PHOTO COURTESY OF PREMIER LACROSSE LEAGUE

Brodie Merrill, Waterdogs LC captain: “Now, it's just kind of a relief that after this divide, I think everyone on both sides are excited and refreshed to just move ahead. Now, it feels right. Feels more aligned. Today was a big step forward.”

'Now, It Feels Right.' Players, Coaches React to PLL-MLL Merger


The announcement sent shock waves throughout the lacrosse world during a time when it seems like the only certainty is uncertainty. 

A little more than two years after Paul Rabil broke away from Major League Lacrosse to co-found the Premier Lacrosse League, men’s professional outdoor lacrosse is again a single entity. Only this time, it’s the PLL. 

News broke Wednesday morning that lacrosse’s two professional field leagues are merging. The PLL will absorb the Boston Cannons — rebranded as Cannons Lacrosse Club — as well as the rights to MLL’s five other teams for future expansion considerations. The PLL will maintain complete control of operations. 

Within just a few minutes, the landscape of professional field lacrosse was historically altered.

While the move seemed inevitable after the PLL’s start two seasons ago, many players were caught off guard. “Surprised” was the word of choice. Most found out only a couple minutes before Scott Soshnick, the editor in chief of Sportico, broke the news.

The reaction was swift and wide-ranging — from confusion to excitement to nostalgia. Ultimately, players and coaches were optimistic about the future of the sport.

“It has its positives more so than anything negative,” said two-time MLL MVP and now Atlas LC attackman Rob Pannell. “Positives being that the two leagues are no longer fighting for market share. The really only negative, which is a big one, is that a lot of guys will probably never play professional lacrosse again.”

US Lacrosse Magazine spoke with several players and coaches from both leagues on the precipice of a new era for professional lacrosse.


“The really only negative, which is a big one, is that a lot of guys will probably never play professional lacrosse again.” — Rob Pannell


A Big Step Forward

Bryce Wasserman had made a couple trips back and forth from inside his home just outside Dallas to his Range Rover sitting in the garage. He and his two brothers, Casey Wasserman (Towson) and Drew Wasserman (Utah), packed the SUV with a Rage Cage in preparation for another shooting session at Mav’s Ballpark in downtown Dallas.

On his last trek to the car, Wasserman pulled out his phone and saw an email from MLL commissioner Alexander “Sandy” Brown to all players. It was sent at 10:27 a.m. Eastern. 

“In just a few moments, MLL will announce a merger with PLL,” Brown wrote. 

“I opened up the phone and the world was set on fire,” Wasserman said. 

The reigning MLL MVP for the league champion Cannons, Wasserman had previously thought about making the move to the PLL. Now he has that opportunity. He has not been part of a unified professional lacrosse league since 2018 — his rookie season, when he fought for playing time on the Ohio Machine.

Although there’s plenty of uncertainty — like whether the Cannons’ current roster will get a chance to play together in some fashion for the newly founded Cannons Lacrosse Club or just how many spots will be available for incoming players — Wasserman projected a positive outlook.

“I'd love to have another summer with those guys, but I'm confident that no matter what happens, I'll be on one of the eight teams,” he said. “I'm excited to show what I've got on the big stage at the PLL. I mean, it's a dream come true. There's always been the debate of [which league had] the best players in the world. I'm just excited to go be a part of it and make a name for myself.”

For Wasserman and others in MLL who make the transition, the merger presents a chance to continue to grow their games. For players and coaches of the PLL, it signifies the end of a divided professional lacrosse landscape and the beginning of a stronger, more unified front.

Brodie Merrill, the legendary defenseman and member of Waterdogs LC, was the third overall pick in the 2005 MLL Draft. He won Rookie of the Year honors, was a six-time MLL Defensive Player of the Year (2006-11) and played in MLL for 14 seasons. In the PLL, he captained Chaos LC in 2019 and now the Waterdogs. The league’s long-stick midfielder of the year award is even named in Merrill’s honor. 

Merrill is happy to see more continuity across the pro lacrosse landscape.

“Many of us had spent a long, long time in the MLL, and then this new opportunity came and it kind of felt contentious at times, so it was bittersweet,” he said of the original move to the PLL. “Now, it's just kind of a relief that after this divide, I think everyone on both sides are excited and refreshed to just move ahead. Now, it feels right. Feels more aligned. Today was a big step forward.”

Merrill’s thoughts were echoed throughout the lacrosse community. Other PLL pros like Matt McMahon (Archers LC) and Connor Buczek (Atlas LC) lauded the merger as a sign of progress.

Buczek, the head coach at Cornell, was an MLL All-Star from 2016-18 and a PLL All-Star in 2019. He’s seen the benefits of a fanbase focused on one league.

“To be splitting the leagues up, we were just hurting ourselves,” he said. “It’s fantastic that this is happening, and it’s good for the sport. It’s good for everybody involved to get all the players in the same place and all the fans in one league.”

Although the merger will undoubtedly cause negative ramifications for a number of athletes, the consensus among players from both leagues was that it’s a net-gain in the long run for professional lacrosse as it progresses toward the mainstream.

“Now I think a lot of guys feel like at least everybody who is a supporter of pro lacrosse has their oars in the water, rowing in the same direction,” McMahon said. “That’s exciting as a player. For the sport at a professional level, it feels like it has a clearer path to the other major U.S. sports.”








A Whole Lot of History

Nat St. Laurent cradled the cherry red wooden case. After a day filled with as many calls and questions as emotions, St. Laurent, the head coach at Ohio Northern University and the PLL’s Redwoods LC, looked through the case’s glass top at the emblem of one of the proudest achievements of his lacrosse career. On the tip of the ring from 2017 was the Ohio Machine logo, encased in diamonds. On its side was St. Laurent’s name and an engraved Steinfeld Cup. 

Atop that sit four words. Major League Lacrosse Champions. 

“It’s gorgeous,” St. Laurent.

Similar scenes of reminiscing unfolded throughout the pro ranks yesterday. On the desk in his home office in New Jersey, McMahon still has a piece of the net from that 2017 championship with the Machine, for whom he played for four summers. 

“Those memories with those guys are as much a part of my professional lacrosse career as anything else,” McMahon said. “It's nice to be able to not have to ignore it necessarily and just enjoy it and acknowledge its place in the history of the sport. This feels like it adds a little closure to that chapter.” 

Inside his office at Jacksonville University’s Rock Lacrosse Center, Chrome LC goalie John Galloway can look up from his desk and see several reminders of his years with the Rattlers, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 MLL draft after his storied career at Syracuse. There’s the white Cascade helmet he wore with the team in Rochester and the orange one he donned when they relocated to Dallas. There’s a team picture from the 2018 MLL Championship, Galloway’s last game with the Rattlers. Intentionally out of sight are any of Galloway’s old mustard brown jerseys from his days in Rochester. 

Despite the progress the PLL made the past two years, something still felt like it was missing. When the majority of the sport’s top talent migrated to the PLL, many left teams and cultures they spent years building. How could they cherish those experiences and relationships without feeling like they were promoting the “other” league?

“Now there's a clear lineage between the MLL and the PLL,” Galloway said. “I'm just glad they found a way to make it work. It's pretty cool to look back and think now that these two leagues are one of the same. We get to publicly talk about those memories, which may have been looked down upon the last few years.” 

Few teams place a larger premium on culture than the Chrome. Its connective tissue dates back to the Rattlers and was strengthened last winter when Tim Soudan, who coached the Rattlers from 2011-17, became their head coach. “You can tell they all believe in it because of how they talk to each other,” Soudan said. “That’s the most important thing to me.”

The best part of yesterday, according to Galloway, a two-time MLL Goalie of the Year, was during a 30-minute period in Chrome's group chat during which everyone who played on the Rattlers started sharing their favorite pictures from the Rochester Airport and almost every stop in between. 

While MLL received it’s fair share of criticism for its shortcomings, the league still remained the place where most current PLL pros, including Rabil, got their starts. 

“It just brought back a lot of cool memories from when we were all trying to figure it out,” Galloway said.

At the same time, his first thought as a coach at a mid-major Division I program on the rise gravitated toward players at schools like Jacksonville who now might not get the chance to break into the professional game. “Talent density” is how he described the new PLL. From a tactical standpoint, he wondered about the roster sizes in 2021 and what the expansion draft will look like. “I think everybody is turning the corner and now they’re starting to game plan for how we make this work,” he said. 

St. Laurent had to silence his phone yesterday morning because of the deluge of calls and texts. After the excitement and congratulations, the communication turned to queries. 

“What’s this going to look like?” was a common refrain. 

When St. Laurent wasn’t fielding questions, he reflected on where he is today. He said how thankful he was for Tom Mariano, the head coach of the Chesapeake Bayhawks in 2020, and Bear Davis, who gave him his first shot coaching in the pros with the Ohio Machine. It’s where he first coached Kyle Harrison, now a captain of the Redwoods. St. Laurent led them to the 2019 PLL championship game, where they lost in overtime to the Whipsnakes. Last summer, they fell again to the Whipsnakes in overtime during the PLL Championship Series semifinals. 

St. Laurent then looked forward. The Redwoods have a team Zoom scheduled for this evening. 

“That’s something that I'll hold near and dear forever,” he said last night, still holding the ring case. “Hopefully we get another one in the PLL to put right next to it. That's the plan.” 




PHOTO COURTESY OF PREMIER LACROSSE LEAGUE

Nat St. Laurent, Redwoods LC coach, holds his MLL championship with the Ohio Machine near and dear.


Unanswered Questions

Mark Ellis sat in the corner of his podcast studio wearing a grey New York Lizards polo, glancing into the camera on his laptop. He was in the midst of a Zoom conversation with the children of Dutch Broadway Elementary School (N.Y.) about the Indigenous roots of lacrosse when his phone started to ring.

The room’s interior looked picture perfect. Ellis’s Hofstra jersey was visible over his right shoulder. His No. 34 Lizards jersey and gloves filled the frame to his left.

It was just past 10:30 a.m. Wednesday morning when his Lizards teammates started reacting to the news in their GroupMe chat. Ellis, still in his Zoom conversation, heard a series of “dings” and glanced at the chat to find out the PLL and MLL were merging.

He had not seen the email sent by Brown at 10:27 a.m., just minutes prior to the public announcement. He wasn’t alone among his MLL colleagues.

Reactions varied across the Lizards’ chat, but some were ominous.

“My career is over,” wrote one player.

“I’m done,” said another.

“What’s going on?” Ellis thought. “I'm like, ‘I guess there's no MLL anymore.’”

He kept his composure through the end of the Zoom talk and then quickly called his friend, Chad Tolliver. Together, the short-stick defensive middies talked about an uncertain future.

How would they get a look in a new league with fewer spots open?

Were MLL players still under contract?

How will an expansion draft work out, and will PLL players be protected?

Do we have futures in professional lacrosse?

Ellis and Tolliver made strides both on and off the field during the shortened 2020 season. They were half of the MLL Four, who pushed the league to address racial injustice throughout the week-long quarantined tournament.

Now, they received messages on Twitter offering kudos on a merger that could mean the end of the road for many MLL players.

“I'm like, ‘Dude, I have no idea what you're talking about. Congratulations on what?’” Ellis said. “I have nothing to be congratulated on. We're waiting for a boss to come tell us whether we will make a team and get an opportunity.”

“While we sit here and we praise this, there's a reality that a lot of dudes are going to hang up the cleats for the last time,” Tolliver said. “A lot of people who've done a lot of good things for this game in the MLL are going to be unemployed. That’s the future of lacrosse right now.”

Throughout the day, Ellis, Tolliver and members of the former MLL pondered their futures in which the number of outdoor professional lacrosse teams went from 13 to eight overnight. Even if rosters expand, there won’t be enough room to accommodate all former players. 

“It's just going to make the league that much stronger, and it's going to make it that much harder for professional lacrosse players to make a roster, with an influx of, say, 20 guys that can take spots,” Soudan said. 

Tolliver raised the point that PLL players will also have to fight to retain their spots with MLL stars like Lyle Thompson, Colin Heacock, Isaiah Davis-Allen and Dan Bucaro now in the same league. Add in what’s projected to be one of the deepest college drafts in professional lacrosse history in 2021, and the competition for roster spots may never be more intense.

“You don’t think some of those PLL attackmen are sh***ing themselves that Lyle Thompson is a free agent now?” Tolliver said. “[Those players] can play lacrosse. It’s just a matter of when and where.”

The anxiety was palpable throughout the day, as Tolliver and Ellis tried to cope with the end of an era. As much as both players wanted to put the news in perspective, it wasn’t an easy proposition.

As they did this summer, Ellis, Tolliver and other MLL players leaned on each other when the circumstances became difficult. Wednesday was no different. 

“If we don’t get a call, life keeps going,” Tollver said.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Ellis replied. “I love it, but it won’t kill me.”

“Dude, you played at the highest level,” Tolliver said. “You played pro lacrosse. It sucked that the league folded, but you achieved what you wanted to achieve. If some coaches don’t think you’re their guy, then you can’t control that.

“The wheels have to keep turning.”