It’s a new season in the AUDL with many new faces, and the talent at the top of the league is better than ever. With eight teams qualifying for the first round of the playoffs (the top three in the East and Midwest and the top two in the West) many teams think they are in that postseason discussion. A few more are thinking beyond the playoffs and are setting their sights on a championship. A couple others would probably be happy if they could just manage more than two wins on the season.
Many teams are looking to overcome the two teams in the league that remain undefeated. The Rush and the Spiders are undoubtedly the top dogs right now, with a slew of contenders hoping to take them down. And with the recent success of the Rocky musical, along with a Rocky spinoff focused on Apollo Creed’s grandson, now seems like a great time to include a quote from the films featuring the “Italian Stallion” that sum up where each team is at.
Championship or Bust
1. Toronto Rush 4-0, +6.5
Just like Mason Dixon in Rocky Balboa, Toronto was mostly unchallenged last year. This year is different. Improved teams in New York and DC have already tested their mettle. Toronto may get challenged again, but the most difficult part of its schedule is over. The Rush don’t play in DC or New York again this season. They’ve beat the best teams in the East on their turf. There’s not much more they can do to prove that they’re the best. But until they play and beat the Spiders, people won’t consider them true champions.
Truthfully, Toronto is a better team than San Jose. The Spiders have the star power in Beau, Ashlin, and Kurt, but Toronto is a more complete team. While San Jose has one good win over San Francisco, the rest of their wins have been less than impressive. They’ve beaten a bad Salt Lake team twice, and had a surprisingly close game at home against Seattle. On the other hand, Toronto has earned road wins against DC, New York, and Montreal. While everyone rightfully loves the top three on the San Jose roster, it wasn’t long ago that GOAT was considered to be at the top of the Club game, and this Rush team is more GOAT heavy than it was last year.
Not only that, but there may not be anyone in the AUDL playing better than Mark Lloyd right now. Not only does Lloyd have 19 assists and 13 goals, it’s the times he’s come through for Toronto that counted most. When the Rush needed an upwind point late in the game against New York, Lloyd made it look easy when the wind had been punishing everyone. Toronto does not look like a complacent defending champion. They’re 4-0 and have gotten through the toughest part of their schedule. It’s possible that they could run the table for a second year in a row.
2. San Jose Spiders 4-0, +9.75
San Jose will play the regular season. But in a way, none of the games will matter for the Spiders until July. There’s almost no doubt that the Spiders will finish in the top two in the West, qualifying for the playoffs. They’ve already beat San Francisco, Seattle, and Salt Lake City twice, once when they traveled to Utah with only 13 players. The Spiders can’t afford to look past San Francisco, but just like Clubber Lang, they surely have their eyes on the reigning champion.
Toronto mostly played bums last year in the East, and they haven’t played anyone on San Francisco’s level yet this year. But the Spiders will have to wait before they get their title shot. As expected, Beau has been lighting up the scoreboard for San Jose, with a +/- rating twice that of the next highest player on the team, along with 14 goals and 12 assists. Ashlin Joye is having a nice season as well, and Kurt Gibson will surely put up numbers once he starts playing in more games. One player that hasn’t been mentioned that much that is very important for this team is Kevin Smith, a Mischief veteran that played with the Dogfish last year. He already has six goals and 12 assists. He’s played in every San Jose game, and is a very creative thrower. San Jose has talent up and down the roster, but with players like Smith, Mark Elbogen, Tim Gilligan, and Eli Kerns in key supporting roles, the top seven from this team is the best in the league.
3. San Francisco FlameThrowers 4-1, +8.8
The FlameThrowers have more championship experience than any other team in the AUDL. Between their Revolver players, Blackbird players, and former Sockeye champions, this is a team that has been at the top. They really have beaten the best.
Unlike Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, they are by no means over the hill. While they weren’t able to top the Spiders in their first meeting of the year, they’ve played very promising ultimate since. They blew out the Lions worse than the Spiders did, survived a scare against the Raptors just like San Jose, and had a solid victory in Vancouver. It’s not just the margin of those games, but how they’ve won.
San Francisco has one of the best, and most underrated players in the AUDL. Cassidy Rasmussen is one of the best receivers in the league and is also a big threat with the disc in his hands. He’s a huge weapon on the San Francisco O-Line that is plenty versatile enough to play on the D-Line as well. And while Eli Janin puts plenty of discs Rasmussen’s way, what’s impressive about San Francisco is how well he (and the rest of the team) shares the disc. Of Janin’s 17 assists, he hasn’t thrown more than two to any one player on the team. And San Francisco’s D-Line operates much the same way. Sam Kanner has taken a lot of the handling load for that line, and of his ten assists no more than two have gone to any particular player. San Francisco has scored 121 goals but no player has scored more than 12 individually. When people talk about the FlameThrowers being the deepest team in the league it’s not just a way of saying that they don’t have Beau Kittredge or Mark Lloyd on their team. It’s because it’s true, and they’ll be a real threat and closer to even money than people think in their inevitable conference final against the Spiders.
4. Madison Radicals 4-1, +9
There’s not a team that fits Rocky Balboa better than the Madison Radicals. They’re the people’s champ. They came so close to a title last year, and intend to take down the champs this time around. Already this season they’ve beat Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Detroit by nine or more. The only blip on their season was a road loss to Minnesota. Given that Madison didn’t lose to Minnesota all last season, some may look at this season as a step back. Frankly, Madison had to lose to Minnesota at some point. They had defeated the Wind Chill four times in a row, and Minnesota is too talented to let a streak like that continue forever. Madison is training for the post season. They’ll pile up wins in the regular season, they may even win the division, but how successful the Radicals are won’t be able to measured until the postseason.
What’s so impressive about the Radicals this year is the level of cohesion and depth their team has. Looking at this chart it shows just how diverse their scoring options are. While Tom Annen and Andrew Brown remain the handlers that run the show on offense, the team has many players that look to throw or catch the score. One player they lost that would be difficult to replace was Tyler Glenn. Glenn was the deep deep in their go to zone defense, and Peter Graffy stepped in to replace him. Graffy has been exceptional so far, with 15 d’s, 10 assists, and 8 goals. To top it off, he has the best +/- on the team, a remarkable feat considering over 90% of the points he plays are on the D-Line.
Despite all the success they’ve had so far this season, the Radicals still have that loss to Minnesota on their record. Their zone did not perform nearly as well in that game. They would run their sideline trap, cut off all the upfield looks, the Minnesota player would look for a dump and the Madison zone would adjust to cut off that look, and all of a sudden the thrower would have a wide open teammate up the line. This happened throughout the game, and Madison will have to watch out when playing the top teams in the conference. They Radicals have been running that zone for over a year. Teams will start to figure it out. Will Madison be able to introduce new twists and variations, or will they fail to adjust when the other team finds holes?
5. Chicago Wildfire 3-2, +4.4
The Chicago Wildfire are something of an anomaly. Last year they were 13-0 when playing teams not named the Radicals. Madison was undoubtedly their kryptonite, and Chicago lost in convincing fashion in the conference finals. Chicago may have been the more talented team, but Madison was better prepared and it showed. This offseason Chicago returned almost all of their talent, and added plenty of top shelf new players as well. But they still endured the worst weekend in their brief history during the second week of the season, losing to both Cincinnati and Indianapolis. While they were missing about half of their Machine players, those are probably not games Chicago would have dropped last year.
And though the team added a lot of talent in the offseason, the veterans have been the ones carrying the team so far. Goose Helton, AJ Nelson, Bob Liu, and Brett Kolinek have continued to be the players that drive the Chicago team. Two time MVP Jonathan “Goose” Helton in particular has continued to play well. Helton has 17 assists, 16 goals, and 5 Ds as he has transitioned to a mostly O-Line player.
The true barometer for Chicago will take place in Week 7. The Wildfire host the Radicals on Friday night and then play them again the next day in Madison. Anything other than a split would be surprising, but Chicago needs a statement victory more badly than Madison. The Wildfire still have to have a sour taste in their mouth from last year’s conference final, when they not only lost they didn’t put up much of a fight. Of course a wild card for this team is Brodie Smith. He has missed every game so far because of injury, and could add a new dimension to the team when he returns. When he does it might be best for Chicago if Coach Ron Kubalanza avoided putting a still-recovering Brodie on the D-Line. His defense comes and goes, depending on how healthy he is and whether or not he sees a highlight opportunity.
6. DC Breeze 3-1, +6
The DC Breeze were bad last year. Three of their four wins came against a now defunct New Jersey team and one came against a Rochester team which was missing over half of its roster. They needed credibility. They needed some valuable pain and experience. Alex Ghesquiere gave them that. With Ghesquiere on board, more players than ever came to try out for the team, and it resulted in a squad that has more than just a couple former college all stars.
That said, having Tyler Degirolamo and Alex Thorne certainly doesn’t hurt. And after having watched the Breeze, they seldom resort to the Alex and Tyler show. Both players do a good job involving their teammates in the offense. Degirolamo has been especially important for the Breeze. He has 16 assists and 30 goals. While Mark Lloyd might be the MVP right now, Degirolamo is certainly on the short list of candidates. Of course one or two players can only carry a team so far. Players like Josh Norris, Logan Rhyne, and Brett Matzuka have all been playing big roles for the Breeze. What DC needs to work on is its D-Line offense. Matzuka is their go to handler in that situation, and it seems like a matter of time before they start to gel. Francisco Hazera and Ben Feng have already been generating d’s, and once everyone starts getting used to each other they should start converting more of those break opportunities.
7. New York Empire 2-1, +6
New York added more talent this offseason, and looks the part of a contender. They played Toronto close. Playing at home they blew out Rochester. On the road they beat Montreal. But at this rate New York will not be able to top Toronto, or even most likely DC. Right now the best players on the Empire play on the New York D-Line, and the O-Line features 2013 Empire veterans like CJ Oullette, who is continuing his low percentage decisions with the disc into 2014. In their close loss to Toronto the New York O-Line converted 37% of their opportunities for scores. Their D-Line converted 44% of the time. It’s a small disparity but in close games it can make a huge difference. Plus, O-Lines should be more efficient than D-Lines anyhow. Their entire North Carolina contingent spent most of its points on the D-Line, as did the Drost twins. When they’re blowing out an inferior Rochester team it doesn’t hurt them, but it will against playoff caliber teams. In their most recent game against Montreal they started to make that overdue adjustment. Noah Saul and Matt Bode played on both lines, but spent the majority of the game playing with the offense. Hopefully for New York this wasn’t a one game experiment but the start of a new trend.
Ryan Drost has really been a revelation for New York so far. Given how well his brother Mike Drost played last year it can’t come as too much of a shock, but on a talented Empire squad, Ryan is leading the team in goals and d’s. With the Drosts wrecking havoc on defense, the Empire can undoubtedly afford to move players like Saul, Bode, and Poulos to the O-Line. The next real test for the Empire will come in Week 7, when they host Montreal. If New York can beat the Royal again it will be in great shape to duke it out with DC later in the season to see who finishes second in the East.
8. Indianapolis AlleyCats 3-2, -.2
Indianapolis finally got the monkey off their back. They finally won against Chicago. But with all the absences the Wildfire had, it must have felt like a hollow victory. Like Apollo, they may have won but they didn’t beat their opponent.
The AlleyCats looked like maybe they took a step back this offseason but early evidence points to the contrary. An Toine has given them the type of handler that they lacked last season. While Kyle Cox and Mike Ford played their roles well, Toine has been on a different level so far. He leads the team in both assists and hockey assists. Meanwhile, the Keenan Plew-Cameron Brock cutting tandem has been more effective than ever. While the Wildfire is the team that Indianapolis might have their eye on right now with their upcoming game on ESPN3 and their six point win earlier in the season, it’s really the Wind Chill they should be thinking about. The Wildfire were missing a ton of their talent during their disaster road trip to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Chicago will almost definitely take care of business against Indianapolis from here on out, just like they did last year. Minnesota is a better team than last year, but still couldn’t win at home against the AlleyCats, after Indianapolis had played in Madison the day before.
The AlleyCats are 3-2 and it’s never too early to start thinking about the playoff race. That final playoff spot will most likely between Indianapolis and Minnesota. Minnesota has more talent, but Indianapolis is clearly the better team right now. The question is how much longer that will remain true, and if it will be long enough that the ‘Cats can build an insurmountable lead, just like they did last year.
9. Minnesota Wind Chill 2-2, +.75
What happened last Sunday to the Wind Chill? Coming off a victory over Madison they were the presumed favorite against Indianapolis, who was coming off a nine point loss to the Radicals. But the game stayed close throughout, and the AlleyCats came away with a one point victory. In fact the last time the Minnesota beat Indianapolis was over a year ago, when they won 34-25 over the ‘Cats in their first game ever as a team. There are a couple possible reasons for the surprise. It could be that Minnesota was overlooking Indianapolis after a big victory over Madison. It could be that Indianapolis is in the Wind Chill’s heads after a solid display of dominance over them last season. Or it could be that Indianapolis is better than anyone has given them credit for.
One thing is certain, if Minnesota is going to turn it around the team will need their veterans to continue playing well. One stat that might be surprising is what player combination has combined for the most assists-goals. It’s not Ashlin Joye to Beau, Mark Lloyd to Cam Harris, or even Alex Thorne to Tyler Degirolamo. It’s Kevin Seiler to James Hron, with 9 connections for scores. Hron has been tearing it up for Minnesota, with 12 assists and 16 goals.
The Wind Chill have mostly been running their Drag’n Thrust players on the O-Line with a couple Chad Larson Experience players, and there’s no reason to mess with that formula yet. But this weekend will be tough. Minnesota is playing in Madison and Indianapolis, and they really need one win to keep from falling behind. Otherwise 2014 might just end up being 2013 redux for Minnesota.
10. Vancouver Riptide 3-1, +4.25
Are the San Jose Spiders going to knock Vancouver into tomorrow? We’ll find out Saturday, but the schedule has undoubtedly been kind to Vancouver so far. It hasn’t featured any setups, but there haven’t been many killers either. Vancouver started the season with a two game series against Salt Lake, which they swept easily. They won at home against a Seattle team playing their first game. And they lost to San Francisco by nine in Vancouver.
The question facing Vancouver is how well their D-Line will perform. In each of their victories, their O-Line has converted over 50% of their opportunities. That’s good, but it also shows that their D-Line has a lot to work on.
Against San Francisco the Riptide D-Line only had nine possessions. They scored on four of them, but by generating so few chances they sealed their fate that game. And against Seattle the D-Line converted 41% while their O-Line was at 56%. It’s good for the O-Line to be more efficient than their teammates on the D-Line, but Vancouver’s defense hasn’t looked great so far this season. Against Seattle most of their opportunities came from Seattle mistakes rather than good defense, and when they had chances they converted at a low rate.Against San Francisco they didn’t generate enough chances.
There’s little evidence that Vancouver will be able to steal a playoff spot. But they are 3-1, only a half game out of second place, so they’re in the playoff conversation. For now.
11. Cincinnati Revolution 2-2, -2.5
The Cincinnati Revolution are in the playoff conversation. The team is shooting for a playoff berth. It’s not totally unfeasible. The evidence so far point both ways. They’re pursuing a playoff spot, even if nearly everyone assumes they’ll finish fifth in the conference. Don’t forget, this is a team that beat Chicago. This is a team that added some great players from Madcow, a team that qualified for the Club Championships last fall. The truth is we don’t yet have any idea where Cincinnati falls in the playoff conversation. They’ve yet to play Indianapolis or Minnesota.
The question facing Cincinnati is if the team is too reliant on one player. Nate Botti was on the roster last year, but played limited time due to injury. This year he’s back, and his 21 assists lead the team. Botti has thrown or caught 36% of the points he has played. He has thrown or caught 41% of Cincinnati’s scores. To give some perspective, Mark Lloyd has scored on 36% of Toronto’s points, and accounted for 36% of Toronto’s scores. And if there were an MVP through the first four weeks, it would be Mark Lloyd. Can Cincinnati continue to rely on one player to that degree? The rest of the roster doesn’t exactly match up with the talent that accompanies Mark Lloyd in Toronto.
The top of the roster can compete for Cincinnati. But what team are they? The team that took it to Chicago, winning by one? Or the team that barely even showed up for the rematch, losing 12-26?
12. Montreal Royal 0-2, -4.5
What do we really know about the Montreal Royal? We know that the team makes a great entrance, and puts on a great show, just like Hulk Hogan in Rocky III. Other than that we don’t know much. Montreal hung with Toronto for the first half of their game partly due to luck. Montreal was converting a high percentage of its hucks, some of which were due to blown assignments by Toronto’s defense or discs taking lucky turns. Over the course of the game the Royal’s hucks became less and less effective, ending up at a 40% completion rate for the day. In the AUDL teams a good completion rate on hucks is over 50%. Even with the lucky start the Royal couldn’t reach that mark.
Unfortunately for Montreal is still has to play Toronto three more times. And later this month they start their three consecutive two game road trip weekends. It’s hard to see a path for the playoffs for Montreal, given how well DC and New York have played. Of course it’s too early to write them off, but they need to go 3-3 in those six road games just to stay in the conversation.
Maybe Next Year
13. Seattle Raptors 0-4, -6.75
The Raptors are full of local Seattle players that may not have torn up the club scene or played on national teams like some of their opponents in San Francisco, San Jose, or Vancouver. But they are still able to contend against the best teams in the league. They played San Francisco close in a 13-17 loss. They led the Spiders in the third quarter in San Jose before losing by 5. Peter Bender may not be a name that’s familiar to AUDL fans, but last Saturday he caught five goals and threw two assists against San Jose. This team is no joke. They are the local contender full of unknown names that can hang tough. At the same time the Raptors are 0-4, and as compelling as their underdog story may be there’s no way an 0-4 team can finish in the top two in the West.
It’s not like the Raptors are going winless this season. They’ll start winning games soon. They’ve yet to play Salt Lake, who is on their schedule three times before the season ends. But this is not a team that will make the playoffs. If they finish third in the West it would be a serious accomplishment.
14. Rochester Dragons 1-3, -9.8
In Rocky IV Apollo made Rocky promise something that he’d regret. Rocky didn’t stop the beating Ivan Drago gave Apollo, and the result was very ugly. Similarly, the Rochester Dragons have endured a couple beating the last couple weeks. In their game in New York the wheels completely fell off the wagon. The Dragons were dropping discs, throwing behind receivers, and putting up very inadvisable hucks. They lost 8-27. Rochester looked like a summer league team, and not a particularly good one. Against Toronto the Dragons kept it interesting for a quarter before the game got totally away from them, losing 11-26. This after a 2013 season when the Dragons played the Rush closer than anyone. It wasn’t just that Rochester lost those two games, it was how they lost. It was hard to draw many positives from them.
Undoubtedly Rochester will improve from these low moments. Dave Ferraro has already looked good playing for the Dragons, scoring 15 goals and throwing 5 assists. There will even be at least one game this season when they upset a team not named the Phoenix. But teams don’t lose by 15 or more two weeks in a row and then turn around and make the playoffs. That doesn’t happen. If Rochester manages to finish fourth in the East the team will have surpassed expectations.
The Dragons have this weekend off to lick their wounds, but next weekend is the one to watch for them. They host the Empire, who they beat at home last year. If Rochester is going to turn this season around, it will probably have to happen then.
15. Philadelphia Phoenix 0-3, -6.7
Unlike with Robert Balboa, the exact moment when the Phoenix stopped being the Phoenix of old can be pinpointed. When David Brandolph decided to leave the franchise to play for the Spinners, it was clearly going be a down year for the Phoenix. Matt Esser’s departure hurt almost as much. While the Phoenix did add some talent, mostly from the Heva Havas club team but also Schuyler Redding, a former Spinners player. Players like Redding, Kyle Wolf, Dave Hampson, and Kenny Wells play big roles for Philadelphia but no one can fill the shoes left behind by Esser and Brandolph. This team revolved around those two players last year, and it shows this year.
The Phoenix have been in every game they’ve played so far, never losing by double digits. They have battled, but it’s a battle they can’t win. Last year they never lost to DC. This year Philadelphia has already lost tot DC twice. There’s almost no chance the Phoenix goes 0-14 this year, but 0-14 might be more likely than a playoff appearance.
16. Detroit Mechanix 0-5, -11.8
Is it possible to go 0-5, losing by more than 11 points on average and still be beating expectations? If so, it’s the sign of a team with sadly low expectations, but it’s something the Mechanix have pulled off so far. They only lost to Minnesota by nine, Indianapolis by six, and Chicago by nine. Unfortunately the Mechanix are running out of time to get a win. It needs to happen this month, or it most likely won’t happen at all. Once June rolls around Detroit will only have one home game left. In the meantime hopefully the Mechanix enjoy do something badly that they love.
17. Salt Lake City Lions 0-5, -14.6
The one quote from Rocky V in this piece goes to the Salt Lake Lions. For a team that prided itself on being unknown, they have served as a reminder that being unknown is usually a bad thing. Rocky V was by far the worst and ugliest of all the Rocky films, and the quote precedes an ugly streetfight between Rocky and Tommy Gunn. And “ugly streetfight” isn’t a bad way to characterize the way the Salt Lake Lions play ultimate. In their opening game against the Vancouver Riptide the Salt Lake City O-Line threw 22 hucks. The Vancouver O-Line threw three. Vancouver completed 100% of their three hucks, while Salt Lake City completed 36% of theirs. That 36% rate was sadly outperforming their overall conversion rate, which was 28% for the O-Line and 25% overall. Salt Lake would even occasionally throw hucks to stationary receivers, relying on the offensive cutter to sky the defensive player that was already in position. And that wasn’t even the Lions worst game.
The Lions have drawn well, their opener had 559 fans in attendance. Utah has one of the fastest growing youth ultimate scenes in the nation. There are undoubtedly pieces here for a successful franchise. Hopefully the team continues to draw well as the season goes on, and they start to experience better weather, which has impeded attendance numbers so far. Their next best chance for a win is May 31 when they host the Raptors. Hopefully Salt Lake can get a victory then. Otherwise it may never happen.