August 6, 2013 by Brett Matzuka in Analysis with 3 comments
Though the United States went undefeated at the U23 World Ultimate Championships, the journey down the road paved of gold was no small task. The US teams found themselves in the types of games that required focus and concentration on the smallest of details in order to ensure success.
The challenge of bringing a group together of varying styles and talents in pressure situations, coupled with adverse conditions, is daunting. Focusing on the U23 US Women’s team, I analyze the strategic and tactical adjustments the team and coaches made to become the world’s best.
In their semifinal, the US women took on the high octane, fast paced offense of Colombia. The Colombians used quick disc movement to keep defenses on their heels, constantly moving downfield to reposition to the current location of the disc. To combat this, the US came down in junk sets to stagnate initial options and force lateral movement. This broke up pull plays, prevented rhythm, and caused the timing of the Colombia cuts to be out of sync with their handler disc movement.
When the initial junk did not lead to turns in its own right (there were four or five miscued throws to poorly timed cuts), they US fell out into a one way, flick force. The mark focused on preventing the immediate continue option initially and then preventing the around break at all costs. This left the soft inside break available. However, the downfield defense played tight to the break side making the margins small.
While the Colombians were talented and sometimes completed the inside-out throw, over the course of the game the small window led to a number of turnovers, giving the US the chances they needed.
Additionally, the Colombians, without the depth of the Americans, became exhausted as the game continued, in part due to the disruptive US defense that prevented any chance of a comeback. The Colombians needed to adjust early, and focus on being aggressive, setting up space deep to get some easy scores to compete in this. Unfortunately for Colombia, the US depth was too great and they rolled to a 17-3 win.
In the final, the US faced off against a Japanese team that previously gave them their toughest game of the tournament. Much like the Colombians, the Japanese used short, quick passes to create flow. With an increasing wind in the finals, the US opted to go with a zone look that forced the disc to a trap sideline (flick, frequently). However, the Japanese utilized multiple players along the length of the trap sideline (deep option and shorter behind the cup option) and forced the wing to choose between the two. This led to some quick strikes through flat flicks down the trap sideline to the deep option.
The US adapted by going into different short junk sets that quickly broke down into a man with a backhand force. Unlike Colombia, the mark went more straight up, hindering the inside break, while doing well to pressure the around, but not completing taking it away. The downfield defense fronted, forcing the Japanese to take shots deep in the swirling wind. While Japan was disciplined and able to patiently work the disc, the continued pressure paid off as the game went on with multiple turns due to the Japanese taking chances. The Japanese style of bladier hucks and backhands hurt them in this game, as the wind made them lower percentage options. The US also utilized a middle force for one point during the game to push the Japanese handlers to throw back into the traffic, which was successful as well. The Japanese cutting lanes had to shift after each throw as the mark reverted back to where the disc had come, causing some structural confusion for the offense. This generated a break for the US but, oddly, was never tried again.
To overcome the depth and continued pressure that the Americans managed to display, the Japanese would have needed to open up their deep game and take chances much like the first point of the game where they banked a break on a backhand huck. Opening up the deep space would have made the US less able to keep applying pressure on the unders, stifling the disc movement. The Japanese did make a smart adjustment late in the game by sending the handler defenders into the lane, forcing US handlers to be patient, and changing the cutting patterns; however, by this point, fatigue was becoming an issue. Without being able to get to the mark quickly, this led to some easy, unmarked throws for big gainers.
Defense was the main strength of the US throughout the tournament. Their ability to take away initial pull plays of the opposing offense; take away flow and options through aggressive, smart marks; and deny easy options downfield suffocated the offensive sets of the world’s best. The US managed to come together as a group and buy into a system of always taking away the opposition’s highest percentage options, whether it was the Colombians’ quick around breaks, or the Japanese’s disciplined under assault. Their pressured made team’s adjust to their second and third options, which resulted in enough turns to put the US in a position to win.
Given the coaching staff of the US (Mike Whitaker, Jit Bhattacharya, and Carolyn Matthews), it was no surprise they ran a well-spaced horizontal offense. The main focus and advantage of their offensive structure was the downfield cutter spacing. Placing the outside cutters on the sidelines mandated honest defense from the opposition with little chance for poaching or help. Creating space in the middle by clearing to the sideline, this often set up one-on-one matchups within the entire middle corridor. There were big gainers from initial movement and quick flow to follow. Along with the good spacing and isolation cutting, the horizontal stack gave the US handlers a multitude of options downfield. Because at any given time two or three cutters were viable options, the marks could never take away the aggressive looks, which the US relied on to continue their downfield attack.
The confidence the US gained through their infrastructure was a strength, but also the area which could be targeted for turnovers. While the structure allowed for a multitude of options, the Japanese did well to create turnovers by forcing the US to have to continue to work the unders. But the real US weakness came from their transition from horizontal into their endzone set. The Japanese created pressure by forcing the US to take low percentage options during this transition: often a high release backhand, which was either through traffic or into an unforgiving wind. The US did best when their flow led to easy mid-range shots, even if not executed perfectly.
Overall, the US women’s ability to utilize spacing efficiently and dominate the deep space was the strength that their opponents were unable to overcome.
A key takeaway from observing the US, not just in women’s but in all divisions throughout the weekend, was their vast wealth of experience, combined with team wide buy-in and confidence. While teams were able to push the United States to the brink, a steadfast mentality, learned from years of crunch time experience, is something that cannot be taught. The international teams only can manufacture so many simulations of this pressure, while the US has many more opportunities presented throughout the club and college seasons. Most teams faltered when they realized they were in the game, only to stray from the mental focus, tactical, or other small adjustments that got them to that point.