The Club season is just around the corner. The U.S. Open, the first leg of the USA Ultimate Triple Crown Tour, will take place from the 3rd until the 6th of July 2014 in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Clapham Ultimate from London, UK, will be one of the three non-U.S. teams competing for the first official title of the upcoming U.S. club season. I recently talked with one of Clapham’s captains and leaders, Marc “Britney” Guilbert. Britney was also the captain for the GB team that won the silver medal at the World Championships in Sakai in 2012. We talked about Clapham’s trip to the U.S. and the upcoming World Ultimate Club Championships.
Clapham have been in communication with the U.S. Open since late 2012. USA Ultimate (USAU) wanted them to come last year but that unfortunately didn’t fit with their European schedule. However, Clapham had strong intentions of making it for 2014 as part of their preparations for Lecco, reported Britney. The timing of the tournament this year was much better for them and they kept in close contact. Whilst USAU wanted Clapham to come in 2013, they understood their situation and welcomed their commitment to play in 2014. “Having played in multiple U.S. tournaments in the past and, most recently, having had a respectable result in Chesapeake, Clapham’s brand and name was a big attraction to this year’s U.S. Open,” explained Britney. He said about USAU: “They were very welcoming and extended us an early invitation for this year’s tournament so we could make it a priority in our 2014 calendar. This ensured them we would come with the strongest team possible. All in all, this was a very positive outcome for both sides.”
This turned out to be true. Last year, the attraction and the sporting value of the U.S. Open was questioned by some. Teams seemed partly ill-prepared and the games appeared to be difficult for the teams not used to peaking so early in the season. However, this year the first major Triple Crown Tour event will undoubtedly enjoy greater recognition in the Ultimate community since the World Ultimate Club Championships (WUCC) will start only a few weeks after the U.S. Open, beginning the 2nd and running until the 10th of August in Lecco, Italy. With Revolver, Sockeye, Ironside, Johnny Bravo, and Furious George, many serious contenders for the World Championship title will not only compete for the U.S. Open title, but also use this first class event as a preparation for WUCC. In addition, Sub Zero and Evolution from Colombia will complete the strong starting field at the U.S. Open. Clapham fit in very well with this exclusive circle of international top teams.
Boston Ironside’s coach Josh McCarthy was available for a statement about Ironside’s expectations in this regard: “USA Ultimate has done an outstanding job assembling an A-rate men’s field at this year’s U.S. Open. While it may be easy for some to focus on the North American teams who are gearing up for World Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy, Ironside is excited to match up once again with London’s Clapham.” He went on: “Unlike the American teams attending WUCC, Clapham, the 13 time defending UK champion that was hardly challenged at its 2013 national tournament, surely has had its eyes set on that prize for well over a year now. Attending the U.S. Open should provide Europe’s premier team with a valuable opportunity to not only compete against some of the World’s best, but also to then assess strengths and weaknesses and fine-tune areas of development in the coming weeks before WUCC begins on August 2nd. While Ironside certainly will try to identify and then exploit any such weaknesses at the end of day one of the U.S. Open, we nonetheless appreciate Clapham’s willingness to travel to the United States for this tournament and we look forward to our battle.”
In fact, Clapham is currently dominating the European competition. They seem unbeatable in the national championship series, winning the previous 13 straight titles. Moreover, they won the European Club Championships Finals (EUCF) 2012 and 2013 without losing a single game. The question is, what separates Clapham from the other European elite club teams?
What Clapham separates from the other European elite club teams
One reason for Clapham’s dominance is that they have always set a higher bar and set themselves higher goals than all other European teams”, explained Britney. This would come from their roots, from having been led by a series of captains who had played in bigger games than those available in Europe. This created an ethos, a culture of dissatisfaction with national and European victories and an aim to compete and win on the international stage. This same mentality has pushed Clapham across the pond to play a tour in the USA every year possible.
It is not uncommon for top international teams to use the elite U.S. club tournaments to gauge their progress and learn from the very best in the world. Japan’s Buzz Bullets made repeated visits to the Emerald City Classic, losing in a close final to Seattle Sockeye in 2007 before breaking into the top three at Worlds in 2008 and Club Worlds in 2010 (note: WUCC 2006, with Buzz Bullets winning the title, was not attended by all top teams in the world). Also, Australian teams have traveled through the U.S. to prepare for international events in the past. The universe point game between Australia and Team USA (Revolver) at World Ultimate and Guts Championships (WUGC) 2012 proved that Australia clearly benefited from this experience.
According to Britney, the second reason for Clapham’s continued success is the team is incredibly geocentric and they are training together more often than ever. They’ve always had a minimum of one practice a week, but over the last few years this has become twice per week. At the moment, in the lead up to Lecco, Clapham are training three times a week. With a squad of more than 30 players, every training session is super intense. There are no other teams in Europe that can practice regularly on such a high level.
Additionally, Clapham is carrying no ‘invites’ or ‘international players’ this season. All members are local or attending weekly training. Justin Foord, Rob Schumacher, Dom Clark (MVP of the UKU Nationals Open Final 2013), Richard Harris, Max McCartney, Ollie Gordon (NexGen Tour 2011), and of course Britney himself are probably best known for outstanding ultimate action and international experience. Ben Funk, a former Stanford and Boost Mobile player, should be a new strong addition. He could play an important role besides another newcomer: Ashley Yeo. At least after the London Calling tournament this year, everybody should have him on their list for highlight reel plays, too.
Clapham’s current dominance in Europe is a result of a longer process. Before their most recent international success, Clapham struggled at the European Championships after 2007 when they won the title.
Clapham’s reconstruction phase after the 2007 season
The reason is that Clapham underwent a total restructuring phase following its 2007 season, losing roughly half of its regular personnel and all of its captains. As per any team, this shake up was felt by a drop in Clapham’s international standing.
During the long rebuilding years Clapham were always contenders within Europe, but level with the others and no longer a favorite, Britney said. Each year however, the team kept getting stronger. In 2011 they lost the European Club Championships on Universe point in a hard fought game against rival Flying Angels Bern. This was however, the last time Clapham lost a game at Euros.
Britney thinks that there are two significant changes in Clapham’s recent history which have helped them win more games. The first is that their recruitment has brought them increasingly better talent. Specifically, GB’s success at WUGC in Japan in 2012 helped Clapham because it proved that Clapham’s leaders and strongest international players knew how to build a team and win games. The second is that they have become extremely selective about what they focus on during practice. This has helped Clapham make bigger leaps on the elements they deemed most influential to victory. Taking such a systematic approach to the season and their journey to Lecco has really revolutionized trainings, said Britney. This has changed the way they would teach things and drill elements; it has even affected the way and the language the captains use to address their strengths and weaknesses.
Last year at the Chesapeake Invite Clapham already showed which impact the recent changes had on their game. Their results attracted worldwide attention.
The Chesapeake Invite experience
In their trip to the Chesapeake Invite last year, Clapham earned a spot in the semifinals with wins against several teams who later earned bids to the USAU Nationals, including Ring of Fire, Chain Lightning and Madcow. They also tallied close losses against PoNY and Ironside.
Still it was questioned whether Clapham were really closing the gap to the U.S. teams. European and UK expert Sion “Brummie” Scone argued that the fact that everyone was treating semifinals as an amazing result – and not just an expected one – indicated that people believe the gap has increased since 2007.
However, there are a couple of key points to bear in mind when looking at the Chesapeake results. For instance, Clapham played at the Chesapeake Invite with a small squad of only 16 last year but still managed to win games against strong U.S. teams. Admittedly, many of those U.S. teams were still early in their season preparation with the focus clearly set on Nationals in October.
In any event, the trip to Chesapeake certainly paid off for Clapham. They went to Chesapeake looking to close out games. In the past, Clapham would fight hard and compete in the first half of games but lose in the second half due to inconsistency or late forced errors, Britney explained. They were happy to have won a couple big games but ultimately annoyed by falling short against Ironside in the semifinals.
“Last year, Clapham more than held their own against top tier American competition at the 2013 Chesapeake Invite, beating the likes of Chain Lightning, Ring of Fire and Madcow; we surely do not forget that their short-handed squad had the disc at 12-12 against us in the semifinals of that tournament before a couple of untimely miscues on the British side resulted in Ironside stealing away a two point victory,” said McCarthy. He further reported: “Last year, Clapham appeared to be a well-balanced mix of savvy veterans with strong handling skills and younger, athletic receivers; they were opportunistic on defense, effectively clogging the throwing lanes, and they communicated their switches very well. Particularly impressive in our game was the speedy and athletic Justin Foord, a GOAT pick-up from time to time who really stood out on the Clapham O-line as a force to be reckoned with. (Hopefully he has recovered from an apparent recent “ligament cramp” and is fully healthy come the U.S. Open). American teams should take note.”
Britney summarized the Chesapeake Invite experience from Clapham’s view as follows: “You can’t go to a big U.S. tournament with a small squad. We have known this for years now. The schedules are ruthless and the competition is always tight, so you need as many legs as possible. The biggest thing we took from Chesapeake was that even with a small squad we were able to win big games. In response to this, we are happy to have 23 going to U.S. Open to try to see what a full size squad can accomplish.”
Preparing for the U.S. Open
In terms of helping Clapham to prepare this season, their trip to Chesapeake brought them resolve and focus. Losses always help a team grow more than victories, said Britney. He stated: “This was a good wakeup call to remind us that more work was needed if we wanted to be contenders at WUCC.”
Clapham Ultimate structures its season around priority tournaments. This year, they tried to build up a progression in the competitions they would attend. London Calling and Windmill Windup would give them the chance to clash against the strongest European competition.
After beating all European contenders quite easily, now the U.S. Open will give Clapham the opportunity to test themselves against the strongest in North America. Clearly, they learned their lesson from previous trips to the U.S. and this will help them to achieve good results against the strong competition they will face in a few days.
As mentioned above, Clapham’s roster at U.S. Open will be 23 strong. This is definitely more sufficient manpower that they had at Chesapeake. Clapham are taking 26 to WUCC later this year, which is a wise decision considering the length of the tournament. However, since the U.S. Open was open to all squad members, a couple players joining Clapham in Minneapolis will not be at Lecco. Specifically, most of the D-line will be in Minneapolis, but they will be missing a few players from the starting O-line.
Most of the Clapham players will arrive in the U.S. at least a full day in advance to get rid of the jetlag. Having had a really slow start in the first half of an evening exhibition game against Truck Stop the night before the start of Chesapeake last year, it is evident that at least 24 hours is needed to clear the travel fatigue.
Video analysis and other aspects of scouting have been entrusted to a few players within the Clapham squad. Since there is now a fair bit of footage available of North American competitions, it is an advantage for European teams allowing them to make pre-game decisions about what strategy to employ if deemed necessary.
In terms of adjustments, the main difference between playing the top American teams and the top European teams is that there is no space for error or for loss of focus against a top tier American team, said Britney. “This means that you must prepare for a relentless battle, one which tests every player mentally in addition to physically. Top American teams tend to be very deep and very well drilled mentally since they are used to tight competition within their region or section,” explained Britney. European teams games tend to be more lopsided and so teams have less opportunities to play tight games and under sustained pressure. Britney stated: “It is hard to adjust for this, but we are preparing our youngest players for this eventuality. Again, having already had experience playing in the U.S., we look forward to this as a test of our nerves under the greatest pressure.”
Indeed, the competition will be strong at the U.S. Open. Definitely much stronger than at Chesapeake Invite last year. There are the four semifinalists from the U.S. Nationals 2013 and in addition Sub Zero, Furious George, and Evolution (Colombia). One could argue that only Buzz Bullets from Japan and Colony from Australia are missing to round out this would-be “U.S. Open / World Championships”. The outcome is completely open.
Britney predicts: “Whilst I don’t know the caliber of the Colombian team, I would expect all games to be tightly fought. I’m not sure there is much difference between any of the six North American teams so other than going with recent matchup results, I’m not sure there’s a clear favorite.”
In fact, Clapham is going to the U.S. Open with the same aim as all the other teams attending. Clapham is going with the aim of winning it. Britney concluded: “Clapham is sending a strong, experienced and prepared squad to the U.S. Open. I look forward to taking to the fields and seeing what we can achieve.”
Being only one month apart, the U.S. Open is the perfect last minute preparation for WUCC. And Clapham intends to use this as the final stepping stone towards peaking at Lecco.
It was reported about difficulties for the teams from North America in Worlds years attempting to peak twice in one season. This seems to be no concern for Clapham.
Since just about every player in Clapham has traveled in the past to attend a U.S. tournament, the concept of post U.S. Open troubles has not even been considered. Every time Clapham has gone abroad to play in a North American tournament, it has come back stronger, Britney explained. He went on: “This is what people should expect in our final lead up to Lecco.”
According to Britney, the standard of the competition at Lecco will probably be the best we have seen at a World Club championship in over a decade. It seems everyone is there this time (none of the top teams from USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Europe or UK are missing). There will be very little difference between these top teams and it looks like all is up for grabs. Even in view of the strong competition, Britney ventures a prognosis: “I believe Clapham stands amongst those teams who have a legitimate chance at winning the tournament. Who could beat Revolver, Sockeye, Ironside and Bravo? I guess U.S. Open will give everyone a first stab at that question.”
Although there might be differences about how teams attending the U.S. Open will approach the two first major club events this year, one thing seems for sure: This will be the most exciting international club season ever.
USA Ultimate published the broadcast schedule of 15 games from the upcoming U.S. Open Ultimate Championships, 3rd until the 6th of July in Minnesota’s Twin Cities: http://www.usaultimate.org/news/fifteen-game-broadcast-schedule-set-for-2014-us-open/
Recorded games of Clapham Ultimate from recent tournaments can be found here:
- Showcase game between German Bad Skid and Clapham Ultimate at London Calling UKU Tour 1, 2014 (full game) and (highlights)
- An intense semifinal battle between German Bad Skid and Clapham at xEUCF 2013 (full game for little money at playo.tv, starting at 14 minutes due to delayed game start)
- And free footage of the same game Bad Skid vs Clapham by David Picon and Get Horizontal
- UKU Nationals Open Final 2013 – Clapham Ultimate vs Chevron Action Flash