2015 MLU Western Conference Preview: Portland Looks to Surge Ahead

Vancouver Nighthawks v. San Francisco Dogfish.
Photo by Jeff Bell — UltiPhotos.com

The MLU West race will come down to identity. Three teams search for a clear identity early in the season, while one will rely on its previously established culture to fight for a playoff spot.

Indeed, roster turnover and cohesion has always dictated who comes out of this conference. In 2013, the San Francisco Dogfish brought together a number of players who had experience playing together and playing well. It’s no surprise that a team with Beau Kittredge, Mac Taylor, Ashlin Joye, as well as Evan Boucher, made it all the way to the MLU Championship. Then, in 2014, Vancouver’s roster came together at the right time to go on a late run to the championship. This year, the Stags look to be the next team up, but the Nighthawks and the Rainmakers will have something to say about that.

Portland Stags

Returning: Cody Bjorklund, Timmy Perston, Eli Friedman

Adding: Tad Jensen, Matt Melius

Lost: Mark Burton

The Stags took home the regular season crown last year only to be upset by the Vancouver Nighthawks in the playoffs, ending a promising season earlier than the Stags expected. The good news for the Stags, however, is that while other teams in the MLU West saw their rosters change dramatically from 2014 to this year, the Stags stayed the course, bringing back big hitters like Timmy Perston, Eli Friedman and Cody Bjorklund as well as defensive star Topher Davis. In all, the only big loss for the Stags was Mark Burton leaving Portland to return to Seattle to play for the Rainmakers.

While other MLU West teams are spinning their roster turnover as an opportunity for new players to step into roles and develop, the Stags will see the best of both worlds – they have brought in new players, including Rhino vets Tad Jensen and Matt Melius — to supplement, rather than replace, the players from last season. This will lead to more depth for a team that clearly took a big step forward in 2014. The offensive system established by Danny Quarrell and Michael Knapp last year will only continue to develop, especially now that Perston will play an entire season in that offensive set.

From all counts, the Stags look to have a few steps on the rest of the competition heading into 2015. While the playoffs certainly seem likely for this team, after the disappointing finish last year, it may be MLU Championship appearance or bust for this squad.

Why They’ll Win in 2015: Consistency

The Stags were the best regular season team in the West last year thanks to their reliance on their system. By returning the bulk of their roster, in addition to returning Timmy Perston for more than two games this year (as he was in Ireland for the majority of last season), there is no reason to think that this team will not continue to grow.

Why They Won’t: Can’t Buck the Monkeys Off of Their Backs

Portland was a better team than Vancouver throughout the regular season in 2014, but come playoff time, Vancouver was able to seal the deal, while the Stags made a few uncharacteristic turnovers late in their contest against the Nighthawks that eventually lost them the game. They’ll have to show the ability to win close games consistently to be the conference favorite.

Vancouver Nighthawks

Returning: Brendan Wong, Morgan Hibbert, Jordan Tesseralo

Adding: Will Vu, Samson Hoy, Ted Chu, Nathan Lam

Lost: Gagan Chatha, Peter Yu, Kevin Underhill

Heading into 2015, the Nighthawks were in position to grow from their MLU Championship loss in 2014 to the DC Current. The roster was a wonderful mix of young talent and savvy veterans, and with a year’s worth of development, it was hard not to imagine this team overpowering teams in 2015.

Thanks to club team politics, however, as Furious George partnered with the AUDL’s Riptide instead of the MLU’s Nighthawks this season, a few big names jettisoned the black and red in favor of green and blue. Gagan Chatha and Peter Yu, both of whom provided big sparks to Vancouver on offense and defense respectively, are the biggest names to have left the Nighthawks.

Still, not all is lost for the Nighthawks. Vancouver re-loaded their pool of young talent by bringing in Will Vu, Samson Hoy, Ted Chu and Nathan Lam. In addition, by signing Dave Hochhalter and Tierney Fitzgerald, Vancouver adds two more veterans to the roster.

Suffice to say, the formula will be the same for the Nighthawks as in years past. Vancouver will rely on the likes of 2014 MVP Brendan Wong, 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Morgan Hibbert, Kirk Savage, Jordan Tesseralo and a slew of young talent. Last year, things came together for the Nighthawks late in the year, leading to a championship run. It remains to be seen whether the same will hold true this year, as they will have to start the process of integrating their new players from scratch this season.

Why They’ll Win in 2015: The MVP and the DPoY

Brendan Wong and Morgan Hibbert were each prolific players in their own right in 2014. Wong posted 64 points (48 goals, 16 assists) to pace the Nighthawks in every contest, while Hibbert made outstanding defensive play after outstanding defensive play to help give the team momentum in their late season run.

Why They Won’t: Everyone Else

This roster is unproven, and history has shown that it is difficult to succeed in a season with so much roster turnover. The team is saying all the right things about the new young talent, but cohesion takes time, and while the squad comes together, the wins might not appear as quickly as they did last year.

Seattle Rainmakers

Returning: Daniel Trytiak, Khalif El-Salaam

Added: Mark Burton

Lost: Reid Koss, Donnie Clark, Sam Harkness

Very much like Vancouver with Furious George, Sockeye manipulates the professional ultimate tides in Seattle. This year, after the Titcombs acquired the Seattle AUDL franchise, many Sockeye players flocked to the Cascades, leaving the Rainmakers with a high amount of turnover. Seattle’s ultimate community runs deeper than Sockeye, however, and the Rainmakers were smart to construct the 2015 roster with players from Voodoo as well as Ghetto Birds.

Khalif El-Salaam, Daniel Trytiak and Mark Burton will anchor a team that will be constructing its identity throughout the season given all of the new names on the roster. Last year, the Rainmakers had a number of big-name players upon whom the team placed a ton of responsibility. This year, the leadership on the Rainmakers has made it clear that every person on the roster should hold himself to the highest possible standard rather than waiting for someone else to make a play. Culture change takes time to solidify, and nothing can make up for the years of experience that left the Rainmakers and headed to the Cascades. Yet trying to bring in new faces and forge a new identity is the only logical step for the Rainmakers to take, and having El-Salaam, Trytiak and Burton – as well as a brilliant coaching staff including a few Riot players – will help the process immensely.

Why They’ll Win in 2015: So Much to Prove

Nothing sets a fire under a team like the majority of a squad leaving for supposedly greener pastures. Trytiak and El-Salaam stayed with the Rainmakers, and it’s clear that they want to show that even those teams not linked to Sockeye in the Seattle area can play with anyone.

Why They Won’t: Not Enough Consistency

It’s the buzz word around the MLU West, but with good reason. Much like the Hawks, the Rainmakers will have to gel quickly if they are going to make a run, a task that is made very hard for professional teams due to the limited amount of practice time available.

San Francisco Dogfish

Returning: Evan Boucher, Drew Kim, James Pollard

Added: Andrew Hooker

Lost: Mac Taylor

The Dogfish made it to the 2013 MLU Championship before losing a number of big names to the AUDL and starting to rebuild in 2014. The bad news for the Dogfish is that, with 15 new players on their roster this year, the Dogfish may have to take a few steps back before going forward, something that will limit the number of wins they can be expected to grab. The Dogfish return Sam Adamson, Evan Boucher, Drew Kim and James Pollard, four of the five players on the current roster left from that 2013 squad that made it to the final.

Despite all of the problems that face Vancouver and Seattle this season, the Dogfish have even fewer reasons to be optimistic. Boucher is a great player, but he still doesn’t have the tools around him to have San Francisco hold its own against the rest of the MLU West consistently. Expect the Dogfish to continue to struggle on the field. The best reason to be optimistic for San Francisco is that, with the move of stadiums from San Francisco to Berkeley, they will no longer have to play though the heavy, swirling winds that defined every home contest for the Dogfish. While that change likely won’t result in any more wins for the Dogfish, it will at least make the game less frustrating to play at home.

Why They’ll Win in 2015: David could beat Goliath, and SF’s David is pretty good

Evan Boucher is a fantastic player who can take over a game on any given day. His strong all-around game is fun to watch, and he will do his best to keep the Dogfish in any game they play.

Why They Won’t: Goliath Wins More Often than Not

After the first few players, the roster suffers a steep decline and has a lot to prove if the Dogfish want to keep up with their competition.

Outlook

The Portland Stags stayed consistent while the other three teams in the West saw significant roster turnover; the Stags are the favorite heading into the season. Who takes the other playoff spot will likely come down to which team, between Vancouver and Seattle, can come together as a team more quickly.  Meanwhile, San Francisco will aim to cultivate a fair number of their newcomers into mainstays to assure that the Dogfish will improve from this year to the next.

The games between Seattle and Vancouver will decide the second playoff spot. And whichever team can make it into the playoffs just might be able to upset the Stags in the conference finals, just as Vancouver did last season.

  1. John Phillips
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    John has covered a ton of sports, from squash, to NCAA hoops, and even the MLB. But he likes covering ultimate the most, and quite frankly, it's not even close. He currently coaches a high school ultimate team in his hometown of Philadelphia, since he can talk much better than he can play.

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