Pressure Failure: Machine’s Disappointment At The 2014 Club Championships

Chicago Machine again failed when the stakes were highest.

Ring v. Machine in prequarters
Ring v. Machine in prequarters. Photo by Pete Guion — UltiPhotos.com

Within the course of two hours, Machine went from a dominant heavyweight and serious contender for the National semifinals to a barely discussed afterthought.

On a Friday full of surprises at the Club Championships, Machine went down to Ring of Fire in a pre-quarters loss after a 3-0 pool play Thursday, notching wins over Sub Zero, Truck Stop, and Rhino. The team from Raleigh, their opponents, had the exact opposite run through their group, with losses to GOAT and Temper, before a throwaway win against the clinched pool champion Sockeye.

One team seemed to be in free-fall; the other seemed ready to roll. Then in the blink of an eye, their situations were reversed. Chicago went down to Ring. They would immediately lose their next game to Temper and be eliminated from the Pro Flight. That happened as Ring rose higher and higher, triumphing over Chain Lightning in quarters, and almost pulling off the incredible upset of Ironside in semifinals.

They would not be alone amongst the surprises. Some of this might be attributed to the format changes — every team made pre-quarters, so, in a way, Thursday games were meaningless, while Friday’s held all the weight, all the pressure, and all the upset potential.

But for Chicago, one question still stands out: What happened?

Did they choke on a clear road to semis? Or were they beat by the better team?

Misconceptions

First of all, we must get some misconceptions out of the way.

Scouting: There was a lot of footage on Machine late in the season and many of their plays were easily identified. Undoubtedly, this helped opponents prepare, but this cannot be the primary cause of their Nationals failure. On Friday, Machine was running its sets without a problem; they were using different variations of their favorite strategies, and actually gaining success off of other teams guessing wrong at key defensive moments.

Overvalued: Voices around the game, including some at Ultiworld, weren’t sold on Machine and predicted a lackluster finish. Several believed that Machine’s regular season was more fluke than feature. Yet that simply isn’t true; Machine did have their ups and downs, but the team earned its wins and won two big tournaments. The team was talented. Indeed, this is probably the best team Chicago has fielded in ten years. This does lead to the implication that their loss was, in some manner or another, a failure on their own part.

So, again, what happened?

Poison

Raleigh Ring of Fire is poison to Chicago Machine. In the last ten years, Machine has suffered ten consecutive losses to Ring, including two critical games at Nationals in the last three years, when Chicago has been in control and had the lead.

Like kryptonite to superman, Ring causes Chicago to collapse.

Team leaders from both sides dismissed the idea after the game, but the numbers are telling. And this was the year it was supposed to be different, the year for revenge, for a powerhouse Chicago to beat down on a weakened Raleigh group.

The reality is that Machine doesn’t play well against Ring because the styles and mental games are different. Chicago prefers a clean and powerful offensive game. They use a variety of attacks to fly down the field and their gears hum best when the handlers can move the disc to the cutters, who can then continue and chew up the yards in four throws or fewer. If anything, that has only become more solidified with Kubalanza as coach, who preaches extreme system discipline.

Ring of Fire, in many ways, couldn’t be more different. As evidenced from all three of their key victories at Nationals, the long points are where Ring will beat you. Their matchups were filled with stoppages and turnovers that dragged it out — foul discussions, huck-for-huck battles, and ugly play that went to cap.

This is the way to throw the big wrench into those fast whirring cogs of the Chicago Machine and to knock them out of their comfort zone…and Raleigh did just that.

It was obvious that every point that extended beyond five minutes was leading to more and more frustration for Chicago. The team’s best weapons felt stymied and slowed like they were running through a muddy bog, and their stars, undoubtedly trying to make something positive happen for the club, often pressed and made critical errors.

“We gave the disc away multiple times to start the game,” said Kevin Kelly, post-Nationals, “but managed to still win those O points by getting the disc back. It gave Ring confidence that they could make us turn the disc though… Similarly, our D got turns early against Ring, but did not convert our opportunities. In the middle of the game Ring started to vibe, and was hitting really small spaces. Our D was close but wasn’t able to generate turns. Then we we got broken and had to play from behind.”

This was a position Machine was not used to and they didn’t have enough to comeback.

“All of a sudden we were down,” said Kelly, “and that was not familiar territory for us, and our O-line started losing discipline as guys tried to make plays. Defense was similar as players started to gamble to bait D’s, rather than just applying consistent team pressure to force turns. We turned up the pressure at the end of the game and got a break back, but then squandered a few key opportunities down the final stretch.”

The team, used to being in the driver’s seat, was suddenly lacking control, and they made mistakes in (if not flat-out failed to execute) their offensive systems that had allowed them to win all season.

Every time Machine got some momentum, the game got chippy or the play turned ugly with mistakes. And Ring fed off of it, built themselves up with loud cheering (or booing), and found the way to be in the lead when the clock struck zero.

Mike DeNardis Over Ron Kubalanza

DeNardis was ready for this matchup.

A former Machine player himself, DeNardis is known for his meticulous preparation. He studies film as much as any coach in the game and he knew Machine well from his scouting.

“I encourage our team to scout everyone through the season, so we had a good idea of what they brought to the table before our Thursday prep session,” said DeNardis. “When we found out they were our matchup, we honed in on the exact strategy, sets, and matchups we wanted to use and tried to exploit.

Despite Chicago’s array of weapons, DeNardis made sure his team went in unintimidated.

“I felt like we had a great match-up personnel wise,” he said. “Their cutting crew line is big and explosive in the deep game, but if we could prevent the deep game, make them move laterally and through their handlers, we would be able to exploit them with our quickness on a turn. I also wanted a longer game because, even though they are in shape, the mental exhaustion from the pressure would fall on them.”

Ring’s style — one present since long before DeNardis arrived this year as head coach — was key, but so was the defensive gameplan. All the pressure was put on Chicago — they were the favorites, they were the ones expected to play a better game. Ring just needed to hang tough.

Machine was stymied because of the physicality and the long points, but also because Ring slowed their offense down with junk zones, poaches, switches, and flat marks.

“For the most part we did a good job of talking about what they did well yesterday and how we combat them,” said Denardis after the game. “It took them out of their game plan. We made their handlers throw a lot of long throws to spaces and they struggled…We especially wanted to stop their 1-2 cutting combo.”

Ring often came down in a zone look that was designed to force swings and limit early deep continuations. There would be a good switches early, and while Machine would occasionally find an open man, they would struggle to hit two passes in a row.

“Ring used some good junk defense and bracketing downfield to prevent us getting easy deep gainers,” said Kelly, “and forced to be patient and try to split poaches. We’ve done a really good job all season of being disciplined and making team first decisions, but we have also played with a lead in almost every game all season, so its not hard to do that in those situations.”

Patience wasn’t present on that day.

Several Machine turnovers came as they rushed throws trying to break past Ring’s junk sets. Many of Machine’s cutters rushed into the backfield (Jonathan “Goose” Helton, notably, was in the handler set a few times) because they felt taken out of the game, but this often only caused more confusion, limiting the handlers and leading to turnovers.

Throughout all this, DeNardis kept his team close and had his defensive line winning the battle. Kubalanza, on the other side, played well on the field, but had a limited impact as coach. They couldn’t adjust. The Machine leadership, in general, was forced into playing DeNardis’s game and strategy instead of their own.

Peak

Two years in a row Machine has had an excellent regular season. And for two years in a row, they have failed to meet expectations at Nationals.

Has Chicago peaked too early? This is an especially important question to look at in comparison to the AUDL.

This year, Machine fully committed to the AUDL’s Chicago Wildfire — this was supposed to be a big strength. The squad was aware of the dangers of a long season and did modify training and schedules to avoid injuries and burnout (which they did well).

And yet, Wildfire — for two years running — has had a strong regular season before being eliminated in the playoffs (to the Madison Radicals in 2013 and the New York Empire in 2014).

Brodie Smith’s involvement with the team, and his tendency to take over playoff games, is cited by many for their losses in the AUDL. Others believe the commitment/ focus wasn’t there as this league wasn’t high on a list of priorities for many Machine players, and so they didn’t give their all when it mattered. But does that say something about the club?

Both situations involved high pressure, single game eliminations, and Chicago has come up short. If they haven’t peaked early, then they have failed to win when it really matters.

They Beat Themselves

This is the easy answer to the question and brings all the other factors together.

Machine wasted their chance. The game was one of their worst of the season in terms of unforced turnovers. In the first two points alone, there were six giveaways from the Chicago squad.

“I think today what it came down to was, we made a lot of mistakes and execution errors,” said team leader Craig Poppelman. “You can only give them so many chances. Ultimate’s a tight game….it’s a game of inches…at the end of the day we made more mistakes than they did.”

Ring’s style of play created the frustration, but Machine gave into it. Good teams force opponents to change their styles, or at the very least find ways to adapt and win. When push came to shove (and it occasionally did), Machine’s players tried to do too much to win.

Bob Liu had four turnovers in the game, although he also had some big blocks to get them back. Helton made two critical throwing errors late in the game on a break chance Machine desperately needed. At another key juncture, earlier, Helton lost a foul dispute with Ken Porter that took away one of his blocks right before half. Undoubtedly, these stars were limited.

Say all you want about Ring’s style, or about their ugly ways of winning, but Machine had its fair share of chances. That’s the thing about Raleigh; they gave up the rock no matter who they were playing.

It may have been choppy, but it was played by both sides. Rushed or not, frustrated or not, Machine needed to focus and execute and they couldn’t.

Looking Ahead

Machine is still a young team, and it will be compelling to see what happens next year and down the line.

With Madison Club missing Nationals again this year, it could possibly lead to a continued relationship with the players that defected. The AUDL commitment level will certainly be a question that Machine addresses in their off-season meetings.

Overall, it seems clear that the squad will be looking for ways to win in the key spots, when the pressure is on, and there is no second chance.

“It was a tough pill to swallow,” said Kelly, “but we grew a lot as a team throughout this season, and set lofty goals for the program that we had not set before. We know its not an overnight process, but we learned a lot from the tough losses, and will hopefully be better for it in the future.”

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    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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