This weekend, 12 of the nation’s elite Open players are traveling to Fuji, Japan for, you guessed it, an ultimate tournament. These hand-picked stars have their flights and accommodations comped in exchange for participation in Japan’s largest ultimate tournament, the 15th annual Dream Cup. The USA All-Star Team includes four reigning national championship players from Doublewide (including Brodie Smith) as well as many big names we all hear time and again during the 2012 Club season, and now during the current College season (Freechild, Mickle, Ken Porter, and more).
With over 100+ teams, the Dream Cup is easily Japan’s largest tournament of the year, ensuring this will be no vacation on the field for Team USA. Since it’s introduction in 1999 Japan’s elite club team Buzz Bullets have taken the crown every year but the inaugural (the tournament was cancelled in 2011 due to the earthquake). That includes the 5th and 10th year celebrations which featured invites to 2002 UPA Champions Furious George in 2003 and 2007 UPA Champions Sockeye and Fury in 2008 (see the trend?). Both US teams finished second in 2008 behind Buzz Bullets and the Japanese Women’s National Team respectively.
Despite being able to take the top players from their respective club teams this year, rather than the entirety of the current UPA Champion team (meaning even greater talent), the road will once again be difficult if Team USA wants to come home champions. Their short roster may affect overall tournament endurance (especially during the club off-season), mental sharpness must be maintained throughout. The players will also need to apply their combined on-field experience in ways many never have before. Finally, they must apply their individual skill sets in order to overcome adverse conditions more efficiently than the other teams. (Saturday is predicted to be pretty blustery.) If they can consistently achieve these three keys to success, Team USA has a great chance to dethrone Buzz Bullets.
Let’s face it, no matter what the competition level, rolling only 12 deep to a tournament is tough. The doubt of fitness can eliminate a player or team before the first point is even played. With every inevitably long point and every disappointing drop the fear of bonking creeps ever closer to the front of an ultimate players’ mind. Much of the All-Star team is in midseason form, having already played multiple tournaments for their respective college teams. This will help some, but cannot completely remedy the issue. The only thing besides genuine mental focus that can alleviate the doubts of a 12 man roster is a multitude of short, efficient scoring points on offense leading to quick wins. The defensive mentality must be one of hard marks upfield and shut-down defense downfield, poaching in attempts to make huge, athletic, but ultimately exceedingly draining plays won’t be beneficial to a 12 man team. Drops and throwaways must be minimized, and the handlers should be patient for the nearly 100% option as it will most certainly develop eventually with all the talent of these traveling 12.
If and when the US team faces squads that lack the talent that they do, the All-Stars must eliminate them quickly and use every available second of downtime to rest. We won’t know how effective they are at this until late Sunday, most likely not until the Semis or Finals.
Experience for a New Experience
Each and every one of the US players to make the journey to Japan have spent years on an ultimate field. Gaining knowledge and expertise that only comes with playing, and playing a lot. This playing knowledge breeds a certain amount of field recognition that the US All-Stars, along with many, many other ultimate players gain over the years they spend in games. It is this gained field recognition that must be on-point all weekend long, especially on defense.
We’ve all been there, you’re marching up the field against your opponent’s schwilly zone and because of it they yell the “secret” word to signify switching to a man look. No matter what the word is, it’s always obviously the call off because there’s no other reason for an entire sideline to be screaming out colors, elements, numbers, or any other random word over and over. But what if you didn’t speak one word of English? How would you know the sideline is yelling a random word, rather than people’s names, or instructional help? The All-Stars may face this precise challenge in every game in the tournament. (I think it’s safe to assume most members are NOT fluent in Japanese).
It will take the bank of knowledge gained purely by experience that these players possess to overcome this obstacle. Early situational awareness will be key. Anticipation and readiness to act must be ever-present. The team must recognize situations earlier than Darrelle Revis recognizes route combos, and act on them smartly. This applies both defensively and offensively. There will be no freebies, like when you know what an opponents play calls mean. Team USA, essentially, must know what’s coming even before their opponents do.
If anyone can achieve these goals game in and game out, however, it’s these guys.
Throw (and Catch) What You Know
It’s better to be lucky than good. Unless you can have both, like the Traveling 12. It’s obvious the US All-Star team is, to keep with the cliche, “good”, they were chosen as the top dogs of the best and brightest from the highest echelons of ultimate. But they also have a bit of luck on their side, which never hurts.
Saturday of the Dream Cup is predicted to be windy, with gusts up around 30mph (48kph), an obvious advantage for a team of very strong handlers and sticky-fingered receivers. It also means the US can play some zone looks on defense, allowing for just that extra bit of rest opposed to purely man marking. Don’t get it twisted, the idea of eliminating poachy, over-the-top playmaking from above still applies to zone looks as well. Allowing a relaxation in mental focus would result in the need for extra effort even in a zone, something the Americans can ill afford. Don’t be surprised to see “pinpoint yet still somewhat floaty huck to big sky” type highlights coming from the All-Stars in this competition.
These three keys to success are vital to how well the US All-Stars do at such a large, prestigious tourney. Do the Americans have what it takes to continuously implement these keys during crunch time? Will it even be enough to knock off BB? Stay tuned.
Feature photo by Jeff Bell – UltiPhotos.com