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Michael Sowers promises Waterdogs turnaround after familiar slow start

Michael Sowers Michael Sowers

When Matt Rambo’s game-winner found twine on Sunday, it handed the Philadelphia Waterdogs their second overtime loss in as many days, and they fell to 0-3. Although the Dogs have been to the last two Cash App Championship games, this is a familiar spot for them.

In 2022, the Waterdogs fell to the Chrome 17-14 to start the season with three straight losses. As a second-year player who had just finished his fourth professional game, Michael Sowers said he was starting to press the panic button in his head. But that instinct was quickly stifled.

“I remember the vets and (then-head coach Andy Copelan) coming into the locker room and saying, ‘We are going to be fine,’” Sowers said. 

Veterans like Kieran McArdle and Dillon Ward were calm and confident despite an abysmal -10 point differential. The team’s leaders had no doubt that the season would turn around. This year, the Waterdogs are off to another 0-3 start, but all three losses have been one-goal games, and two were overtime thrillers. 

The Waterdogs are too experienced in a league that’s overflowing with talent to let a slow start change their philosophy. Instead, they’re looking internally to find the answers they know are there. In his fourth season, Sowers has matured enough to know that they can come back from a start like this, especially since they’ve scored as many or more goals than their opponent in each of those losses.

“I know we got the right guys in that locker room and we got the right guy at the helm (head coach Bill Tierney), and we are going to turn this thing around,” Sowers said after Sunday’s 12-11 loss to the Maryland Whipsnakes. “There’s no doubt about it.”

How that happens is yet to be determined, but there are definitely areas in need of improvement. Philadelphia’s faceoff strategy has been a popular topic of discussion after a slew of close games to start the season, but there are other shortcomings that led to those games being tight. Sowers isn’t one of them, as he put up 11 points – including six goals – on Homecoming Weekend and helped keep the Dogs competitive late in both games. 

Against the Boston Cannons on Saturday, Sowers scored or assisted on all but three Waterdogs goals, including each of the final four to close out regulation. The midfield combined for four goals and no assists in a sluggish offensive effort, and Boston won 12-11 in OT.

Sowers and McArdle were playing hero ball to keep up, just two weeks after Tierney promised the offense would run on ball movement rather than that sort of individual play. Yet, those two attackmen have accounted for 38.9% of the Waterdogs’ goals through three games. Last season, they accounted for just under 30%.

Although their contributions have been unmatched, they’ve had missteps of their own. McArdle had a chance to win it on the doorstep on Sunday but got turned away by Brendan Krebs, and Rambo won it shortly thereafter. Philly’s shooting performance overall has been lackluster in 2024. 

“The issue, to be honest with you, is our shooting acumen hasn’t been great,” Tierney said. “We have got to make sure that when we get those shots, we can them.”

The Waterdogs’ 26.5% shooting percentage would be their worst since their inaugural 2020 season. Philadelphia has yet to make a two-pointer after ranking third in the league last season with 12, and it’s been rushing shots and failing to capitalize in transition, leading to an underwhelming offensive output. The Dogs currently rank sixth in scores per game.

Defensively, they have let in key long balls during each of their three losses, which Tierney pointed out postgame.

"Every game we’ve lost," the coach said, "we’ve lost to a two-pointer.”

That included a buzzer-beating heave from former Waterdogs faceoff specialist Zac Tucci before the halftime whistle on Saturday. 

The ball has not bounced their way. But with that being said, the Waterdogs are in a good position to adjust. They’re a few plays away from being 3-0 this season. Still, those games would have all come down to the wire regardless, and the Waterdogs need to command some matchups to get back on track.

In 2022, they beat the breaks off the Chaos 18-9 in Week 4, which swung the momentum completely. Seven players scored in that game, three two-pointers were made, and the Dogs went on to win five straight en route to a championship. That’s the kind of offensive renaissance this team needs to revive itself in 2024. It has to be a complete effort with two-point prowess and transition success. 

The Dogs have the talent, wisdom and camaraderie to not let a slow start define them, but something has to kick them back into form. 

Last year, the Waterdogs were on the winning end of those close games more often than not, earning the nickname “Cardiac Dogs” for their proclivity for comebacks. The entire 2023 starting lineup returned for the Waterdogs, so the only major change was the coaching staff. After the second overtime loss in Philadelphia, Tierney acknowledged that it’s on him to turn this thing around, and he has two weeks to work on that before their battle with the Chaos in Minneapolis.

“The only difference is me,” Tierney said. “So, it’s on my shoulders to make sure we start bouncing back and winning some of these one-goal games.”