This year's Pro Flight Finale was entirely unpredictable. At the end of it, Chicago Machine showed why they are considered to have as good of a shot as ever at making a deep Nationals run.
September 4, 2014 by Alec Surmani in Recap with 8 comments
Anyone who could have accurately predicted the results of the men’s division at this year’s Pro Flight Finale would have to be either the reincarnation of Nostradamus or a wholly transparent liar. There’s just not really any room for other options.
Held in Burlington, WA this past weekend, the final major tournament of the regular season provided plenty of juicy storylines and crazy upsets, guaranteeing a wealth of potential speculation about how Nationals will play out come October. Though Saturday found only one team breaking seed by the end of pool play, Sunday’s opening quarterfinal round yielded so much excitement that one couldn’t help but wish for the power to be in four places at once so nothing would be missed. Or at least wish for a NexGen crew the size of ESPN’s to film every point of bracket play to help everyone understand just how it all went down.
While nobody could be everywhere at once—and even if they could, it would still be difficult to know what to make of everything—here’s a look at some of the stories on the weekend.
Machine’s Glorious Sunday
Much like Toronto GOAT at the 2013 Pro Flight Finale, Chicago Machine came into this year’s tournament with a solid season resume, went 1-2 on Saturday, tying for last in their pool, and then proceeded to smash through everyone on Sunday. Also like last year’s GOAT, it’s tough to discern just what that means.
One thing it most certainly doesn’t mean: fluke.
Regardless of how they finish at Nationals, this weekend proved that when Machine play their best ultimate, or perhaps only something close to their best ultimate, they’re as good as anyone in the country. Chicago didn’t win the title this weekend out of sheer luck or uncharacteristically abysmal play from their opponents. Machine won because they just played better than everyone else on Sunday. And in certain cases, such as Boston Ironside in the final, their opponents turned in strong performances as well. But it doesn’t matter if a team plays well when the other team plays outstanding.
“Even when we broke, and it seemed like it was going to turn in our favor,” Ironside player Rusty Ingold-Smith said, “their offense just kept clicking and holding. It was frustrating.”
All throughout bracket play, Machine took advantage of the opportunities they were given and never played like a squad scared of making mistakes. If one didn’t know much ultimate history, Chicago would have been indistinguishable from storied programs like Seattle Sockeye and Denver Johnny Bravo. They played like a team that wants and knows how to win. And perhaps just as importantly, Machine played like a team that’s smart enough to ignore essentially irrelevant factors like history, reputation, expectation, and the score.
Every point could have been universe in the national title game for all they knew. It mattered just the same. Cutters kept hustling and working as a unit. Handlers kept directing traffic and waiting for openings to arise downfield. Defenders kept applying the pressure and leaving minimal cushion for opposing offenses.
AJ Nelson and Pat Shriwise in particular consistently broke free downfield, consequently creating space for teammates like Kevin Kelly and Cullen Geppert to do work when defenses began directing extra attention to Machine’s primary deep threats. Leaders like Bob Liu, Tom Annen, and Dave Wiseman did a great job of opening up the field with an arsenal of different looks and precision hucks. Jonathan “Goose” Helton directed a scrappy D line that employed great fundamentals to stay tight on their men and make resets and break throws difficult.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Machine just executed better than their opponents. Looking back at their semifinal and final matches, it wasn’t necessarily that Atlanta’s Chain Lightning or Ironside made a bunch of poor decisions or strayed too far from their own game, particularly since Machine isn’t exactly the type of team to throw an assortment of different defensive sets or tricky offensive playcalls. Both Chain Lightning and Ironside simply missed more of their shots downfield.
There were a number of times in both games where Machine put up hucks to receivers with only a step or two, or lofted a couple deep shots for a second or so too long. Much more often than not, though, those receivers managed to assert and maintain better positioning than their defenders and Chicago’s throwers succeeded in effectively serving the disc up on a plate for them.
Admittedly, such execution will become a difficult thing to rely on in October, particularly when everyone will be more focused on winning than also trying out different experiments like they often are during the regular season. But to attribute Machine’s success on the weekend to them essentially having a good day would be to sell a seriously excellent team short. Their system of cutting looked fluid, their reset system dynamic, and their defense fundamental. Who knows what might happen in a few weeks should they not be able to unleash beautiful huck after beautiful huck.
Should they manage to further refine their system and continue playing as hungry as they did on Sunday, though, there’s a pretty good chance that those marks will continue to be hit.
Ironside Stay Strong
If there was ever an apt name for an elite ultimate team’s identity, Ironside just might be it. Although Boston has yet to win a national championship under that moniker, they’ve consistently been a squad one can depend on for a solid performance at just about every big tournament.
They were one of just three teams to suffer only two losses on the weekend, San Francisco Revolver and Machine being the other two. They crushed both Austin Doublewide and GOAT in quarters and semis, perhaps like squads such as Bravo (lost to Doublewide in the seventh place game) and Sockeye (fell to GOAT on universe in quarters) were expected to. Prior to the final of the Pro Flight Finale, their only losses on the season came to teams that made semis of Nationals last year.
Though sometimes just being among the best isn’t good enough. It’s been a while since Boston have won a major tournament. Thanks to Chicago’s dominance, it will be even longer.
That’s not to take away anything from the weekend as a whole though. Ironside played very well throughout the tournament, the final included. When they get fired up, Boston can play some of the best defense in the nation. Captain Russell Wallack said his team has been working on shrinking the cushions they’ve been granting players in the stack to take away easy breaks. It reaped rewards all weekend.
Moreover, Wallack leads a D line that looks more athletic and dynamic than in years past, particularly with the addition of players like John Stubbs and Jeff Babbitt. Babbitt especially has been a huge pick-up for Ironside. Playing in his first domestic tournament with them this weekend, Babbitt was all over the place on defense. It seemed as though just about every game, he racked up at least two monster layout Ds, often seeming to appear out of nowhere and generating turnovers despite being a handful of steps behind his man.
The addition of veteran Brian Garcia, too, has proved to be a great pick-up. Though he was responsible for a curious number of Boston’s turnovers throughout the weekend, Garcia more than made up for them with his superior throws and wily cutting.
If Ironside can only manage to convert a few more break opportunities a game and further develop their chemistry, they could be just as dangerous as their potential has always implied.
Chain and GOAT Flash Brilliance
Chain Lightning and GOAT experienced curious parallels on the weekend. Both opened up the weekend with promising upsets over a team that had just made the final of Worlds, before finishing last in their pools. Both made semis with only two wins. Both of those wins for each team were over Revolver and Sockeye.
It’s almost creepy.
Not much was likely expected of either team going into the weekend, even with GOAT’s remarkable Pro Flight Finale victory last year. Though each managed to reveal glimpses of just how high their ceilings can be when they execute their gameplan.
In the opening round of the tournament, Chain came out hot against Sockeye. Despite throwing an array of different defensive sets, Seattle just couldn’t contain Atlanta’s deep game. Perfect hucks thrown early and out to space for streaking cutters, often as they faked like they were clearing, became an insurmountable challenge for Sockeye. Even when they ran containment zones, Chain displayed good discipline in moving the disc to get new angles for attack.
Similarly, Atlanta showed great ultimate IQ in their quarters upset over San Francisco. They opened up the field with some well-orchestrated deep shots and used the threat of those big looks to create separation underneath. They may have received some help from Revolver miscues like defenders falling down or miffed routine throws, but Chain nevertheless earned that victory by playing smart and capitalizing on mistakes.
When Atlanta faced off against Chicago in semis, however, and struggled to connect on some of those deep balls in the gaining wind, they looked a bit more lost as to how they could drum up some momentum. Much like a great many Chain Lightning incarnations of the past, Atlanta will need to figure out ways of getting their offense going when the hucks aren’t connecting if they want to make a deep run at Nationals.
GOAT, too, though not as reliant on the long game as Chain, often found difficulties sparking their offensive flow when the downfield action became muddled.
Sometimes they looked like the Toronto Rush plowing through teams that don’t stand a chance against their intuition and malleability. Other times, handlers would receive the centering throw off a pull and be staring down a stationary stack looking right back at them for a full five seconds, waiting for a something to happen.
Maybe even more troubling than a confused O line, however, would be the occasional instances of seeming bitterness among the team. A number of times during the weekend, players could be seen yelling at each other about missed assignments or opportunities. Many a “What the…?” looks were exchanged with the accompanying dubious facial expression.
Now, to be fair, adrenaline can trigger some undesirable kneejerk reactions. Everyone’s been there. And maybe such bitterness was merely an illusion or a product of poor timing on the part of the onlooker. But it was nevertheless difficult all weekend to get a bead on just how to feel about GOAT this year.
Not too many teams can go from being trounced by Ironside 13-7 in one game to making an extraordinary comeback against Revolver in the next. Only to lose to Machine on universe soon after when the second pass off the pull floated out to a cutter who had just turned in the opposite direction.
Yet, that squad is the same one that can come back the next day and win a universe point game with what’s essentially a hammer jump ball.
Which is all to say that Toronto can be anything from the behemoth stomping through the village, to the guy at pick-up everyone knows is supposed to be good but who just can’t stop dropping the disc. It all depends on which GOAT shows up.
Revolver Slip Up, But Stay Fundamental
For the second year in a row, Revolver came into Pro Flight Finale as U.S. Open champs, won their pool, and were knocked out in quarters. Also for the second year in a row, though, Revolver bounced back from their elimination by cleaning up the placement bracket and taking fifth. Though they may have only lost two games at both incarnations of the event, each time one of those losses came at a particularly inopportune time.
So then, the question naturally arises of what to make of such a loss. San Francisco’s quarters defeat, if anything, illustrated the fallibility of even a great team. They didn’t play terribly. Though Chain did play quite well, especially during the final points. Revolver’s mistakes came in a few different forms. Some came in the shape of the previously mentioned miffed throws or unfortunate slippings.
Others, however, came in the form of poor decisions like ill-advised huck choices and trying to jam the disc into tight windows. After all, as impressive as a layout D might be, a great many of them are made possible by an unnecessary choice on the part of the thrower to try and squeeze in a pass to someone who isn’t really open. In this way, one could attribute a certain amount of conscious blame on Revolver, indicative of areas that need improvement. Yet, in certain other instances, such as select parts of their match against Atlanta, San Francisco’s mistakes were merely ones of execution rather than decision-making. A huck a foot too far or an away pass just out of bounds.
A fifth place finish is also less of a concern when one considers that just about all of the fundamentals that play an integral part of Revolver’s success could still be found throughout the weekend: great team cutting to create plenty of isolation scenarios, handler discipline, and tight dump and downfield defense. Their results on the weekend may not be ideal, even for a program committed to building up their less experienced players over the course of the regular season. But one would expect nothing less than a focused Revolver capable of connecting on those attempts much more often in Frisco.
Sockeye Looking Dynamic
A sixth place finish doesn’t really do justice to the kind of weekend Sockeye had. Sure, a 3-3 record sends mixed signals. What Seattle proved more than their ability to win games—which they have pretty much no need to prove at this point—is their terrific capability to take on many forms and adapt to various circumstances, even ones that may not have even arisen yet.
Much like Chain and their deep game, just about everyone knows that Sockeye love to play small ball and keep the disc moving. Unlike Chain, however, rather than simply challenging teams to find a way to limit their known preference, Seattle elected to adopt and employ various other styles instead.
Considering how organic and subtle this shift appeared, one would be hard-pressed to say that this change was orchestrated entirely to combat the common knowledge of Sockeye’s general identity and style of play. Rather, Seattle’s chosen gameplans on the weekend merely seemed to correspond to captain Danny Karlinsky’s assertion that Seattle, just like everyone else, was using the Pro Flight Finale as a place to experiment with different sets and techniques.
Instead of seeking to always move the disc as quickly as possible, trying to constantly change the angles on the field and catch defenders out of position, Sockeye took a little more time with the disc this weekend. Plenty of their other trademarks, like quick I-Os, lasers into small spaces, and scattered endzone offense, could still be seen. They seemed more contextually implemented, though, rather than central to a kind of ethos. Throughout the weekend, Sockeye experimented with horizontal, vertical, side, and split stacks, as well as some less overtly discernible offensive systems, often in the form of pull plays.
Additionally, on defense, they tested out numerous zone and poachy looks. Some involved manning up on the handlers with downfield defenders did a sort of clam with designated unders and deeps constantly looking around to see who might be coming into the space. Some sought to clog the lanes and force throws out and around or through the crowded middle. Others still seemed almost intentionally confusing and meant to generate turns from hidden poachers.
Seattle managed to run these defensive sets, to varying degrees of efficiency, thanks in large part to their exceptional ability to make switches on assignments on the fly. Perhaps no other team communicates as well as Sockeye when it comes to help defense and switching. Often times no words or looks were even exchanged, as the Seattle defenders simply recognized and acted accordingly on impulse.
They may have lost to GOAT in a tight quarters match that could have gone either way. But with their level of defensive intuition, coupled with an already stellar offensive chemistry, another finals appearance at Nationals seems entirely within their reach.
Bravo Still a Question Mark
Maybe even more so than Machine’s triumph, Bravo’s confounding plummet on Sunday served as one of the greatest mysteries on the weekend.
Similar to Boston last year, Denver came into the tournament as one of the favorites to win, turned in a strong 2-1 Saturday performance, then proceeded to lose the rest of their games, including their final contest against Doublewide. Bravo finished dead last, and it’s tough to know why.
Denver started the weekend by whomping on Austin and Atlanta, before losing a close one to Seattle, thanks to a ridiculous grab by Joe “BJ” Sefton on universe in what might have been the play of the tournament.
When Bravo clashed with Machine in the quarters, however, chances are they weren’t ready for a squad having their best day of ultimate in recent history. The score remained close through halftime, with Chicago up 8-7 and set to receive. Machine turned it up in the second half, though, capitalizing on Bravo mistakes and earning a crucial break to go up 11-8. Denver had a few chances to gain some ground back, but a Chicago hold at 14-11 was followed by a break to seal the victory.
Bravo’s mistakes, like Revolver’s, didn’t come from one particular aspect. Sometimes it was a gift of a hammer dropped in the endzone. Sometimes it was an unnecessarily tough throw attempted anyway, placed just out of reach for a streaking cutter trying to keep it in bounds. Sometimes it was just a jump ball put up to Jimmy Mickle with the assumption that it would be an automatic goal.
Whereas Machine looked confident in their team to work it up in as many passes as it took, Bravo would occasionally lose their patience and someone would try to be a hero, only to see their effort come up short.
Perhaps it was a pervading mentality of the team feeling as though they were being shafted, like when a heavily favored squad begins losing to an underdog and takes it as a personal slight, effectively losing their focus and making it worse. Maybe it was nothing like that and Bravo just didn’t have it in them to beat Machine that day, and it just kind of started going downhill from there. Yet, with all their weapons and considering how well they were already able to play together in July at the U.S. Open, it’s likely unwise to take their last place finish at face value.
Last year, Ironside rebounded from their last place finish at the Pro Flight Finale to take third in the nation at Club Championships, even beating Bravo in the third place game.
Precursor to Drama
If anything, the weekend illustrated two things. The first is that when just about any elite team is at the top of their game, they can contend with anyone.
The second: Frisco is in for one hell of a show.
**Visit NGNUltimate.com to purchase games from the Pro Flight Finale for VOD viewing!**