The west remains wild.
July 5, 2017 by Nathan Jesson in Analysis, News, Recap with 3 comments
Throughout this AUDL season, Ultiworld will be publishing a weekly Throwaround, a chance for you to catch up on the amazing, funny, and interesting moments that you might have missed from the weekend’s games.
End Of An Empire
The New York-Montreal showdown on Saturday night had all the right ingredients to be a classic. New York was the much hyped team that started the season slow and was now fighting for their playoff lives. Montreal was the upstart, a team that few if any picked to make the postseason at the beginning of the year, looking to clinch a playoff spot. And it was all happening in front of the Royal home crowd, known as the biggest and most boisterous in the league.
Much like the 2017 New York Empire, this game was better on paper than on the field. When the game started, the Empire looked dazed. The offense that appeared so theoretically potent looked listless. Stalls. Turfs. Throws that went directly to stationary defenders. Hammers without clear targets.
What made it even worse was how often the New York offense had the disc because Montreal seldom converted any breaks on their first opportunity in the opening quarter. The Empire would frequently get the disc back as the result of a Royal miscue, only to give it up again in even more puzzling fashion the second time.
At the end of the first quarter, the Empire trailed 8-2. Starting the second quarter on offense, New York switched some of their top D-line players like Ben Jagt, Jeff Babbitt, and Ryan Drost over to the offense. It looked an awful lot like what you would expect a double game point line to look like for New York. The Empire turned the disc on a miscommunicated low stall swing pass. The deficit grew to seven. From there on out, New York would play Montreal much closer to even, but the die had been cast. Montreal won unchallenged, 29-20.
After winning by one in Ottawa on Sunday, New York is technically still alive in the playoff chase. If the Empire win all of their remaining three games and Toronto loses all of theirs, and the Empire beat Toronto by more than five on the road in the final week, New York will get the third spot in the East. Don’t hold your breath.
It seemed unfathomable at the beginning of the season that this New York team could miss the playoffs. We’ve got three weeks left in the regular season and it’s already a foregone conclusion. What happened?
For the last four years, New York prided itself on being a faceless army. The Empire won games with a grind-it-out offense and a defense that could either get creative or play straight up to frustrate its opponents. It was a team where up and coming players could prove themselves and take a step up into the elite club scene after having a breakout AUDL season. There weren’t many big names that came to play for New York but there were plenty of players whose names became bigger after joining the Empire.
Last year, though, the Empire brought on a couple college all stars in Jeff Babbitt and John Wodatch. But their team culture and approach always seemed to stay the same, even with the influx of young talent. Babbitt was the perfect Empire player: He made monstrous defensive plays and always seemed to come down with the disc whenever a huck went up, regardless of which team threw it. (He hasn’t slowed down this year either and may end the season with an unprecedented 40 goals and 40 blocks.)
New York doubled down this year as they signed a ton of talented, big name young players that gave hope to fans that thought they could finally see the team knock off Toronto and take the top spot in the East.
But, as a team, the Empire never seemed to become comfortable playing with one another: Multiple stalls. Unnecessarily freezing while waiting for a disc to get checked back in while the opposition took advantage. A playing rotation that was inconsistent.
These were hallmarks of New York losses this season. Their long time head coach Tom Gibbons actually left after the underachieving 2-3 start, not a common occurrence in the AUDL. There seemed to be a leadership vacuum all year long.
It would be easy to say that this loss to Montreal was emblematic of the New York season but in reality it wasn’t. New York was closer than you might think to being a great team this year. The Empire led Toronto in the second half during their season opener but blew the lead late. They dropped three games to DC by a combined total of five points. Even after losing by nine on Saturday, New York still has a better point differential at 5-6 than Montreal does at 8-4.
The 2017 New York Empire had a higher potential ceiling than any previous incarnation. But they’ll be remembered as a team that underachieved to a greater degree than any other team in AUDL history.
Just A 90 Yard Huck Caught In Stride
The King Stay The King
The Wind Chill entered Breese Stevens Field in Madison on Saturday night with every reason to believe they were on par with the Radicals. The two teams had split the season series thus far and Minnesota had generally been more impressive in their wins against the rest of the Midwest than Madison had. But from the start of the game, something was off. The Radicals took a commanding 6-1 lead after the first quarter and were never seriously challenged, winning 21-13.
What is there to make of the Wind Chill resembling the team of past years rather than the 2017 edition that entered the game 8-1? Minnesota didn’t play their best game but frankly neither did Madison. The Radicals offense had some uncharacteristic drops and throwaways that Minnesota wasn’t able to take advantage of often enough for it to matter. But this was not a game decided by the points that the Madison offense played.
In the first quarter, Madison never threw zone. However, the Radicals did double team Josh Klane when the opportunity presented itself, usually early in the point or off a dead disc.
It’s no secret that adding Klane has been a difference maker for Minnesota. He has 42 assists and over 500 completions thrown this season. On Saturday night with Madison throwing a double team at him, the defense was essentially daring him to try to make a hero throw or swing the disc to an open handler. At different times in the opening frame, Klane tried both approaches — neither was particularly effective. The Wind Chill offense never got comfortable until the Radicals started flashing some zone in the second quarter.
It’s not like Klane doesn’t have handler support in the Minnesota offense. Austin Lien and Jason Tschida have both played well this season. Their absence in Minnesota’s second game against Madison this season was a big reason why the Wind Chill struggled against zone defense in that loss. On Saturday, they combined for 138 completions with just two throwaways. But they’ve been at their most valuable when going against the Madison zone, not in man defense scenarios.
The Radicals have always been great at coming up with new ways on defense to frustrate their opponents. The Radicals opened the game with a hold and four consecutive breaks. The score was 5-0 and the Wind Chill hadn’t yet called a timeout and were running a lot of the same players out for consecutive points on offense. The Radicals were able to land that first punch and then slow the pace of the game to a crawl with the Z. Even though Madison didn’t extend its lead in the second quarter, with such a slow pace their five goal lead seemed all the larger. The Wind Chill were never able to get back into the game.
Madison now holds the tiebreaker and will in all likelihood again finish first in the division, earning the crucial first round bye and home field in the divisional final. If Minnesota meets them there, the Radicals will no doubt incorporate what worked this weekend on defense and probably throw in a new wrinkle as well. If the Wind Chill adjust, they have the potential to play the Radicals in a barnburner come playoff time. If not, even if Minnesota does make it to the divisional final, round four of this rivalry could end up looking an awful lot like round three.
No Place Like Home?
Home teams always have the advantage. Whether it’s due to travel fatigue for the away team, the fans bringing the hometown team to a higher level, or the road teams traveling light, home teams are winning about 60% of their games this season.
There’s perhaps not a team in the AUDL with a seemingly more built-in home field advantage than the Montreal Royal. They play in front of the biggest crowd against teams that have to travel very far given how isolated Montreal is from the rest of the division. It seems reasonable that the Royal would have one of the widest home-away splits in both record and point differential. But that’s not the case.
Montreal is 4-2 both at home and on the road this year. Across franchise history, Montreal actually wins fewer than 60% of its home games but wins a much higher than expected 48% of its road games. In their four years in the league, the Royal are outscored on average by 1.1 points on the road, and also 0.6 points at home. In the one place you would expect home field advantage to be the strongest, it’s actually pretty weak.
* indicates playoff berth clinched
San Jose Spiders (8-3)
The Spiders currently lead the west by one game over San Francisco. San Jose will need to retain that lead to finish first in the division, though, since the FlameThrowers hold the tiebreaker over them. The Spiders host Seattle on July 14 and end the season the following weekend with a two game road trip against Los Angeles and San Diego.
If they win out, they finish first. Simple.
If they lose all three, they could still fall out of the playoffs entirely, though they could also still lose all three remaining games and make the playoffs as well. Having already won their season series against San Diego, the Spiders are locked in ahead of the Growlers and can finish no lower than fourth. Just one more win will clinch a playoff spot.
San Francisco FlameThrowers (7-4)
The FlameThrowers no longer control their own destiny for a first place finish in the division since they trail the Spiders and have no more regular season games left against them. The FlameThrowers have two games left against Seattle and one against Vancouver. The FlameThrowers hold the tiebreaker over Los Angeles and San Diego, so they are still in very good shape to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Aviators (7-4)
Los Angeles closes the season with a home and away against the Growlers and a home game against the Spiders. The Aviators hold the tiebreaker over Seattle and are currently 1-1 with a +4 goal differential against San Diego. The winner of their season finale against San Jose will hold the tiebreaker in that matchup as well. As with every team in the West, the Aviators still have not clinched their playoff spot. Los Angeles can still theoretically finish first as well, though they would need San Francisco to lose at least one more time to do so.
Seattle Cascades (6-5)
With two games against San Francisco and one against San Jose, the Cascades have by far the toughest remaining schedule in the West. The upside is that it also means they are still 100% in control of their own playoff fate. The Cascades could still finish first or miss the playoffs entirely. Winning by two or more against San Jose would give them the tiebreaker over the Spiders, and winning at least one of two against San Francisco would give them the tiebreaker over the FlameThrowers. Los Angeles and San Diego have already locked in their tiebreaker advantages over Seattle, making it very difficult for Seattle to secure the third ticket to the playoffs.
San Diego Growlers (5-6)
At 5-6, the Growlers are the only team still alive in the playoff race out West that doesn’t control their own playoff destiny. They could finish 3-0 and find themselves on the outside looking in. It is highly unlikely that they would miss the playoffs after closing out the season with three wins, but such a scenario does exist where San Diego and San Francisco both finish 8-6. San Diego could still make the playoffs with a 7-7 record, though the Growlers would need to beat the Aviators twice to make that happen.
Toronto Rush (8-3)
Toronto currently leads the race for first with only three losses. The Rush have home games against both Montreal and New York and a road game vs. Ottawa on their schedule. DC owns the tiebreaker over Toronto, and their final game of the season against the Royal will determine the owner of that tiebreaker. The Rush are the one team in the top three in the East that could still fall out of the playoffs entirely, should Toronto lose its final three games and New York end the season with three more wins.
Toronto will clinch a playoff spot with one more win.
DC Breeze* (9-4)
The Breeze have clinched a playoff spot and have one game on the road in Philadelphia remaining this season. Should the Breeze finish 10-4, then if Toronto and Montreal both lose at least one game, the Breeze will finish first in the division. But in the event that Toronto wins out and Montreal wins their last game against Ottawa, the Breeze would finish third.
Montreal Royal* (8-4)
Montreal has locked up a playoff spot, but, unlike DC, Montreal controls its own fate in its quest for the one seed. Montreal would likely need to win its final two games against Toronto and Ottawa to make that happen. In the event that DC beats Philadelphia, it is extremely unlikely that Montreal will finish second in the division, barring a complete Toronto collapse in which Montreal also loses to Ottawa.
New York Empire (5-6)
The Empire have games left in Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Toronto. They need to win all three and have the Rush also lose to Montreal and Ottawa to qualify for the third and final playoff spot in the division.
Madison Radicals* (10-2)
Having locked up the tiebreaker over Minnesota, all the Radicals need to do to clinch first in the division is win their final two games against Chicago and Indianapolis. If they drop one and the Wind Chill go undefeated, the Radicals could still fall to second. Having already won both games against Pittsburgh, the Radicals could fall no further than the two spot.
Minnesota Wind Chill* (8-2)
The Wind Chill start their final four games with a two game road trip to Detroit and Pittsburgh this weekend, while a fair number of their players will be playing with Drag’n Thrust at the Pro-Elite Challenge in Denver. After that, they still have a road game in Indianapolis and a home game against Pittsburgh. With a little help, Minnesota could still finish first in the division, but they could also fall to third. Getting at least a split with Pittsburgh wouldn’t entirely cinch up second place, but a split plus one more Minnesota win or Pittsburgh loss would be enough if they outscore the Thunderbirds across those two games. Point differential could be very important in the event of a split to determine who gets home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Thunderbirds* (7-4)
After their 2-0 showing on a road trip this weekend, the Thunderbirds clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive year. They could still finish second. With two games left against Minnesota and one against Detroit, winning out would do the trick for the Thunderbirds.
Raleigh Flyers* (11-1)
If the Flyers win their two final games against Nashville, they will finish first in the division. Dallas owns the tiebreaker over Raleigh, though, so if the Flyers drop one of those games and the Roughnecks win their two final games, Raleigh will fall to second.
Dallas Roughnecks* (10-2)
The Roughnecks have a home game against Jacksonville and an away game against Austin left on the schedule. A win against Jacksonville this weekend would lock up the second spot and home field in the first round.
Jacksonville Cannons* (7-4)
The Cannons have a two game road trip to Texas this weekend and one final game against Nashville. If Jacksonville wins out and Austin beats Dallas, the Cannons would finish second in the division. If not, they’ll finish third.