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Archive for July 24, 2021

July 24, 2021 — A critical analysis of Athletes Unlimited lacrosse

BACKGROUND: In 2019, Jon Patricof, president of New York City FC of Major League Soccer, got together with Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire George Soros, to solve a problem: why is there such a disconnect between the pop culture icon status of female athletes and a lack of support for their professional leagues?

Patricof left NYCFC and partnered with Angela Ruggiero, the former U.S. women’s ice hockey player, to create a sports business model where players would be free to run their own teams, embrace causes dear to them, and use social media to create interest in women’s sports leagues. Ruggiero helped assemble a galaxy of sports stars such as Kevin Durant, Abby Wambach, and Jessica Mendoza on an advisory board for a concept which would be named Athletes Unlimited.

Athletes Unlimited began with a softball league in mid-2020 (yep, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic), and continued with a women’s volleyball league last winter.

CURRENT STATUS: This weekend, Athletes Unlimited is embarking on its inaugural weekend of women’s lacrosse. The player pool of 56 is spending five weeks at the South Germantown Soccerplex in Boyds, Md., which is right in the heart of lacrosse country.

The hallmark of Athletes Unlimited is the fact that the teams choose up sides like on the playground. A player draft is held weekly on Facebook Live, run by the four players with the most points from the previous match weekend. Players are awarded points for winning games, goals, assists, saves, caused turnovers, draws, and ground-ball pickups. Deduction of points occurs with turnovers or missed shots.

COACHES: None. The players coach themselves, but each team has a consultant to help with communications with technical staff and trainers, as well as assistance with the weekly draft.

PLAYERS: A lot of star players have bought into this league, including Boston College’s Kenzie Kent, Penn State’s Katie O’Donnell, Maryland’s Taylor Cummings, Stony Brook’s Taryn Ohlmiller, and North Carolina’s Marie McCool.

While there’s a good number of star players, there are some good players who are not in the league, such as Northwestern’s Selena Lasota and USC’s Gussie Johns. Charlotte North, the current Tewaaraton Trophy holder, is not in the league because she will be returning to Boston College to finish out her eligibility.

TIMING: Whereas the UWLX and WPLL had games lasting an hour or more, Athletes Unlimited games are just 32 minutes. The clock, however, does not run all the time, and there are TV timeouts in the middle of each quarter. The effective playing time is a little less than it was in previous professional leagues, but it is an incremental step towards the proposed Olympic rules.

Like the WPLL, Athletes Unlimited uses a 60-second possession clock. This should ostensibly give teams an incentive to employ a ride to keep the ball from getting into the attack zone with speed, but we haven’t yet seen a team use a ride to great effect as of yet. While the clock does run pretty much freely, it does stop whenever there is a foul in the critical scoring area, which doesn’t rob the attack of free positions late in the possession clock, which often happened in previous pro leagues.

GAME PLAY: Athletes Unlimited uses 10 players a side, with only six on attack/defense at any one time. The restraining line is the midfield stripe, just like in men’s lacrosse. And like box lacrosse, the ball cannot be brought back over the center line once the ball has been advanced into the attack half of the field.

In front of the goal, the free position apparatus is not an arc and fan, but an 8-meter wedge that looks like a grapefruit sectioned by slicing off the top and bottom ends, as was the case in the WPLL. The edge of the wedge also doubles as a two-point arc.

The goal circle in AU is where the men’s crease is, making the distance between the goals 80 yards, meaning that the league is taking advantage of U.S. Lacrosse’s “unified” standard when it comes to lining the competition surface.

The one new wrinkle that Athletes Unlimited has brought to women’s lacrosse is the video referee at the scorers’ table. Each team has two challenges per game, but the challenges need to be used judiciously, since a team using both cannot get a third, no matter the results of the first two challenges.

STRATEGY: Athletes Unlimited boasts a tremendously quick style of lacrosse. But without players using a midfield ride, there isn’t the frenetic pace of play in the attack end that you saw in the first year of the WPLL, where teams would have to rush their offensive sets in the last 30 seconds of the possession clock. Without coaches, the style of play is much more free-form with players improvising quick goals (the first goal in AU history was a gorgeous behind-the-back goal by Hallie Majorana just eight seconds from the first draw).

OVERALL AESTHETICS: If you’ve seen the men’s Premier Lacrosse League, you’ll notice some of the same traits in Athletes Unlimited. The speed of play is astounding, and the umpires seem to swallow the whistle at key junctures of the game, letting the players settle the game amongst themselves. You do not see shooting space calls, three-second calls, or empty-crosse calls. It’s a cleaner game despite some of the hard collisions.

OUTLOOK: There are two future events which are going to have an enormous impact on this league. One is the expected debuts of Charlotte North, Jamie Ortega, and a raft of post-Coronavirus players who have expended their five years of college eligibility.

The second event is the 2028 Olympics, which will offer the 6-v-6 international version of the game. I’ll be interested to see if Athletes Unlimited will go with the short-sided game and have, say, 10 or 12 teams playing each match weekend rather than the current model of four 14-player teams.