US Open 2014: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

The 2014 US Open offered up competition between the top four American teams and four competitive internationals. Though early in the year, the tournament offered up some exciting games and compelling stories.

The 2014 US Open medals.
Photo by Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

Though six of the eight open teams coming into the U.S. Open may have been using the tournament primarily as a warm-up for Worlds, there was no shortage of intriguing storylines or heated matches throughout the weekend.

Squads weren’t exactly looking to win at all costs, but the level of competition was so high that teams couldn’t help but battle intensely, as any win could be seen as a legitimate victory and an indication of how strong one’s program is looking — as well as how good it’s going to look.

Here’s a recap of what happened in Blaine, Minnesota last weekend.

Revolver Retain Their Top Spot

It’s easy to downplay, overplay, or just plain misread San Francisco Revolver’s performance this last weekend. When you throw in all the factors like how early in the season it was, which players were missing from certain rosters, the mercurial wind, how close a majority of the games were, and a whole host of other elements, you could easily come to a wide variety of conclusions that seem completely reasonable.

For instance, some commenters objected to the finals recap article and how it talked about Revolver as a program rising above, believing that they simply played better than Denver’s Johnny Bravo.

In a lot of ways that’s true. San Francisco may have one of the strongest foundations in ultimate, but if Denver put together a simply outstanding performance with their big names at the height of their powers and their smaller names all turning in solid games as well, there’s a good chance they could have won that match. And one can safely bet that such an occurrence will happen a fair number of times this year, maybe even at Worlds or Nationals.

But part of why that’s a tough argument to make is reminiscent of trying to convince a talented player why a certain decision, though not necessarily a poor one, may not have been among the best for a situation. It’s the difference between “Yeah, it might’ve been a hard throw, but I can hit that. I just messed up the throw” to “Eh, I could probably hit that, but I trust my team that we’ll get a better look.”

That’s not to say that Bravo are akin to the arrogant guy with big throws at pick-up who thinks he can do whatever he wants. On the contrary, Denver often showed great patience and discipline all weekend, including in the finals.

It’s just that San Francisco showed more — coupled with high ultimate IQ.

In the windy conditions of the finals, which were some of the strongest of the weekend, Revolver exhibited the veteran poise of a team able to find a better balance of dumping and swinging, hucking, and working it down the field.

That also included reducing surprisingly difficult choices like cross-field swings—a handful of which served as keys turns for Bravo—and running their real dump sets, valuing the disc better on break opportunities (especially upwind) and working smarter to spread the field so that they could punch them in. They also made good tactical choices like refraining from getting trapped on the sideline too often and for too long.

The last past is particularly notable, for both Bravo and Boston Ironside noted their own inability to move it off the sideline as key elements of their downfall. Not only was Revolver able to stay disciplined enough to try to keep it in the middle of the field, but they also succeeded in forcing their opponents into just such an undesirable situation.

That’s where the strength of a great program really emerges.

It’s not that having a solid groundwork automatically means that you win, or that every win comes exclusively from that foundation and not also from excellent performances from your players, or even that when you lose it’s simply a problem of execution in all cases.

What it does mean is that a veteran program routinely excels at setting up situations where they have as many advantages as possible.

In this way, Bravo’s failure to move the disc more and get it off the sideline is partly a structural failure on their part, and not just of execution, but also a success on the part of their opponents and their opponents’ coaching staff.

When one keeps this in mind, and looks at the tournament as a whole, Revolver’s eventual success becomes less and less surprising. They may have had two losses in pool play, but those games were lost in ways that were more beneficial than simply losing because they fell out of their system. Instead, they made the right kind of mistakes. And when a program that consistently excels at growth and recognizing its own weaknesses makes the right kind of mistakes, there’s a greater chance they won’t make them again in the future.

Take their two games against Ironside.

The first boiled down to an offensive showcase, with neither team making very many mistakes, and Boston coming out on top largely because they made one or two fewer. Such odds don’t favor any team very well, no matter how experienced or stacked they might be.

So, what did San Francisco do? They went back, studied the tape, and changed their gameplan.

Captain Cassidy Rasmussen said his team saw that Ironside punished Revolver by attacking deep space well out of the vertical stack and creating easy huck opportunities. So in the semifinals, San Francisco sought to limit those vertical lanes and force Boston to stretch laterally. The result was a squad playing out of their comfort zone, committing a great many more turns and giving their opponents opportunities to gain leverage. Revolver capitalized.

Similarly, Revolver’s increased pressure on Bravo’s deep looks and, perhaps more importantly, their clamp-down dump defense forced Denver into situations they weren’t as familiar with, and they had a number of turns on long swings and other difficult cross-field passes.

All weekend long San Francisco remained in matches, even the ones they lost, by being a smart and veteran team that worked to retain their own system while pushing their opponents out of theirs. Even their initial pool play blowout loss to Bravo was deceptive. Most of their decisions were good looks, like hucks to streaking cutters with separation. They just didn’t connect. The next time they met, they were more dialed in and more of those passes found their targets.

And what’s more, many of them were rookies or sophomores to the team. Which is to say, that Revolver managed to come away with a U.S. Open title while simultaneously sticking to their tournament emphasis of working in their younger players and developing chemistry rather than simply trying to win.

Teams like Bravo, Ironside, Sockeye and a few others will surely continue to challenge Revolver as the season goes on and continue to hand the elite squad more losses. But San Francisco proved this weekend that if any of those teams expect to best Revolver when it matters most, they’re going to have to bring their best games. And figure out a way to take San Francisco out of theirs.

Bravo Lives Up To The Early Season Hype

Coming into the weekend as probably the biggest story in the Men’s Division, Johnny Bravo was the talk of the tournament. Everyone wanted to see how Johnny Bravo’s impressive 2014 roster would actually play together — including Denver themselves.

Captain Ryan Farrell said the team had so far experienced some really trying practices and were excited just to make it out to a tournament together and get to play another squad for once. They did not disappoint.

As expected, there were plenty of unbelievable grabs, perfect throws, and awe-inspiring levels of play from just about every part of their roster.

What’s even scarier, however, is that despite looking more like an all-star team or one of those classic “What if x, y, and z were all on the same team?” hypothetical games that are so fun to play with your friends, Bravo often exhibited remarkable cohesion and discipline for a squad with so many stars and for so early in the season. On some level, that’s to be expected. With their depth of experience and skill across the board, these guys for sure know how to play. The only question would be how well they could play together.

Turns out, the answer is “pretty damn well.”

While one might expect them to just have Kurt Gibson and Brett Matzuka rip it to Sean Keegan and Jimmy Mickle, or really any combination of their top 15 or so guys, Denver often struck an excellent balance between doing just that and taking the easy unders when teams were so scared of the deep shot that they’d essentially give up almost everything else.

Bravo’s convincing, if close, 15-13 victory over Ironside to open the weekend, and their ensuing 15-8 clobbering of Revolver just after, signaled their strength from the outset. Though they’d eventually lose to Seattle Sockeye 12-14 in a thriller on Friday, as well as to Vancouver Furious George on Saturday in a game that counted for next to nothing, Denver remained the fearsome giant right up to their loss in the finals to San Francisco.

For much of the tournament, it seemed difficult to know what to take away from the extremely versatile Bravo. When teams played them straight up with little strategy, Denver would for the most part just run them over with pure athleticism and skill. When teams tried to take away the deep shots, Denver would work it up the field slowly and be none the worse. And when teams worked tirelessly to deny the open side as much as they could, Bravo’s would step through and hit countless inside-outs and arounds to the break side and leave opponents nearly defenseless.

Sometimes it got so bad, you’d just feel sorry for the other teams. But that doesn’t mean they’re invincible or some kind of lock to win Worlds and Nationals on roster alone. It just means that they’re already very, very good and are only going to become more and more skilled as they get to play together more and refine their system.

Most of what they’ll need to work on will be smoothing out the kinks in their reset system and moving the disc faster and earlier in the count, rather than just letting their throwers hold it while they wait for cuts to open up downfield then looking to dump at stall seven. Don’t be too led astray by their loss in the finals. On some levels, it was just a game that got away from them due to streaky execution in the wind and them falling a bit away from the fundamentals at times — and a strong performance from Revolver.

Bravo is the real deal. They have a legitimate shot to take home the top prize at both Worlds and Nationals. Especially when one considers that, unlike at the U.S. Open, they’ll likely have a healthy Josh Ackley, Brodie Smith, Nick Lance, Hidde Snieder, Hylke Snieder, Tim Morrissy, Evan Padget, and Ian Toner added into the mix.

Terrifying.

Ironside Looking Extremely Efficient

Amidst the bigger storylines of the Revolvers, Bravos, and even Sub Zeros, Ironside got a little lost in the shuffle, despite having one of the more quietly strong weekends.

Prior to their being knocked out by San Francisco in semis, Boston had only been beaten twice and both times by slim margins.

Their 13-15 loss to Bravo in the first round of the tournament was about as close as the score indicated and only featured seven total turns between the two teams, as both O lines had their way for most of the contest. Their 11-14 defeat at the hands of Sockeye came in a game filled with many ups and downs, a little chippiness, and just a few more upwind conversions by the scrappy Seattle team.

Even Ironside’s semis match against Revolver came down to a handful of breaks that San Francisco amassed near the end of the first half that Boston just wasn’t able to overcome.

It also helped that Revolver lucked out on a couple toss-ups like Jack Hatchett’s huge layout D on the goal line that bounced right into Joel Schlachet’s hands and was punched in for score to make it 14-11.

Unfortunate occurrences aside, Revolver earned that victory with defense pressure tailored to Ironside, effectively taking their O line out of the rolling rhythm they were in for most of the weekend. By the time Boston adjusted, it was too late.

But that doesn’t take away from how clean and focused Ironside looked all weekend. Any doubts about how their offensive attack would suffer from the absence of Peter Prial were silenced, as the combination of Josh Markette, George Stubbs, Danny Clark, Brandon Malecek, and the rest of the deep Boston O line looked among the most in sync of any at the tournament. Bay area transplant Brian Garcia appeared to transition into their system effectively, providing another powerful veteran presence on an O line already steeped with experience.

Maybe even more interesting, however, is how Boston’s defense is shaping up.

Over the past few years, Ironside has had something of a problem turning turnovers into breaks. That just might be a thing of the past. New recruit John Stubbs brought some fiery energy to the D line, complemented by mainstays like Russell Wallack and Rusty Ingold-Smith. It will be interesting to see how successful their defensive attack will be once they get back Will Neff and Matt Rebholz, who didn’t play this weekend, and work in college standouts Jeremy Nixon and Jeff Babbitt, who also weren’t in attendance.

After years of remaining on the cusp of a national championship, Ironside indicated this weekend that 2014 could very well be the year that Boston breaks through and reestablishes their former status of glory.

Sub Zero on the Verge of Breaking Through

Emerging if not out of nowhere then at least from outside the limelight, home team Minneapolis Sub Zero thrust themselves into contention for sleeper of the year.

But with the exceptionally dangerous handler core of Simon Montague, Grant Lindsley, Eric Johnson, and Josh Klane, along with Nick Stuart, who has risen up to become one of the premier deep threats in the country, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to slip under the radar any longer.

Their somewhat confusing 2013 hinted at this potential. An impressive tournament victory at Chesapeake Invite, which featured a 15-10 clubbing of Ironside in the finals, was bookended by a 1-5 Terminus embarrassment and a 2-4 Chicago Heavyweights flop.

They cleaned much of it up at Nationals, besting Toronto GOAT, Columbus Madcow, and Raleigh Ring of Fire before falling to Revolver in quarters. Had they drawn a different match-up — maybe a Chicago Machine or Atlanta Chain Lightning — maybe they would’ve had a shot at making semis.

This year, they look even better.

Sub Zero’s D line may not have many big names, but workhorses like Thomas Murray, Jon Gaynor, Julian Childs-Walker, Logan Weiss, and Patrick Jensen are no strangers to big plays or lockdown defense. In fact, one could easily make the argument that Minneapolis played among the hungriest defense all weekend. It may have been hard to tell against certain squads like Bravo, as Sub Zero’s D line isn’t exactly filled with 6’4” guys who can jump through the roof. But their intensity and desire more than make up for it in most cases.

While their O and D lines both struggled to work it upwind on Friday, their 15-8 blasting of Sockeye in the final round Saturday to knock the latter out of the bracket illustrated how good they can be when they move the disc quickly and cut more aggressively than their opponent.

Minneapolis looks determined to make a strong run this year. If they can maintain and grow upon their peak play from the weekend, there’s little reason why that wouldn’t be a strong possibility.

Sockeye Streaky, But Still Dangerous

If someone were to tell you that Sockeye would beat Ironside, take Revolver to double game point, and be the only of the top six seeds to defeat Bravo, yet somehow miss out on qualifying for semis, you’d probably stop listening to that person and resume your game of Jug.

But that’s just what happened to Seattle, and it’s hard not to feel like they kind of got the shaft.

Sure, it’s their fault for letting a 13-10 lead over Furious George turn into a 15-13 loss in the first round of the tournament. It’s also their fault for not navigating the wind better against Sub Zero in the final round and taking smarter shots. And it’s even their fault for not stopping Beau Kittredge from catching the final huck on double game point, or at least doing a better job throughout the game of protecting their leads, one of which was 14-12.

But it’s hard to say where it all went wrong.

Plenty of games could have easily swung against them had it not been for their defensive tenacity and precision under pressure. Yet, just as easily, their matches against Revolver and Furious George could have been secured without too much trouble if they had just managed to maintain their focus and execute near the end to close them out. On some level, one is tempted to attribute the up-and-down results to Seattle’s somewhat risky, Plinko style of play, which involves a lot of quick passes and intuitive actions before their players have much time to make a clear decision.

But that seems unfair, particularly given how well it works when Sockeye are hitting their marks. Defenses just don’t have enough time to set up or know where the disc is on the field. If anything, the games they dropped were due to not enough quick disc movement.

In the Vancouver match, Seattle had the lead at 13-10. Instead of sticking to what got them there, they started putting up laser hucks to guys who already looked a little out of breath, in that way a team can get winded during the first game of a weekend, before their bodies have re-acclimated back to tournament mode. Similarly, Sockeye’s blowout loss to Sub Zero came not as a result of getting burned by their small ball offense, but once again from putting up too many jacks. Some of those receivers were open, some weren’t, but the majority of those turns were the kind of mistakes that arise from a lack of focus.

Whether it was by throwing bullets to guys so poached they beat their man by 25 yards and the thrower just needed to wait a moment, or by tunneling upfield on someone until they got double-teamed, Seattle fell away from the fastbreak kind of offense they excel at, and it cost them.

Yet, such results are indeed too early to suggest anything else but an unfortunate overall performance on the weekend and the assurance of some fired-up practices in the future. The team is still every bit as dangerous as their national runners-up status indicates.

Matt Rehder’s only gotten better since his huge 2013, and, much like Stuart, he has evolved into one of the nation’s most lethal deep threats. Nate Castine remains the explosive leader he’s been since at least Sockeye’s last trip to Worlds, constantly making big plays to keep his team in the game.

Add in solid returners like BJ Sefton, Phil Murray, Danny Karlinsky, Adam Simon, Reid Koss, Sam Harkness, and Mike Caldwell, along with young stars like Justin Lim and John Raynolds fresh off their inspiring run with Carleton CUT at College Nationals, and Seattle has plenty of weapons to challenge any team.

It largely hinges upon which of brand of Sockeye decides to show up.

Furious George Just Short of Excellence

Much like Sockeye, Furious George left Minnesota only a few steps and conversions away from an unquestionably successful weekend. Instead, they’ll have to settle for the piecemeal positives and could-have-beens.

Vancouver opened up the tournament with the first round’s biggest story: their upset of Seattle. Their 5-0 run to complete the comeback was not only notable for who they beat, but also for how they did it.

Smiles all around amidst the grit and grind revealed a loose team out there just having fun, and it paid off early. Furious George Captain Morgan Hibbert said it best: “We’re relaxed and having fun, and why not us?” Even when they lost the rest of their games that day—one in a close 13-15 contest to Ironside and the other in a more convincing fashion to Sub Zero, 10-15—they still appeared in good spirits, joking around with the volunteers and amongst themselves.

Unfortunately for them, those two losses meant that even though they were able to upset Bravo in the final round when both teams were essentially locked into their place, they’d need to best Revolver in order to qualify for semis. Though giving them a decent run, Vancouver would fall to San Francisco 12-15, as well as London’s Clapham Ultimate in a back-and-forth match that ended in the latter’s favor 13-15, knocking Furious George out of contention.

But there was much to feel good about for Vancouver and much for opponents to be wary of in the future.

Chief among these were Vancouver’s young phenoms from the Canadian U23 team, particularly Gagan Chatha. All weekend long, Chatha wreaked havoc on defenses, taking the unders when they were there and burning his man deep and in the air whenever the space opened up. He was the only player in the Men’s division to finish in the top four in both goals and assists before bracket play started.

Furious George also received strong contributions from Matthew Berezan, Andre Gailits, Aaron Loach, Kevin Underhill, and Andrew Brown. Vancouver’s chemistry looked good for much of the tournament, as they appear to have greatly benefited from a large portion of their roster playing together so much in the MLU.

It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up against the rest of the elite competition in the coming months.

International Teams Struggle to Keep Up

One hard lesson Clapham and Colombia’s Evolution relearned this weekend, if they didn’t already know it: it’s terribly difficult to beat the top squads from North America if you don’t get to play them on a regular basis.

Much like basketball or football, the level of competition and tailored athleticism, as well as the youth infrastructute that gets kids started when they’re four years old, in the U.S. for certain sports is simply too high.

As a result, even if you’re the third best team in Colombia or the best in Europe, you don’t stand too much of a chance against America’s best.

Clapham put up a reasonable showing. They may have only defeated Evolution and Furious George, but they stayed close in a number of games. If only they managed to find an extra gear and convert some breaks, they might have had a chance to steal away wins from Sub Zero or Ironside. Alas, they simply didn’t have the athleticism to keep up with stacked teams like Bravo or Revolver. Based on their results from the weekend and at last year’s Chesapeake Invite, the London squad appear to be around the level of lower Nationals teams, without too much current hope of breaking through into quarters level status quite yet.

On something of the flip side, Evolution displayed their fiery athleticism all tournament with huge ups and even bigger bids. Without the kind of repeated experience at the highest levels, however, they simply couldn’t contain the high-powered offenses of their opponents. Consequently, the closest they came to pulling out an upset was their match against Sockeye, which ended in a 9-13 final score that seems closer than the game actually was.

Though the international teams may not have come away from the weekend with too many wins, they certainly emerged stronger than when they came, leaving with plenty of ideas for growth and development.

Notes

…One of the more curious parts of the whole weekend was how sloppy just about every team ran their endzone sets. They may have new rosters, but nearly every team runs the same essential endzone looks. So it was a bit confusing to see so much scatterbrained play near the goal line from such great teams…The field set-up was excellent. Massive stretches of green, non-patchy grass for pool play and a good looking stadium arrangement provided a superb setting for some great ultimate…Just after the final round, Evolution could be seen trapping one of their players in the garbage can, with Bravo and Furious George laughing and cheering them on…Sub Zero player’s shout after their upset of Sockeye: “We’re going to Worlds!”

  1. Alec Surmani
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    Alec Surmani and some close friends began playing ultimate in high school and started Hercules Jabberwocky. He played college ultimate with UCLA Smaug and has played with various Open and Mixed club teams in the (former) Northwest and Southwest divisions. He started and now leads the team Bay Area Donuts.

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