SAN DIEGO — The youngest player on the U.S. men’s national team turned out to be its steeliest.
Brennan O’Neill, the 21-year-old college player on a team of pros, scored five goals Saturday to lead the United States to a 10-7 victory over rival Canada in the gold medal game of the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship at Snapdragon Stadium.
O’Neill earned MVP honors, leading the U.S. to its 11th world championship in 14 iterations of the sport’s flagship international event that dates to 1967. Just a junior at Duke when he was selected to the 23-man roster in December, the Tewaaraton Award winner also had three goals in a 7-5 win over Canada in the world championship opener 10 days ago.
“He leaves me speechless. I didn’t see that coming today,” said U.S. head coach John Danowski, who also coaches O’Neill at Duke. “When we needed someone, he put his foot in the ground. It didn’t matter if he was dodging a short stick or long stick. He went to the rack. For a young guy to play that well at this level in this game is incredible. It’s really incredible.”
The U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by O’Neill and Tom Schreiber. O’Neill hit a high-to-high leaner from the left alley and Schreiber took a Rob Pannell skip pass from behind and skipped it off the grass past goalie Dillon Ward.
Penalties and turnovers proved costly, however, as Canada’s Dhane Smith and Clarke Peterson each scored extra-man goals to tie the game at 2.
Michael Sowers rebounded a rare O’Neill miss, collecting the ball off a kick save by Ward and converting the putback to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead. O’Neill made it 4-2 when he ran through short-stick defender Latrell Harris and tucked the ball inside the near pipe.
An apparent Matt Rambo goal was called back due to a questionable crease violation, but Blaze Riorden preserved the two-goal halftime lead with a sprawling save on Curtis Dickson curling from behind the net.
Canada moved Josh Byrne to midfield in the third quarter and U.S. long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt — the MVP of the 2018 world championship — exited the game with an injury. The turn of events worked in Canada’s favor, as Byrne went five-hole on Riorden and then Connor Fields converted another man-up goal off a feed from Jeff Teat to tie the game at 4 in the third quarter.
Every time the U.S. went ahead, Canada answered. But the Canadians simply had no answer for O’Neill, who used a Sowers pick to shed long-stick midfielder Ryland Rees and then beat Harris down the alley for a lefty rip on the run to put the U.S. back up by one.
Despite being shorthanded, the U.S. defense came up with two crucial stops in the third quarter, first when short-stick defensive midfielder Ryan Terefenko intercepted a pass and then when defenseman Jesse Bernhardt stripped Dickson with a perfectly timed double-team at the goal line.
An extra-man goal by Kieran McArdle off another seamless skip feed from Pannell made it 6-4 U.S. going into the fourth quarter.
Canada pulled within one early in the fourth quarter when Byrne bounced off long-stick midfielder Jack Rowlett and hit a step-back bouncer from 12 yards out. Wesley Berg almost tied the game, but Riorden (eight saves) met him on the doorstep to deny his diving attempt.
A minute later, McArdle lobbed a feed over the top of the defense and found Charlie Bertrand cutting backdoor for a dunk that pushed the U.S. lead back to two.
After the U.S. successfully killed off a penalty thanks to another acrobatic save by Riorden, a turnover on the ensuing clear led to a Smith goal to bring Canada back within one.
Then once more, it was O’Neill time. The 6-foot-2, 225-midfielder dodged through three Canadian defenders and scored on a lefty twister from the right side to make it 8-6.
After Byrne took advantage of Bertrand being stuck on defense, scoring off a downhill dodge to make it a one-goal game, Canada again had a chance to tie the game when Jake Withers won the ensuing faceoff.
The U.S. defense answered the bell. Matt Dunn slid with the body to Peterson and Bernhardt dislodged the ball resulting in a Canada turnover.
Up 8-7 with less than three minutes remaining, the U.S. could have gone into stall mode. Instead, O’Neill dodged the right side, rolled back and scored on an overhand rocket to make it 9-7 at the 2:26 mark.
“Brennan is a unicorn. His skillset cannot be taught,” Danowski said. “If we tried to duplicate at a camp or a clinic or even in our own practices, we couldn’t duplicate his hands and his feel for the game.”
O’Neill credited veterans on the team, specifically Pannell and Rambo, for making him feel comfortable as the youngster of the group.
“It’s nice to have guys you’ve looked up to for the last five to 10 years — guys you’ve watched since you were little — tell you how much they appreciate you and how good they think you are,” O’Neill said. “That’s what they did for me. It meant a lot coming from them. They assured me that I could play.”
Withers committed a violation on the ensuing faceoff to give the U.S. possession. With Canada pressing out on defense and pulling Ward to try to cause a turnover, Sowers scored on an empty net.
Trevor Baptiste (10-for-18) won the final faceoff. Appropriately, the ball found the stick of Pannell, a three-time U.S. team member and the all-time leading scorer. He launched it high in the air as time expired and the U.S. celebrated as the first team to repeat as world champion since 2002.
2023 WORLD LACROSSE MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP
Gold Medal Game
United States def Canada 10-7
Bronze Medal Game
Haudeosaunee def Australia 11-6
A – Austin Staats, Haudenosaunee
A – Shinya Tateishi, Japan
A – Jeff Teat, Canada
M – Josh Byrne, Canada
M – Brennan O’Neill, United States
M – Michael Sowers, United States
D – Jake Piseno, Haudenosaunee
D – Graeme Hossack, Canada
D – JT Giles-Harris, United States
G – Blaze Riorden, United States
Most Outstanding Attackman
Austin Staats, Haudenosaunee
Most Outstanding Midfielder
Brennan O’Neill, United States
Most Outstanding Defenseman
Jake Piseno, Haudenosaunee
Most Outstanding Goalie
Blaze Riorden, United States
Brennan O’Neill, United States
1. United States
10. Puerto Rico
13. Hong Kong
23. Czech Republic
25. New Zealand