The Seattle Rainmakers didn’t have the best opening match. They were outclassed, 21-12, at the hands of the Portland Stags, who I assume to be their biggest rivalries (because Seattle vs. Portland, duh). Given they have to play the Stags in two of their nine remaining matches, I imagine the game also gave them a bit of a psychological handicap to head forward with.
This match was the first professional ultimate match I’ve watched in full. Despite the margin of victory, I enjoyed it. I’ve also got a lot of thoughts:
Wrist strength and dexterity seem uniquely important, which I’m sure has never been the premise for ultimate jokes. Nope. Not once. Can’t imagine it.
The Rainmakers player who stood out to me was Henry Phan. A defensive handler (I’ll admit I’m still unclear on positional distinctions and roles… and substitution patterns…) Phan’s array of throws was mindboggling. When the disc came out of his hand my reaction was consistently, “holy shit.” One scoring throw in particular stood out:
That’s an awesome combination of vision and precision at game speed.
My research into Phan revealed that he’s been playing at a high level since early in high school, and his skill level showed the importance of learning the game young.
Portland seemed to have two insurmountable advantages. The first was that their attacking players were bigger guys, capable of dominating in the air even with defenders on them. These weren’t the most thrilling plays for me as a new viewer of the game. While clearly there’s skill involved in lofting a disc way down the field, there’s a lack of precision to the attacks. It looked like Stoke with Peter Crouch at striker or late 90s/early 00s Lakers basketball with Shaq inside. Dumping the disc to a big man is always going to be an effective strategy, but not always an attractive one.
Additionally, the big guys in these games aren’t that big or athletic by the standard of professional athletes. Cody Bjorklund had a great match for Portland despite having a broken wrist, but one could see his role being played better by an NFL caliber athlete. Throw Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski onto the field and things change. I realize that’s a brutally unfair comparison, but it’s one that doesn’t hold true for the guys throwing the discs. Russell Wilson or Tom Brady couldn’t just walk onto the field and dominate the same way.
The other apparent edge Portland had was their exploitation of Seattle’s defensive tactics. The Stags were constantly responding to Seattle’s aggressiveness by finding opens spaces to throw into. They also operated at a quicker clip offensively. Whereas Seattle found themselves getting pressed and or double-teamed when they moved the disc towards the sidelines, which lead to risky throws, Portland was getting pressed everywhere, meaning that there were holes to be exploited everywhere. That aspect of Portland’s game was cool to watch, especially when they were turning turnovers into quick attacks.
Not to belabor the comparison between ultimate and the NFL, but the lack of contact in this game was refreshing. The risk for concussions is so much lower; at no moment did I see a play where I had to brace myself for a player’s life being ruined. Soccer is often thought of as the sport that will replace football in the national consciousness as fewer elite athletes are willing to play and fewer fans are willing to watch guys take serious injuries playing the game. Ultimate, though, appears even safer than soccer, and scoring happens at a brisker pace.
Because this match was a blowout, I still have big questions about the pace of scoring. It doesn’t have the massive volume of points like basketball, but it isn’t a game where every point is at a premium like soccer. It’s closest to water polo amongst sports with which I’m familiar, and I’ve yet to really figure out how crucial it is to score on every drive or what constitutes a close game late. Hopefully future matches will illuminate what a great close game looks.
Watching this game was really fun. All throughout, I was was hearing from folks on Twitter who care about the game. That said, one thing came up that I have to respond to… I can’t believe I need to write this, but I’m not, as someone suggested, in the pocket of Big Ultimate. The choice to follow an MLU team over an AUDL one was 100% about ease of streaming video as I’m traveling this spring for work. The irony that the first match had a glitch (I wound up watching the second half on YouTube before the first) is not lost on me, but um, yeah, I am not doing this to promote a specific league and I’m not being paid by anyone other than the publication. That said, I will make a point of checking out a Cascades match later this season so I can contextualize for myself the difference between the two leagues.