The Eastern Conference saw teams bringing back almost all of their best players and adding new weapons to their lineup. Every team got better. Not so in the West. Last year the San Francisco Dogfish and Seattle Rainmakers were a step above the Vancouver Nighthawks and Portland Stags. Their playoff showdown was a foregone conclusion by Week 5. With the Nighthawks and Stags growing stronger and the Dogfish and Rainmakers taking steps backwards, the playoff race should be more interesting this time around.
Portland Stags – Offseason Grade B
2013 Record: 1-9, -5.7 average goal differential
Additions: Mark Burton, Camden Allison-Hall, Topher Davis
Subtractions: Riley Meinsershagen, Jeremy Meyer
The Stags had a rough 2013 season. They were on the wrong side of a lot of blowouts, and Timmy Perston started to cool off after the first few weeks of the season once opponents adjusted. Their one win came at home by one point against a San Francisco team that had played the day before and was missing a lot of its starting lineup. To approach respectable in 2014, the Stags had to keep their playmakers from 2013 and bring on some fresh talent to make up for their short bench.
This year the Stags are greatly benefiting from the 2013 graduating class from Oregon Ego.
Topher Davis and Camden Allison-Hall are both former college stars with club experience from their time on Rhino. Allison-Hall is well known as quick receiver from his time on NexGen, and Davis is a solid handler with strong defense. But their biggest addition has to be Mark Burton. Burton was second in the MLU in goals last year and fourth in points. While he surely benefited from playing alongside some great talent in Seattle, he’ll have very talented teammates in Portland as well.
The Stags are bringing back almost all of their best players from 2013. Of course that list starts with Timmy Perston and Cody Bjorklund, who generated much of the Stags offense last year. All five Stags that scored at least 20 points last season are back for 2014. In a weakened Western Conference, the talent is there to make a run at the playoffs.
The Stags badly needed another go to offensive deep threat besides Timmy Perston. Their offense last season seesawed between predictable deep looks to Perston (which still worked sometimes) and unnecessarily risky throws early in the stall count. Mark Burton and Allison-Hall should provide relief there. But they won’t solve the problem the Stags had last season in their style of play. They forced too many jump balls, and too many hammers to players that weren’t that open to begin with. While turnovers may be more common in the MLU than elite club, you still have to avoid careless turnovers if you expect to win more than a few games. With new coaches Michael Knapp and Danny Quarrell on board, the head coaches from the Portland Women’s Club team Schwa, we’ll see if Portland can right the ship.
Seattle Rainmakers – Offseason Grade D+
2013 Record: 8-2, +3.3 average goal differential
Additions: Jimmy Chu, Eddie Feeley
Subtractions: Mark Burton, Phil Murray, Matt Rehder, BJ Sefton, Adam Holt, Danny Karlinsky
After Sockeye leadership decided to ask its players to prioritize the club team during a WUCC year, it wasn’t clear how many, if any, Sockeye players would re-up with the Rainmakers. Though a few ended up back with the Rainmakers anyhow, it’s clear that this isn’t the same team as it was last year. There are only nine returners. They are bringing in some respectable talent, but nowhere near the kind of talent that they’re leaving behind.
The good news is the players coming back were dedicated to the team last year. Mario O’Brien and Sam Harkness will both play larger roles for the Rainmakers this year, and 2013 MLU Western Conference MVP Adam Simon is back as well. The best players are still top notch. The problem is depth.
Last year, after losing more players to injury than any other team, Seattle still nearly beat San Francisco in the conference finals. That’s because they were the deepest team in the league. They could get by missing five great players in any given week, because they were being replaced by five other great players. That won’t be true this year. Last season, 17 players from 2013 Sockeye played for the Rainmakers. This year only four players from that squad are on board. Seattle will have to rely more on Voodoo this year (a team with 11 players represented on the Rainmakers) and former Sockeye players. Jimmy Chu, Eddie Feeley, Danny Trytiak, and Matty Zemel have all suited up for Sockeye in the past, some more recently than others. Chu played for Sockeye during their championship days, and more recently played for Polar Bears in San Francisco. Zemel is a former NexGen star playing for Johnny Bravo. And Trytiak (who recently played for Voodoo) was one of the unsung heroes of the Rainmakers last year, third on the team in points behind only Simon and Burton.
The main question for the Rainmakers this year is how often their top players show up. If each of their top ten guys are playing every week, this team should make the playoffs. If not, the season could get ugly fast. 2013 was mostly a rotating cast of all stars playing different weeks. That won’t work this year. Their margin for error is lower. They don’t have as much depth. Last year getting to the playoffs was a given. This year, just getting back there would be beating the odds.
San Francisco Dogfish – Offseason Grade C-
2013 Record: 8-2, +4 average goal differential
Additions: Taylor Cascino, Greg Husak
Subtractions: Beau Kittredge, Ashlin Joye, Ryo Kawaoka, Nick Schlag
The Dogfish had a very similar offseason to the Rainmakers. While Revolver players haven’t left pro ultimate en masse, with many joining Bay Area AUDL teams, they did leave the Dogfish. Only three Revolver players are left on the team this year. Last year there were 18. It’s hard for 15 players from a championship club team to leave without a serious drop off.
But San Francisco is essentially the modern ultimate capital of the world. In 2011, San Francisco teams won the Club Championship in the Open Division, Women’s Division, and in the Mixed Division a San Francisco team won by beating….another San Francisco team. And it wasn’t long ago that a San Francisco team lost in the finals, lost a lot of their marquee players, brought on unknown talent, and came back to win it all. That was Revolver in 2013.
A contingent of four Condors has signed on with the Dogfish this season, as have ten players from Boost Mobile. Last year, Boost player Evan Boucher made a name for himself as one of the top players on a Revolver heavy squad, and his play would help him land a spot on the Revolver for the series. It remains to be seen who will step up for San Francisco this year, but there are possibilities. Gary Dixon is another player who could make a name for himself in San Francisco. Dixon is a Boost Mobile player that wasn’t with the Dogfish last year, but should assert himself in this lineup. Taylor Cascino and Greg Husak are certainly not inexperienced, but they’re both valuable “rookies.” They first played together for the Condors in 2001, when the Santa Barbara team won the club championship. They won WUCC the next summer. They played on a championship team again in 2008 with Jam. Cascino went on to win more titles with Revolver in 2010 and 2011. They’ll bring a younger Dogfish team some invaluable experience.
More important than the new players on the squad though, are the returning players. Of the eight players returning, five scored at least 20 points last year. Mac Taylor, Evan Boucher, Jordan Jeffrey, Tyler Grant, and Andrew Kim all played well for the Dogfish last year. Jeffrey, Taylor, and Boucher were all in the top ten for Revolver in involvement yards per point at the Club Championships in 2013 according to Ultiworld’s statistical tracking. Boucher was the team MVP last season. Taylor is capable of being a league MVP if he shows up for enough games. Given that Boucher, Grant, Jeffrey, and Kim are all primarily cutters, Taylor will most likely see more of the disc than anyone else on the Dogfish this season. He is more prone to launch deep looks than most of his Revolver teammates, but that’s a strategy that tends to work in the MLU. Their head coach is returning as well. Justin Safdie did a great job in 2013 of juggling different rosters from week to week to get the most out of his players. 2014 presents a different challenge, but one he is well prepared for.
The Dogfish are a long way from 2013. Beau Kittredge and Ashlin Joye aren’t walking through that door. But even more importantly, most of the players that backed them up last season aren’t either. This will be a very different team from 2013. They won’t be as good as last year, no doubt about it. But it’d be a mistake to underestimate San Francisco.
Vancouver Nighthawks Offseason Grade B+
2013 Record: 3-7, -1.6 average goal differential
Additions: Takuya Saito, Brendan Wong, John Norris
Subtractions: Oscar Pottinger, Mauro Ortiz
The Nighthawks were constantly coming up just short against the Rainmakers last year. Three of their games were decided by two points or less. With Vancouver getting better and Seattle and San Francisco taking steps back, it’s hard to bet against the Nighthawks to win the conference.
The Western Conference saw much more turnover than the East. Not as many players are coming back. Except for Vancouver which is returning 15 players. Elite club teams have either splintered (Revolver) or departed (Sockeye) from their MLU counterparts. Not so for Vancouver. Five new Furious George players have signed on for 2014, bringing the total of Furious players on the roster to 16. San Francisco and Seattle haven’t brought on marquee names to their roster. Vancouver brought over a player from Japan in Takuya Saito, who is one of the top players in the game. And as far as playing with Japanese players go, no North American team has done it more often than Vancouver.
Bringing in Furious veterans like Brendan Wong and former Furious players like John Norris and Marc Seaglia can’t be understated. Wong is a goal scoring machine, and though Oscar Pottinger in particular is irreplaceable, both Seraglia and Norris will help make up for the departed veteran handlers in Pottinger and Ortiz. Kirk Savage will certainly miss playing catch with Pottinger on the field this year, but he’ll also be getting a healthy Morgan Hibbert, whose return shouldn’t be forgotten.
And when it comes to the competition in the West, it’s hard to place too much stock in the fact that the Nighthawks struggled late in some games. Who were they struggling against? Seattle and San Francisco. Teams loaded with Sockeye and Revolver players. Those aren’t the same teams this year. While Vancouver is bringing back over 50% of its players from last year, Seattle is bringing back about 33%, and San Francisco is only bringing back 25%. Seattle and San Francisco will be brand new teams. Vancouver will not be.
When it comes to picking a team in the Western Conference, the math isn’t too difficult. The Nighthawks underachieved last year. They were better than their 3-7 record showed. They’re getting better. And no matter how you feel about the Dogfish and Rainmakers, it’d be hard to keep a straight face and say they’ll be better than last year.
The Nighthawks have done a wonderful job of assembling the best talent they can. No team in the conference will be as good as last year’s Dogfish or Rainmakers teams, and no team will be as bad as last year’s Stags team. The playoff race will be much more interesting this year, but I’d count on the Nighthawks taking the one seed.