US Open 2021: Sockeye Continue Tournament Win Streak

Strong offenses from Seattle and Chicago lead to an exciting national championship rematch.

Ben Snell of Sockeye celebrates after catching the 2021 US Open-winning goal. Photo: Paul Rutherford --
Ben Snell of Sockeye celebrates after catching the 2021 US Open-winning goal. Photo: Paul Rutherford —

BLAINE, MN — Before play started at the 2021 US Open, an expanded field of men’s team pushed back against a proposed format that largely isolated elite programs from the mid-level teams invited to the event for the first time. USA Ultimate adjusted the format and schedule heading into the weekend, but when push came to shove on the field in Blaine, the split between the top teams and next tier was there for all to see. After a championship bracket that mostly played to seed, #1 Seattle Sockeye earned a 15-12 win over #2 Chicago Machine in a tight, spirited final to defend their 2019 US Open title and extend their TCT tournament win streak.

Elite Tier Separate Themselves In Early Bracket Play

After the controversy surrounding the original format, USA Ultimate decided to restructure the power pools to include three additional teams — none of whom managed a Day 1 win in pool play against their more decorated competition. Four teams from Saturday’s two lower pools also earned their way into the championship bracket for a chance to play higher-ranked teams. While the adjusted format presented an opportunity for a major upset, the results proved anti-climatic, with every higher-ranked team emerging victorious in the prequarter round and only no.9 seed Atlanta Chain Lightning replacing no.8 seed Boston Dig in a favorite-heavy final eight.

In the quarterfinals, Sockeye took on #10 SoCal Condors in a rematch from pool play at the Pro-Elite Challenge last month, where Condors snatched an early-season upset, 15-12. The Californians fought hard but were unable to get a single break on Seattle’s O-line in Blaine as Sockeye won 15-10, avenging their PEC loss.

Seattle’s semifinal opponent emerged from perhaps the most exciting game of the quarterfinal round. During a tight first half between #3 New York PoNY and #17 Minneapolis Sub Zero, both teams managed just a single break each, with New York taking an 8-7 halftime lead.

After three quick holds coming out of the break, Sub earned a pair of breaks to go up 11-9 — the only breaks earned by either team in the second half. As the intensity ramped up even further, the game got chippy and foul calls created loads of stoppages in play. On the ensuing point, two Team Misconduct Fouls were assessed by the observers on consecutive throws — one against Blake Trantina on Sub Zero for making a dangerous play against Sean Keegan in the end zone and the other on PoNY’s Jimmy Mickle for pushing off of his defender during an upline cut. While they were eventually able to punch in their hold, PoNY ultimately could not step up against the physicality from Minneapolis and were upset by the hometown program, 14-12.

“We’re working a lot on our strategy downfield, so we used that and it worked out pretty good,” said Sub Zero coach Kevin Bruns. “I think we felt if we could keep them on the force side, challenge them enough in that space, we could be successful. They’re very good throwers and got off a lot, but the times that we were able to keep them in there and play in small spaces with our defense, it worked.”

The same defensive strategy was less effective in the semifinal against Sockeye. The game started with clean offensive holds by both teams — no turns occurred until the ninth point of the game. Seattle’s offense exhibited the same confidence and efficiency we’ve come to expect from the reigning national champs, even in the blustery conditions. But Sub Zero refused to go away, making several plays in the blustery conditions that were just as impressive as they were lucky: a massive chest-length layout snag by Nick Vogt to set up a goal, a block that was hit twice before being caught to score a break, and catches off Sockeye block attempts that hung up in the wind. Sub’s luck started running out in the second half when they squandered a chance to get a break to close the gap and lost their momentum. Sockeye remained calm and steady to clinch a spot in the final, 15-12, and end Minneapolis’ impressive weekend at their home tournament.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Machine’s D-line forced two breaks in the first half against #11 Washington DC Truck Stop, which was all they needed to win their quarterfinal 15-13. In the last game of Sunday’s opening round, #6 Portland Rhino Slam! — who was coming off a big Saturday that included an upset victory over PoNY — was bested by an impressive #8 Atlanta Chain Lightning squad. As has become the calling card for the city’s AUDL franchise, Atlanta rode tight defensive pressure and a variety of zone looks to an 8-3 halftime lead; they gave a break back in the second, but comfortably cruised to a 15-12 victory.

The other semifinal game was almost a polar opposite of the first, with both Chicago and Atlanta showing strong defense out of the gate. Each team also had multiple unforced turns within the first few points, however, neither D-line could capitalize. Machine secured the first break of the game to go up 7-5 when Peter Graffy got a big D in Atlanta’s end zone then caught a full-field bomb from Johnny Bansfield on the first throw out of a timeout. Chicago then increased their lead coming out of the half as Atlanta’s offense continued to be plagued by miscommunications and execution errors, and Chain Lightning was unable to catch up. Machine won 15-10.

Sockeye Defeats Machine In Exciting, Spirited Final Rematch

In a much-anticipated rematch of the universe point thriller that punctuated the 2019 season, Machine and Sockeye engaged in a hard-fought but highly spirited final to claim the first leg of this year’s Triple Crown Tour. It was an exciting battle between two teams that looked a fair bit better than the rest of the competition in Blaine all weekend.

Even without the services of an injured Matt Rehder, Sockeye’s offense continued to look smooth, quickly pinging the disc around the field and punching in a clean hold to start. But the crispness didn’t last, as Machine’s D-line added pressure forced Seattle’s offense to work hard and generated turns, striking first with a break to go up 2-1 on bookends from rookie Eli Artemakis. The lead was short-lived, as Seattle held and broke right back.

As the teams felt each other out in the early going, both offenses mixed up their looks, working in tight spaces with handler weaves, pounding the disc up the force side, and defying the strong winds to attack with deep shots. Holds came fast and easy, as the teams traded all the way to half with Seattle up 8-7. For Sockeye, new boy Mac Hecht proved to be an offensive powerhouse with steady hands and strong cuts, at times going every-other pass and showcasing a full arsenal of throws to carve up the Machine defense. Chicago did well at working their way up the field on offense and was able to efficiently use space, getting contributions from up and down their O-line with Paul Arters, Joe White, Pawel Janas, and Keegan North all putting in solid work.

The turning point came early in the second half. Down 9-8 as the string of holds continued into after the break, Machine was set to receive and looking to run another clean offensive point so they could get their defense back out to hunt for the elusive break they needed to regain a lead. Seattle sent out a young, rookie-heavy D-line, giving many of their top defensive players a point off. Pulls from both teams had been strong to that point in the game, with pullers riding the downwind to force offenses to start deep in their own end zone with high, bladey pulls. This time, the Sockeye pull was shaped into the wind, coming down short of the front of Machine’s end zone. Chicago’s Victor Luo tracked its movement and prepared to receive, but it dipped quickly and he couldn’t handle it, the disc hitting him as it squeezed through his hands near the turf. Sockeye picked up with a very short field and converted it to an easy score. 10-8.

Now two breaks to the good, Seattle’s offense worked self-assuredly, even as Machine broke out a zone look hunting for turns. Hecht and Simon Montague attacked over the top, blading and hammering over the teeth of Chicago’s zone, as well as slicing up the inside lanes with high-releases. Machine continued to put up a fight but could not force a turn from a Seattle offense playing full of confidence. Sockeye broke to win 15-12 with a shot to Ben Snell to keep the title as US Open Men’s Club Champions.

“It’s nice to win, but the thing I’m most happy with is the way we grew over the weekend,” said head coach Michael Caldwell. “I feel like we’re kind of getting into the vibe of what we’re trying to do, what it’s going to take, and being able to feel confident that we’re able to commit our heart and our emotions to that process. It takes a lot of vulnerability to go for something and commit to it, but I could feel people accepting it and celebrating it, so it’s pretty cool.”

Atlanta and New York Going In Opposite Directions

Chain Lightning showed that they will be a team to watch for the rest of 2021, as they exceeded expectations to break seed and finish in third place. According to coach TJ Martin, they came into the tournament looking to improve their systems and ways of playing, as this will be the only regular-season tournament for the Atlanta team.

The other big surprise of the tournament was the subpar performance of PoNY. They were seeded third coming into the tournament, looking to bounce back on a lackluster finish at Pro Elite Challenge. However, New York looked shaky in pool play, allowing Madison Yogosbo to stay a bit closer than they should have before dropping a game to Rhino Slam! PoNY couldn’t recover any momentum in bracket play, finishing seventh overall. The real question is if this was just a fluke for the team from New York or if we need to start reconsidering postseason expectations for the 2018 champs.

All-Tournament Line

  • Raphy Hayes (Portland Rhino Slam!)
  • Simon Montague (Seattle Sockeye)
  • Dongyang Chen (Seattle Sockeye)
  • Keegan North (Chicago Machine)
  • Joe White (Chicago Machine)
  • Karl Ekwurtzel (Atlanta Chain Lightning)
  • Nick Vogt (Minneapolis Sub Zero)

So many Sockeye players played well in Blaine this weekend and could have been included in this list. All-Club first-teamers Dylan Freechild and Trent Dillon showed over and over why they’re among the best players in the world; Mac Hecht had stretches where he absolutely bossed perhaps the best O-line the country; and 20-year-old Tony Venerri showed a ton of promise on both sides of the ball portending a major breakout in the near future.

Lastly, shoutout to Yogosbo’s trash bag “jerseys.”

  1. Laura Osterlund
    Laura Osterlund

    Laura picked up a disc her senior year of high school and hasn't put it down since. She played on the mixed/open team at Bethel University where she graduated with a journalism degree. Based out of the Twin Cities, MN, you can find her engaging in all levels of Ultimate: working with Minnesota Strike, playing mixed club, and grinding at local ultimate and goalty leagues. Her ultimate accomplishment - besides helping start a women's league (coming spring 2024) - is winning Z league with Big Blue.

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