Machine v. PoNY: The Art of the Rematch

This time, Machine was ready.

Machine’s Johnny Bansfield. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s club men’s postseason coverage is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Gear up for your big games, your tournament parties, and everything in between at Spin Ultimate!

You always remember the team that knocked you out last year. From early season practices to the swell of a fresh postseason, the wound of that elimination is there. It’s a reminder of your shortcomings and weaknesses that could rear their head once again, but also a source of motivation and guidance. Not again. Not this year.

Chicago Machine fell in the quarterfinals of Nationals last season to PoNY after the New York squad was able to crawl out of a 7-3 hole and bury Machine 13-11. Then at the Pro Championships this season, PoNY beat Machine twice, including a tense double game point affair in the final. It suffices to say that Chicago remembers New York.

While those loses were frustrating, dispiriting, and aggravating in turn for Machine, Chicago internalized lessons from those games and produced a revenge game for the ages in the semifinals of Nationals, pulverizing PoNY 15-10. Life doesn’t always present opportunities for such succinct recompense, but Machine took the opportunity at a rematch and ran with it.

Turning the tables in a rematch comes down to both understanding what the opponent did to beat you, honestly assessing your own flaws, and having the confidence to be better than the ghosts of your past failure. Machine managed all three, over the course of the season and for a single game, culminating in the ecstatic victory over PoNY on Saturday night.

Machine showed no fear of PoNY’s vaunted defense after learning that playing tentatively against it generally led to poach blocks and black hole balls gobbled up by Jeff Babbitt. The directive was clear, run hard, and keep running.

“We notice some spaces of stagnation in their defense, and the opportunity to find passing lanes there,” said Machine coach Andy Neilsen. Any stagnation was quickly punished, and a fast moving Machine attack was able to overload New York’s defensive switches, burning out the mighty CPU that had taken down Revolver on the same field a year ago with a complex, cascading switch scheme. Cutters were getting uncontested yards, handlers were generating the looks they wanted, and PoNY was left chasing Machine around instead of dictating the play. It was a magnificent offensive performance from a team whose offense had never been able to cut it against New York in the big game.

The improvements on offense didn’t just come from studying tape or building the confidence to attack New York’s vulnerabilities: Machine also made significant personnel changes that made the differences from a year before. Chicago had been a team with a great defense but a limited O-line, and instead of papering over that fact, Machine was bold enough to turn the offense over to a new set of players.

While many teams are cautious with first year acquisitions, perhaps slotting them on the D-line as they get a chance to adjust and earn the team’s trust, Machine did not hesitate to give their offense a serious facelift in the way of Joe White, Keegan North, Zane Rankin, and Paul Arters. It was an aggressive strategy and certainly had downsides in terms of the time it took for the new group to gel, but by the most important games of the season, the new faces had come together. Returning handler Pawel Janas couldn’t have been more exuberant in his admiration of the new pieces on the offense.

“Just give them the disc, man! My thing is give the frisbee to the playmakers, make them make plays,” said Janas with a laugh, when asked if he was cool with his new role in the backfield. “Absolutely! Fuck me! Just move the ball, be a point guard–that’s all I do.”

By committing to their new talent and putting the faith in them over the course of the season to find consistency and chemistry, Machine put themselves in a position to attack PoNY with weapons they didn’t have before. And by learning the lessons from past victims of PoNY’s defense, they had the confidence to execute in the big game in a way they didn’t before.

Defensively, Machine needed to improve on a successful unit but one subject to intense scrutiny. Their 1-3-2-1 zone was notable, and the rest of the division started copying the look. With several teams understanding it well enough to start running it themselves, Chicago needed to make tweaks so that it would still be effective. They did this by giving players license to break the system when the situation called for it, and having trust that the rest of the team would hold the key pieces in place.

“It’s a misnomer to say that the structure is the main feature. It’s defensive players always being threats and being aggressive that is the main feature,” said Neilsen. “Different players make it a new look every time, in sometimes a good way and in sometimes a way that’s not so good.” In particular, this meant giving the three short deeps the freedom to be as aggressive as they wanted to roam or lock down into a cup. Do what you think is right and we’ll figure out how to cover it. It unsettled a PoNY offense that is often unstoppable when played straight up.

“We’ve seen that they have really dynamic players and good spacing,” said Neilsen. “So we [need to] be a bit more chaotic than their orderliness.”

That attitude extends not only to the particulars of the defense, but to the metagame of what sort of defense to play. Despite the fact that PoNY had struggled with zones before, Machine’s zone included, Chicago went away from their zone looks for long stretches because they knew PoNY would have been preparing for it. This is the kind of chess move you can only start to make after playing a team several times, and it worked. PoNY’s offense seemed unprepared for the intensity of the matchup defense Machine’s vaunted zone players were bringing to the table.

“It felt like every single point, every single one of their guys was extremely hungry to get a D,” said PoNY coach Ben Van Heuvelen. “It wasn’t so much that any one player was surprisingly good; it was that at any given moment all seven of their guys were playing at a very high level.”

That last point is, of course, crucial. Machine clearly played at an extremely high level in just about every phase of the game, and without that, the rest generally won’t matter. But it’s not an accident that Machine were able to produce such a performance in this game. They spent an entire year getting ready for it, improving themselves, preparing for the opponent, and finding the confidence to succeed when they got their chance.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld and also a lawyer who lives in Washington DC. He hopes that his BA in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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