AUDL Playoff Preview: Upset Potential In Round One

We're talking about playoffs.

AUDL Bracket

This weekend the AUDL playoffs begin, with the action taking place across all four divisions. Here’s a quick breakdown of the games and what to watch for.

EAST: New York Empire (7-7) @ DC Breeze (10-4)
Saturday, July 16th at 6:30 PM Eastern

The Breeze host the Empire on Saturday in what, on paper, looks like the most exciting game of the weekend. The two teams have faced off three times this season, with each game decided by a single point, all of them in DC’s favor.

The Breeze had a strong regular season. Of their four losses, two came by just one point against Toronto, while the other two came on a road trip to Montreal and Ottawa without many of their best players. That won’t be an issue on Saturday night, with the Breeze playing at home. Jeff Wodatch has been the biggest contributor to the Breeze this season, and in their three games against New York he’s totaled 11 assists and 9 goals, leading the team in both categories.

The story for DC at the beginning of the year was that, despite all of the talent on the team, the Breeze weren’t playing great ultimate and were constantly fidgeting with their lines and rotations, particularly for all of their talented handlers. Starting in June, the Breeze looked like a team that had started to figure itself out, with Markham Shofner and Bob Liu playing on the O-line while Alan Kolick and Brett Matzuka joined Nicky Spiva on the D-line. With that handler set, the Breeze went 4-0 in June, with wins over New York and Toronto.

New York has consistently been better than the bottom three teams in the East this year, but haven’t been able to take down DC or Toronto. The Empire has long been a team that has prided itself on its defense first and foremost, and that remains the case this year. Ryan Drost has lit up the field on both sides of the disc this year, recording 23 assists, 35 goals, and 31 blocks, leading the team in the two latter categories. And since the College Championships, Jeff Babbit has played in every game for New York, recording 17 blocks and 19 goals in just seven games. They’ll both be key in New York’s efforts to try to slow down the DC offense, which can score very quickly from anywhere on the field. In their AUDL history, New York has only ever been eliminated by Toronto, but that looks like it could change Saturday.

SOUTH: Atlanta Hustle (7-7) @ Raleigh Flyers (9-5)
Saturday, July 16th at 7:30 PM Eastern [VIDEO]

Starting just an hour after the game in DC, the Flyers will host the Hustle. The Flyers have been an enigmatic team for much of the season, playing down to some opponents while also coming through with some great performances in high-stakes games.

Before the 33-12 drubbing that Austin gave Raleigh the final day of the regular season, the Flyers had been playing their best ultimate of the season. They were 5-1 in their last six games entering the final game of the year, with the five point loss in Dallas the only blemish. And that was a game in which Raleigh looked quite good, especially considering they were playing on the road with fewer than twenty players and the second playoff spot already sewn up.

In their two games against the Hustle this year the Flyers are 1-1, with a narrow two point loss in Atlanta and a six point win in Raleigh earlier this month. In those games, Jon Nethercutt was huge for Raleigh, throwing 15 assists and 92 completions. With Dave Snoke missing this weekend, Nethercutt will be as important as ever for Raleigh. Like Snoke, he is the type of handler that can combine high percentage plays with big throws.

The Hustle reached the playoffs through the strength of their O-line. While Atlanta’s defense is no slouch at generating turnovers, it often struggles to convert those turnovers into breaks. The Hustle O-line is anchored by Dylan Tunnell, who has quietly had one of the best seasons in the entire league. Tunnell has 66 assists on the year, and many of those are 50+ yard hucks that his receivers catch in stride.

One of his favorite targets is Matt Smith. Last year, Smith led the league in goals scored, and while teams have started backing him more resulting in fewer goals, in many ways Smith has been even more important to the Hustle this year. Smith frequently gets easy under cuts and looks for the quick break or dish to a handler in motion to deliver power position, and he does it with a 97% completion rate.

For Atlanta to win this game, the Hustle may actually have to do it with their offense. In the AUDL, teams get two timeouts per half, and those timeouts allow teams to sub in whole new lines. The Hustle may need to use all four to get their offense on the field after Raleigh turns the disc. Between the itchy trigger fingers many Raleigh cutters have and an athletic Atlanta D-line, plenty of those opportunities will arise. It won’t be easy for the Hustle, though, especially given that Raleigh is playing at home. The Flyers are 6-1 at home with their only loss coming to Dallas. Atlanta has never won in Raleigh.

MIDWEST: Minnesota Wind Chill (9-5) @ Pittsburgh Thunderbirds (10-4)
Saturday, July 16th at 7 PM Eastern [VIDEO]

This is a game of firsts. Pittsburgh hosts its first AUDL playoff game on Saturday, while Minnesota makes its first playoff appearance. While these two teams played just last weekend, with Pittsburgh coming away with a relatively easy 29-21 victory, that result isn’t predictive for this weekend’s game. With Sub Zero at the Elite-Select Challenge, the Wind Chill were missing many of their best players, and, as per usual, the Thunderbirds were missing their High Five players.

The Thunderbirds didn’t have the kind of regular season that they were hoping for, losing both of their games to Madison and two of three to Indianapolis. But they’re where they need to be, in the postseason playing at home. The biggest question mark for this team is how it will play together with all (or nearly all) of the parts there. It’s something that still hasn’t really happened yet this season.

What we do know about Pittsburgh is that some of their less heralded cutters have been their most reliable players this year. Ethan Beardsley, David Vatz, and Mark Fedorenko have all played in at least 11 games and between them have caught 126 goals. Fedorenko has been particularly impressive for the Pittsburgh offense, after having spent last year playing on the D-line.

If there’s one player to watch on Pittsburgh this weekend though, it’s Alex Thorne. Thorne has only played in seven games this season but he was at both games against Minnesota, throwing 13 assists and 97 completions. His upwind hucks looked easy in the second half of the game in Minnesota, spurring a comeback win for Pittsburgh. If he’s seeing a lot of the disc, the Pittsburgh offense is going to be difficult to stop.

Writing the Wind Chill off as a “happy to be here” team would be easy, but that would be overlooking how well Minnesota has played in some of its biggest games this year. Minnesota went 2-0 against Indianapolis with both wins coming by one point, and swept Chicago, practically ending the season for the Wildfire by the middle of May. Those were the teams that Minnesota needed to beat to get to the playoffs. In the games that the Wind Chill needed to win, they won.

To take the next step and beat Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history, the Wind Chill offense has to start playing more efficiently. The O-line converted 59% of their points played into scores on the regular season, but that number fell to 53% when playing the Thunderbirds. Ben Jagt and Connor Kline are on board for the playoffs, two players that haven’t played against Pittsburgh yet this year. There’s some hope that the Wind Chill can make the leap this Saturday, though they remain a significant underdog.

WEST: Seattle Cascades (9-5) @ Los Angeles Aviators (9-5) [Winner plays San Francisco on Sunday]
Saturday, July 16th at 10:30 PM Eastern [VIDEO]

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game, Los Angeles will host both playoff matches for the West this weekend. The Aviators are riding a six-game winning streak, in which they won games against San Francisco and Seattle by five and six points respectively. What’s particularly impressive about those two wins is that they both came on the road. The question is whether or not Los Angeles can get a win against either of these teams in an elimination game.

The Aviators have reached another level this year largely due to their depth and consistent roster from week to week. In a division where many teams had players with worlds and club commitments, Los Angeles thrived despite playing with a roster not nearly as renowned as Seattle, San Francisco, or Vancouver. Mark Elbogen has been one of the standouts for the Aviators this year, leading the team in goals (49) and assists (46).

The Cascades are, in many ways, polar opposites of the Aviators. The Aviators had 31 players suit up for them this year, twenty of whom played in at least nine games. The Cascades had 38 players play for them this year, nine of whom played in at least nine games. But the regular season is over, and Seattle has something on the line. Last year the Cascades regular season record was a mediocre 8-6, yet Seattle managed a road playoff win in San Francisco before losing a close two-point game to San Jose, who went on to win the championship.

On a day where both the Cascades and the Aviators had all of their best players show up and playing their best possible game, Seattle would be the overwhelming favorite. But these are different circumstances. Seattle is on the road, and, even in an elimination game, the Cascades will be missing a few of their best players. The Aviators have more to play for at home, and while Seattle still has to be considered the favorite, the door is open for Los Angeles to score the upset here.

The winner plays San Francisco the following afternoon. The FlameThrowers have dropped games to Seattle and Los Angeles this year, but have a considerable advantage in their first round bye. While other teams that placed first in their division play their quarterfinal playoff game a week after the first round, San Francisco doesn’t even have to wait 24 hours. Playing on the second day of a back-to-back against a fresh team is difficult enough, the task becomes even taller when playing San Francisco.

The FlameThrowers went 11-3 this season. And while San Francisco had even more players committed to WUGC than Seattle did, the FlameThrowers didn’t have the same kind of roster churn from week to week that the Cascades did. And unlike Los Angeles with Mark Elbogen and Seattle with Mark Burton, the FlameThrowers didn’t have one player who stood out above the rest of the team statistically. There are seven players that scored at least 20 goals for San Francisco, and seven that threw at least 20 assists, more than either of Los Angeles or Seattle on either count. For either of the Aviators or Cascades to beat the FlameThrowers, they’ll have to overcome the depth, top end talent, and AUDL championship experience that can’t be matched by any other team in the league.

  1. Nathan Jesson

    Nathan Jesson is Ultiworld's lead AUDL reporter. He has been covering the league since 2013. You can reach him on Twitter @semiproultimate.

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