Tune into Ultiworld this weekend for continued coverage of the AUDL playoffs, including a live stream of the Chicago Wildfire v. the New York Empire. Over the course of the weekend, the top 8 teams from across the AUDL will begin the path to the championship. This preview looks at the Eastern Conference teams in action in the quarterfinals round.
July 17, 2014 by Steven Wartinbee in Preview with 2 comments
TORONTO RUSH v. DC BREEZE (6pm EST 7/19)
The top 8 teams from across the AUDL will begin the path to the championship with the quarterfinals this weekend. The DC Breeze (#3 in the East, 10-4) will travel up to Toronto to face the Rush (#1 in the East and defending champions, 13-1) in front of what is sure to be a large and rambunctious home crowd.
The Breeze and Rush have only played each other twice this season, with the Rush emerging victorious both times. The storylines of the two games, however, could not be more different.
Going into the first game, the Rush were the heavy favorites to pick up where they had left off the season prior; once the game began, a first-time spectator would not have been able to tell that one team had won the league and the other had narrowly avoided last place. The Breeze’s O-line, led by newly signed Pitt duo Alex Thorne and Tyler Degirolamo, easily dealt with whatever the Toronto defense threw at them. Emboldened by their team’s rejuvenated roster, the Breeze would take a 10-6 lead after a pair of back-to-back breaks.
Toronto would then go on a 4-0 run to even the game at 10s, before trading the odd break to stay within one for the rest of the game. With the exception of three points, the Breeze were either up a break or on serve; unfortunately for the hosts, one of those points was the last. Degirolamo was forced to rush an unsuccessful huck to Thorne as time expired. Toronto ground out the W, 20-19.
The next game would prove to follow the storyline many might have expected of the first game. The Breeze were a shadow of their usual selves. The O-line lacked its usual smoothness and chemistry, and the D-line lacked the composure necessary to convert turns into breaks. Both rosters were missing players, but it seemed that the Breeze lost more top-end talent; Thorne, Degirolamo, and Brad Scott (tied with Ben Feng for most Ds) all weren’t able to join their teammates. The final score was 27-17 in favor of the Rush.
Over the two games, Mark Lloyd (9G, 7A), and Jeff Lindquist (7A, 3G) have been the offensive leaders for the Rush, while Geoffrey Powell (6 blocks) has taken over the defensive side of things; Cameron Harris split the difference with 6G, 5A, and 4 Ds. For the Breeze, Brett Matuzka (5A, 1G, 3D), Logan Rhyne (5G, 3A, 1D), Justin Solis (6G, 1A, 1D), and Degirolamo (6G, 3A in only one game) have been the primary playmakers.
Both teams will have their full squads on Saturday; expect the scoreline to be a much closer reflection of their first matchup than the latter. The Breeze will more than likely be confident enough in their cutters to continue playing a loose deep game, while the Rush will play with the same system that has seen them take a 29-1 regular season record over the past two years. Both teams have impressively polished offensive lines with very few unforced errors, so the pressure will be on the defense of both squads to take over the game.
Despite the odds, Don Grage, co-owner of the Breeze, was optimistic when he spoke to Ultiworld:
“The Toronto Rush have proven over almost two full seasons that they are the class of the league. However, we are up to the task to show the ultimate world that our one-point loss to them in April was no fluke — that we can win a road playoff game in Toronto and earn a highly coveted final four spot at Championship Weekend!”
On the Rush side of things, Scott Hastie opined, “Our first game was a battle and we would expect nothing less in this playoff game. I know that their coaching staff will have their entire team ready for the game and we look forward to the challenge. [Our] guys know that if they don’t bring their best they are going to be disappointed with the results. ”
With such a strong program that has gone close to unchallenged over the past two seasons, the Rush will be eager to take on this quarterfinal and continue their quest for the repeat championship. However, Toronto’s first-ever loss just over a week ago, combined with the parity of the game in April, will give the Breeze confidence that the Rush are not invincible.
Prediction: Rush win, 26-22.
NEW YORK EMPIRE v. CHICAGO WILDFIRE (5pm EST 7/19)
In the other quarterfinal to be played on the East Coast, the New York Empire (#2 in the East, 10-4) will host the Chicago Wildfire (#2 in the Midwest, 9-5). The Empire will be coming off their mini-series against the Breeze (winning 2 of 4) that concluded their regular season just last weekend, while the Wildfire haven’t played since their June 28th home win against Cincinnati. This matchup will be the first time two teams from different divisions have played each other earlier than the AUDL Championship.
After picking up some North Carolina recruits and making a few late-season roster additions (such as handler Isaac Saul), the Empire have solved their number one issue from last year — lack of depth. Matthew Stevens and Noah Saul are the statistical offensive forces for the Empire, continuing their efforts that saw them finish second overall in the AUDL in goals and assists, respectively. Adding another Saul to that mix only increases New York’s firepower.
But New York’s real strength lies in its role players and defensive effort. Twins Mike and Ryan Drost (2nd and 5th in blocks in the league) will lead a defensive line that also includes Ring of Fire standout Justin Allen and captain Isaiah Bryant.
For the Wildfire, they look to AJ Nelson, Bob Liu and Jonathan “Goose” Helton to anchor the offense; Nelson will play both ways, as he also leads the team in Ds. Liu will be the primary handler; containing his break throws on the AUDL-sized field is a massive challenge for any opponent.
The Chicago AUDL franchise is deeply intertwined with local club team Machine, one of the hotter teams in the club scene after their Chesapeake Invite victory. That victory included a blow-out win over New York’s PoNY — if the Wildfire play anything like Machine has recently, then this game could also get away from New York. The Empire may be confident in their ability to overcome the challenge of the Wildfire, after ending with a significantly better regular season record and goal differential.
Both teams’ defenses have been particularly strong, with the Empire scoring almost half of their regular season goals from the D-line. That’s been the story for New York over the past two years — when their offense plays solid enough to keep their defense on the field, the defense finds way to create turnovers.
But elite defensive units like Toronto have continued to give New York’s offense trouble, and while the Wildfire have a slightly lower ratio of defensive scores, they still pose a dangerous defensive threat. Expect this quarterfinal to be somewhat more evenly break-heavy than the other games, as the defensive lines battle it out at the expense of either team’s O-line.
Empire co-owner Cullen Shaw believes that the matchup won’t be easy, but that if the Empire play the way they have all season, they should emerge with the win. “I think it is business as usual for Empire this week. A lot of our players just came back from big club tournaments so we are focusing on health, mental preparation, and team unity. We not only have the pride of our city on the line but also our division. For DC and New York, the playoffs started 3 games ago and that should give both teams an added boost heading into the quarterfinals. ”
Tune in to Ultiworld for a free live-stream of the Wildfire v. Empire game.
Prediction: Empire win, 21-17.