The Dominican club is not the only team to have supplemented their roster with American pickups, but their mindset has allowed them to achieve success that other cobbled together teams have not.
July 27, 2022 by Laura Osterlund in News, Profile, Recap with 0 comments
LEBANON, OH – As the bottom seed in their pool — and the tournament altogether for that matter — Santo Domingo Meclao (DOM) was not projected to be much of a factor at the 2022 World Ultimate Club Championships. They were drawn with Seattle BFG, who looked positioned for an relatively easy trip to a cushy spot in the bracket.
Through the first two days of the tournament, little about that narrative needed updating. Things were still on track for a relatively predictable bracket: top seeds would continue to dominate, lower seeds would get squashed, and the betting odds would favor a semifinal round featuring four American teams, as was the case last time around. Sure, the Dominicans were having a nice Cinderella ride in pool play and had earned a feel-good underdog slot in the championship bracket, but assuredly they’d run out of gas against a BFG squad on cruise control and would soon be relegated to the sands of time as a fun WUCC memory after getting knocked out by an established powerhouse program by prequarters.
Everything changed in the last round of pool play on Tuesday morning. Meclao managed the unthinkable, taking down BFG 14-12, assuming the position as the tournament’s undefeated overall top seed, and blowing the mixed bracket wide open.
Talking about scale here, BFG are the reigning WUCC and USAU Club champions. However, their shot at a repeat is now significantly more fraught, having landed on the same side of the bracket as nearly all the other big-name mixed programs from around the world. A realistic path for them could now include matchups with Ann Arbor Hybrid, Brisbane Lunch Box, and either Seattle Mixtape or Amsterdam GRUT — any of which could end their repeat bid and all of which would happen before they even play a game with a medal on the line.
Looking at the situation through a wider lens than just the implications for the defending champs, we are now guaranteed a semifinal with one team that is not from the United States, and a decent chance that it may not come from anywhere in North America. The last (and only) time this has happened at this event was at the first mixed WUCC in 1999, when Osaka Natto from Japan took second place in St. Andrews, Scotland. Looking back at WUCC history, 23 out of 24 mixed semifinal slots across six events have been claimed by the United States and Canada. Yet, the way the bracket got busted open by Meclao’s upset,1 a team from the Dominican Republic or Finland might now be the favorite to make a semifinal game. What a time to be alive.
Up to this point, the top-seeded teams have been seemingly miles ahead of their competition. In almost all of their pool play games, the four American teams, Lunch Box, Red Flag, PuTi, and GRUT crushed their competition. To look at the statistics from their games, even those not at WUCC can tell that these teams did not see a much of challenge through the first few days in Cincinnati. Only a few pool second seeds really pushed the favorites. At the end of Red Flag’s game on Monday against Smog 1, they just barely eked out a win thanks to a break late in the game. PuTi also started some games slowly and did not possess a sizable lead in many games until at least halfway through. But otherwise, all of the favorites came in to pool play confident and were able to confidently execute their own game strategies. Nearly every time, they comfortably pulled out the win.
“We’re delighted to have done well in our pool, but we take every game as it comes,” said Lunch Box’s captain, Max Halden.
For as dominant as they looked in their first four games, BFG found themselves facing a pressure that was new and too much for them against Meclao, and they started to fizzle out by the end of the game.
“We’re here to play good ultimate frisbee, and it doesn’t matter who we play, whatever team it is, whatever makeup it is. We were good at that and we took that as an opportunity to lean into that adversity and we didn’t come out on top,” said BFG’s Alissa Soo. “It is a good time for that to happen. We’re human, we all have those emotions.”
Is it the pickups?
It’s time to address the elefante en el cuarto.
Some if not many believe that Meclao’s success in Cincinnati thus far is mostly due to the fact that their roster is comprised of several prominent high-level pickups from the United States. It’s undeniable that more than half of the players competing with Meclao are based in the US and have little or no previous interaction with the Domincan team, if not the Dominican Republic itself. Beyond that, these players are disproportionately represented at the high end of their stat leaders on the week.
For many, this tells a clear story about success on the field. However, from the team’s perspective, that story is both reductive and dismissive of their situation — and not the part of the story we should focusing on.
First, there are varying reasons why some international teams have invited American pickups to join them at WUCC for the week. In the case of Meclao, strict VISA rules around Dominicans traveling to the United States as well as prohibitive costs for play and travel decimated their existing roster and required reinforcements to even field a reasonable side. Meclao lost 14 players due to VISA issues. It was a similar story for India’s High Tide; SUFC Valhalla from Sweden was also looking for help after several of their players dropped. These are only a few examples of a problem that many teams have had to endure this week.
At the same time, many of the teams who have not had the privilege to bring their full rosters from home have struggled to develop chemistry. Even with teams who brought in experienced club and semi-pro players are still trying to find their groove. High Tide crashed out after going winless in pool play. Valhalla added pickups such as Kyle Henke, Kat Ritzmann, Maddy Boyle, and Lisi Lohre, all of whom have considerable club or even international success with the US. Yet the team has struggled to gel, overshooting passes and frequently failing to string together continuations. They lost three out of five of their games in pool play and while they found a way into the Round of 32, their ceiling appears to be a lot lower than a team with this much talent might expect.
“They’ve added some new looks and new dimensions to it all,” said Valhalla captain James Barnaville when talking about how international pickups have affected their pool play games. “We were discovering a lot of the miscommunications and the lack of chemistry that we had between the players from Stockholm and the players we’ve brought in.”
How, then, did Meclao find success where others didn’t? Isn’t that the real story?
Meclao’s coach, Stephen “Styx” Ierardi, insists that much of their success can be directly attributed to their homegrown Dominican players — including those who aren’t here. The pickups Meclao brought in have bought into playing to represent the country their jerseys stand for. They stepped back at times to allow Dominican players to take the reigns on the team. The Dominican players are here competing to make their home country proud, keeping the players who could not make it in their hearts, keeping them informed about the team’s journey at the end of each day. They also livestreamed their games for the Dominican teammates to watch and appreciated the love and support sent their way by their community back in the Dominican Republic.
After their big win over BFG, their captain was getting emotional in the team huddle, stating how proud she was that they were representing her country. Even with the pickups on the team, Meclao’ built their play in that game around their Dominican players. Chabeli Luna and Sharonid Lopez both played excellent matchup defense to earn turns, while Alberto Suriel made heroic plays all over the field on offense.
“What we have a focus on, as a team, is ensuring that we know the name on the jersey that we’re wearing and what it means. It means so much. Not all of us know the experience, but we can empathize and understand what we represent,” Ierardi said. “It’s bigger than that.”
“What we look for is who are the foundations that we can build upon. We look for people that we can lean on in certain circumstances and say ‘okay, this responsibility falls upon you and everybody else is going to build around that.’”
The theme of the week so far has been trusting each other. The team has embraced each other and according to Styx, it’s a humble group who mesh well together whilst also playing with the drive that they want to represent the country they play for.
“We said at the beginning that we didn’t know what our ceiling is and I don’t think this is it,” said Ierardi. “This is a stepping stone. We’re still focusing on our playing, our team, what we can do. That’s been our motivation from the get-go.”
Honestly, it’s somewhat reminiscent of how the bracket shook out at 2021 USAU Mixed Nationals. ↩