An East Coast Rematch, And #1 Defense v. #1 Offense: 2014 AUDL Semifinals Preview

It's AUDL Championship Weekend in Toronto. First up, the semifinals. Can the Empire finally topple the Rush? Is San Jose's #1 offense enough to overcome Madison's #1 defense?

While we got all of our preview predictions right last weekend in terms of who advanced to the next round (there were no upsets), some of the games weren’t quite as close as expected. The Rush blew out the Breeze 37-12 in rainy conditions, while the Spiders demonstrated their ability to rise to the occasion with a 26-16 victory over the FlameThrowers.

In Madison, the AlleyCats bowed out to the Radicals 25-16, despite being down 12-13 early in the second half. On the east coast, New York took down a Wildfire team that may or may not have been better off with Brodie Smith; his addition did not prove to be enough to overcome a tough Empire defense, and New York won 23-17.

We take a look below at the next round of the playoffs. Both games — and the final on Sunday — will both be livestreamed on ESPN3 this weekend.

New York Empire v. Toronto Rush in the AUDL 2013.
Photo by Sandy Canetti — UltiPhotos.com

TORONTO RUSH v. NEW YORK EMPIRE (7/26 3pm EST)

The Empire were very close to upsetting the Rush in both of their regular season games (20-22 and 18-21). In many ways, the Empire have played increasingly tough against the Rush since their very first meeting last season. After big losses in the 2013 regular season, the Empire put up perhaps their best game of the season in the semifinals loss against the Rush. Then, this season, they held a lead until late against the Rush in their home opener, then played the Rush very tough on the road without a full squad.

While the Rush will be hot coming off their demolition of the Breeze in the quarterfinal, the Empire are out to avenge last year’s postseason loss, and have the personnel to do so. Their defensive pressure is among the best in the league, perhaps second only to Madison.

When he spoke to Ultiworld, coach Tom Gibbons said that the Empire will not give up the same plays that the Breeze did.

“The Rush do two things really well: they try to break you on the away side with around backhands, two or three in a row to get on that weak side, and then look to take deep shots,” he said. “We’ve played them close twice this year, and I think their victories are really helped by the fact that we turned the disc over so much; we’re going to hold onto the disc better and turn it over less this game. We’re going to do what we always do. Play a lot of pressure defense, run our sets, and see what happens.”

Look for the Empire’s stout defensive line to take away several of Toronto’s first looks with sagging handler coverage. Against the Wildfire, New York generated several turns from forcing the handlers to swing among themselves for the first few passes, and the extra half-second taken on upfield throws to avoid the poach could be the difference between a completion or layout block from any one of New York’s athletic defensive cutters.

Rush coach Evan Phillips agreed.”The Empire are a deep team, have a ton of scrap to them, and are confident against us,” he said. “Their handling core will be much stronger this weekend [adding Noah and Isaac Saul] compared to when we last faced them, so that will surely help them. They have also defended our pull plays quite well with a variety of poachy sets that have been effective at slowing us down.”

Unfortunately for the Empire, just slowing down the Rush won’t be enough to secure a spot in the final. With the Sauls anchoring the offensive line, New York will need to be more conservative with the disc than it has been in past to minimize the chances Toronto has to break. Break opportunities that would go unpunished against lesser teams will not be discarded so lightly by the Rush.

“Toronto is an athletic, well-coached team,” New York captain Isaiah Bryant said. “To win this game, we’ll need to capitalize on every mistake they make. We can’t give them second chances. The Rush ended our season last year; we look forward to returning the favor.”

Ben Ivers expressed his belief that Toronto are no hotter going into the semifinal than the Empire: “We’ve got our own momentum that we’ll be bringing to Toronto. We haven’t lost yet when at full strength, and that’s exactly how we’ll be this weekend. Our O is more confident than ever, and the D line has a set of looks that will help slow down Toronto’s fast game pace.”

More important than the momentum of the Empire is the sharpness of their offense. In their last two wins, the offense was nearly untouchable for a good portion of the game. The Breeze were out of the contest at halftime after the Empire didn’t give up a single break. The Wildfire also went breakless in the first half and their defense never found any sort of rhythm. The Empire will know to expect a tougher test from the Rush, but will look to channel their recent patience into this weekend’s game.

Geoff Powell, one of the top Rush defenders, will be out with injury for Toronto. New York will bring a full squad to the semifinal.

Prediction: Rush win, 23-18.

Beau Kittredge and Kurt Gibson, San Jose Spiders.
Photo via SJ Spiders.

SAN JOSE SPIDERS v. MADISON RADICALS (7/26 7pm EST)

On the other side of the bracket, the champions of the West take on the best team coming out of the Midwest. While the first semifinal will feature two defensively oriented teams, this matchup places the league’s #1 offense of the Spiders, scoring over 28 points per game, against the league’s #1 defense, a team that has conceded an average of only 15 goals per game this season.

Radicals captain Tom Annen said that the Radicals were quite rusty in the first half of their game against Indy from not having played a full competitive match in two weeks, but that their depth was able to see them through the quarterfinal. Surprisingly, Annen is less concerned about the Spiders’ stars than their less-known players, believing that the Spiders’ success is derived from the middle-of-the-roster players who frequently get overlooked by opposing defenses as they hone in on the Spiders’ big name players.

“We have our match ups for their stars to contain them as much as possible, but I think we are more worried about the Spiders less known to those outside the AUDL,” he said. “Those are big players with crazy stats in the AUDL who don’t play for top club teams. I have full faith in our defenders. We’ve played against the best and have defenders who are athletic enough to play with any of those guys. We want to prove again that we can play with the big names, and we want another shot at Toronto for the championship.”

Expect Peter Graffy to get significant time covering Kittredge; however, there is a chance that the Radicals may focus their defensive efforts on the players surrounding the top players; if Madison can shut down the downfield options when the disc is in the hands of the Spiders’ best players, that could generate turns.

Slowing the Spiders’ pace will be critical to creating break opportunities; San Jose has scored approximately 75% of their goals this season in 8 or fewer passes. This is likely a foregone conclusion by Madison, but their O-line will need to be red hot, or else the Spiders could run away with the game like they did against the FlameThrowers.

Ashlin Joye believes that the Spiders’ ability to convert turns into breaks more often than usual was the difference in the quarterfinal, and looks to bring the same intensity against Madison: “In our previous games against the FlameThrowers, victory was decided by only a few breaks one way or another. This game, we were able to apply a little bit more pressure to their offense on that big field, but most importantly we were able to capitalize on turnovers. I think our focus, patience, and discipline with our D-line offense was what won us that game.”

Pat Shriwise will likely return this weekend to give the Radicals a full roster, while the Spiders lose shut-down defender Tim Gilligan alongside Matthew Natali to injury; Devon Anderson will also not feature for San Jose. It will be interesting to see if the Radicals can go out and take this game to the Spiders. Most fans will expect the Spiders’ superior talent, athleticism, and overall cohesion to secure them a spot in the final against Toronto.

Prediction: Spiders win, 26-19.

  1. Steven Wartinbee
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    Steven Wartinbee graduated Georgetown University in the class of 2015, where he captained the men's team, Catholic Justice. He currently lives and works in Arlington. You can contact him at swartinbee@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter @swartinbee.

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