Chicago Machine: 2014 National Championships Preview

Ultiworld previews the hottest team in club ultimate, Chicago Machine, in our 2014 Club Nationals Preview series.

Chicago Machine at 2014 Great Lakes Regionals.
Photo via Machine’s Facebook.

There is always a team that catches fire. Last year it was Toronto GOAT. In 2014, that team is, without question, Machine. The Chicago based team put together one of the most impressive regular seasons in recent memory and is ready to keep it going next week in Texas.

Not many people expected this from Machine, which plays to their advantage. They are a team that doesn’t have much of a “star-factor” but plays extremely well together. With an athletic defense and an efficient offense, Machine’s confidence is at an all-time high, and it looks like they are ready to handle any type of conditions thrown at them.

Though much of the buzz still falls to last year’s semifinalists, Machine has consistently looked like the team that can break through and make a deep run at Nationals. Will they continue their success in big tournaments? Or will Machine’s fuel run out against the best of the best?

Machine in a Nutshell

Overall Indicators:

  • Overall #2 seed at Club Championships
  • 2013 Nationals Finish: 6th
  • #2 in Ultiworld Power Rankings
  • #4 in USAU Club Rankings


  • Spectacular regular season record of 18-4 with wins over Ironside, Johnny Bravo, and Chain Lightning; finished the season with a 9-3 record over teams who qualified for Nationals
  • Won three of their tournaments this year: Pro-Elite Challenge, Pro-Flight Finale and the Great Lakes Region. Only loss came at their home tournament Heavyweights, which was shortened by weather
  • Efficient and consistent offense, especially in windy conditions; continues to play their game regardless of weather.
  • Athletic and smart on defense. They may not have the pure size to matchup with the taller teams, but this team combines athleticism with awareness to avoid getting beat deep early.
  • Amazing depth of deep threats in their offensive cutting core, including top gun Johnathan “Goose” Helton.
  • Lethal against teams who start slow. Incredible mental toughness to never take a game off.


  • Lack of postseason big game experience. Machine has shown they can win in the regular season, but the Club Championships are a different beast.
  • The Chicago AUDL team — with lots of Machine overlap — ran out of steam in the AUDL playoffs; Machine also underperformed in 2013 Club Championship pool play.
  • Eye test makes them look more like a semifinalist, rather than finalist, as many of their wins came against opponents who (perhaps due to Machine) looked like they were underperforming.
  • Heavily reliant on Bob Liu and Helton. Some may argue their distribution of touches is a positive, but most teams that win championships have that one player who can take over a game.
  • Machine played in more tournaments than the other top contenders, and played a long AUDL season, which could cause some fatigue in a long tournament.

Season Recap

If we went over all of Machine’s regular season accolades, we could be here a while. As the sixth Pro level team, Chicago had the opportunity to play in the Pro-Elite Challenge and the Pro Flight Finale, which may prove to be a huge plus for them heading into Nationals.

Machine let everyone know from the beginning of the season they were ready to play. A 6-1 record at the Chesapeake Invite spoke to that. Their only loss of the tournament came in pool play to Chain Lightning. Other than that blemish, Machine dominated the weekend, highlighted by a one point victory over Truck Stop and a payback win against Chain in the final. This tournament set the tone for the Chicago club.

Their home tournament, Heavyweights, is the big question mark — Machine lost to Madison Club in the faux finals — but even that comes with an asterisk, as weather considerably shortened the weekend, and the playing field was considerably smaller than regulation (giving a good Mad Club zone extra punch).

The biggest achievement of Chicago’s season came at the Pro Flight Finale in late August. Much like GOAT last season, Machine had a solid regular season resume heading to E.C.C. Also like the 2013 GOAT team, Chicago went 1-2 in pool play — losses to Revolver and Ironside — but plowed through the competition on Sunday. Machine simply outplayed every team they faced in bracket play. First an impressive 15-11 win over Bravo, followed by a 15-11 win over Chain, and finally capped by a 13-10 victory over Boston Ironside in the finals. This team is not a fluke.

With the regular season behind them, Machine took to the Great Lakes Regional looking to capture the one and only bid to Nationals. Hungry to not let their great season go to waste, Chicago handled the extremely windy conditions, and easily came out on top. The finals game against High Five (15-10 Machine) was the only game in which a team scored more than five points on Machine.

Chicago can hang with the best. It will be interesting to see if they can carry over their great season into the toughest tournament of the year. With plentiful video footage of Machine available, teams will be well prepared for them; Machine will need to be a step ahead.

Playing Style

Machine is a team that combines intelligent, structured offensive planning with explosive, aggressive scoring opportunities. On the one hand, Machine is smart. New player-coach Ron Kubalanza has taken an already very deep playbook and expanded upon it, giving his team a multitude of offensive strategies to attack.

The squad can run a dozen plays out of several different offensive sets; they’ll alternate between vertical, horizontal, and side stack, looking to keep defenses off-guard.

Machine runs the sweep.

Each play, out of each set, features at least two viable options to attack; usually one option involves a deep shot, and the casual spectator will immediately indicate that this is the one that should be stopped (in the split and send below for example). This team is not afraid to huck.

The Split and Send 

The depth of their players is underrated: A.J. Nelson, Taylor Kraemer, Cullen Geppert, and Pat Shriwise will lead the cutters and have shined this season. Bob Liu, Brett Kolinek, and Tom Annen anchor the skilled handler unit. Annen, in particular, has impressed in their games on tape and may be a sleeper All-Club selection if he shows strong at Nationals.

All the offensive players on Machine’s offense are confident in their hucks, and indeed the majority of their huck scores come from cutter to cutter connections. Thus, zone or another type of junk defense is the enemy’s best bet, yet Machine has proven, most recently at a very windy regionals, that they have the skilled throwers to move the disc despite the elements.

One underreported story on the Machine style is the extent to which their plays mimic the “lagging” or “dead side” approach (perhaps best seen in Revolver’s style). There is a huge emphasis on isolating a one-on-one, but Machine might not make this immediately obvious to the defense.


On the defensive unit, Helton and captain Kevin Kelly are names to know, but Machine digs in as a team. Their marks have been an underrated part of their success — see their game against Boston Ironside at the Pro Flight Finale. Machine’s defensive unit probably hasn’t been talked about enough this season and likes playing man to man with some early deep help.

On the turn, the D unit also runs plays, but they are a side that will push the tempo a lot more; you’ll see a lot of throw and go from the defensive handlers, as opposed to the calm, cool collected offensive handlers who usually stay out of their cutters’ way. The defensive side will also take its shots and also likes having cutters put those deep looks up during flow.

Likely Ceiling

Finals. Hard to see this team being crowned a National Champion when they’ve just arrived at the elite level, or beating both Revolver and Johnny Bravo in the same weekend.

Likely Floor

Quaterfinals exit. Machine’s experience and consistency should be favorable in their pool, considering they face two teams (Rhino and Sub Zero) who are still looking to prove themselves. If Machine wins their pool, they will win their prequarters. A potential quarterfinals against the 2nd team from Pool A also heavily favors Machine, but early madness in Pool D could create a tougher path for Machine into the semis.

Worst Match-Ups

Revolver and Bravo. Machine has subtly borrowed some concepts from the Revolver playbook, but doesn’t execute on that level yet–and Revolver is unlikely to let Machine out-grind them in a game that really matters. While Bravo would need to dial down the deep shots in a game against Machine, they would have a skill advantage at all seven spots on the line.

  1. Matt Reese

    Matt Reese is an Ultiworld contributor living in Texas.

  2. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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