Riding that wave triggered a run that took them within a quarter and a half of a PLL Championship and was clearly a big part of the reason that the team looks as it does today.
Every offense sets picks, but no team creates more opportunities directly out of that two-man game. They typically initiate their offense with a pick-and-roll on the wings, with two players acting on their strong side. The sheer variety of this action combined with the acumen of those executing it makes it lethal.
The ball carrier can use the pick and go around or reject it and go under. The pick-setter can roll, pop, slip the pick to catch the defense off guard, or re-screen and go through all these options again. When run expertly, as members of the Chaos are able to do, it is a dance, an art form, something that is only perfected after years of repetition. If that movement commands too much attention, the off-ball movement can lead to instant production.
Within this action, these two players are operating within a tight space – stick skills are paramount.
“If you say a field player’s skill set is 100%, it’s almost like box players are 110% on that side,” Coach Towers said.
This extra 10% comes largely from the fact that box players seldom use their off-hand. “I think the big thing about box lacrosse in general is that you’re constantly getting more and more reps with your strong hand,” Byrne explained. “Our hands are so much more accustomed to being able to do certain things and being a little more crafty especially in tight when guys are on you, and getting a little more creative with things that we can do with our stick.”
That capability with the strong hand enables Chaos to run their desired offense in the pick-and-roll, in addition to creating some nifty finishes off-ball from those sets. Late in the losing effort against Whipsnakes, Byrne came off a screen and hit Berg, who buried it with just a sliver of time and space. It was Berg’s third goal of the game.
Other aspects of Premier League Lacrosse make the game even more similar to box lacrosse than prior field leagues. “I think the PLL is the closest field lacrosse you’ll ever see to box lacrosse with the shorter field and the shorter shot clock,” MacKay explained, “you see a lot of transition, a lot of two-point goals.”
That creativity and skill can also manifest in some “wow” moments, like we saw on Byrne’s goal this past weekend. The biggest one of those moments came last season against Chrome LC, and it was Byrne, once again, causing us to reach down and pick our jaws up off the floor.
When Andy Towers says that the box players “bring a craftiness, and a slickness, and a poise to decisions that have to be made very, very quickly,” I think this is what he meant.
The funny thing about that goal, is that Cloutier tried an awfully similar move a few games before that when he was with Atlas, sending the ball mere inches over the crossbar. With Cloutier being his roommate, Byrne knew the play the instant I brought it up.
“Chris would tell me, ‘Man, you know I’m like this close to being you,’” he laughed.
Cloutier, like Berg and the other Canadians brought on, will have an outsized opportunity to establish himself as a top-end player in the PLL with the opportunity he has on the Chaos playing with his Bandits teammates and other indoor studs.
“Sometimes you see some Canadian players going to other teams, and they might not do as well because they don’t know how to fit them in to that American-style offense,” Byrne said, “that’s why you’re going to see some new faces for us really get a lot more attention this year.”
It’s two-man games. It’s behind-the-backs. It’s no-looks, through-the-legs, around-the-worlds, dips-and-dunks, deadly fakes, flip passes, one-handers and “no-no-no-no…YES!” goals. But at the end of the day, it’s simply about fielding the best lacrosse team.
Towers, Byrne and MacKay all stressed that this team was all about winning and establishing a team with a great locker room and culture that could translate into on-field success.
Towers summed it up succinctly. “We’re just trying to get guys that are humble, and that are tough as shit,” he said. And hey, if they come together to play lacrosse in a manner that very few in the world can, then that doesn’t hurt either.
In an effort to hammer home the box lacrosse reputation, I suggested to Byrne that the team wear box helmets – hockey-style helmets with a lacrosse cage. “I’m sure a lot of guys would be down,” he chuckled, “but if it rains we’re screwed.” For now, we’ll have to stick to all of the other box lacrosse characteristics that give this team its identity.
Feature photo courtesy of the Premiere Lacrosse League