As the calendar flips to July, the AUDL playoff picture is becoming clearer. But the championship discussion remains quite murky. This is a very good thing.
It speaks to the health and quality of the league that, by my count, there are still 10 teams in the AUDL that you could legitimately consider ‘contenders’ to win it all in San Jose on August 9. That’s a lot for a 25-team pro league this late into the season.
What makes a contender? I ask myself three questions:
Can I imagine this team reaching the playoffs?
Can I imagine this team making the Final Four?
If the team maximizes its potential and reaches its ceiling, can it beat anyone in the league on any given day?
If the answer to each of those questions is a "yes," then that team is a contender.
Alphabetically, here are the remaining teams that I could envision hoisting the title trophy in early August: Atlanta (9-3), Jacksonville (8-4), Madison (11-1), Pittsburgh (9-2), Raleigh (10-3), San Diego (5-6), San Francisco (7-6), San Jose (10-3), Seattle (7-5), and Toronto (10-1). You might disagree, but I would go to bat for each of those clubs in arguing their merit to possibly become champs in 2015. The list will shrink by two fairly quickly, as a couple of those contenders will not even make the playoffs.
For competition’s sake, it’s an excellent thing that 40 percent of the teams across the league remain as true championship contenders. I’d argue that’s a higher number than most other pro sports leagues at this stage of the season. It’s certainly higher than basketball and football.
It’s also fascinating to note that beyond the top 10, there are another seven teams in the next tier, signifying that on any given day, one of these seven could possibly pounce on one of the league’s best. Between Chicago (7-5-1), Indianapolis (7-4), Los Angeles (4-7), Montreal (8-5), New York (9-3), Ottawa (7-4), and Vancouver (3-9), you have seven teams that, for a variety of reasons, are ultimately flawed in their current pursuit of the title but remain as viable threats to spring an upset.
That’s 17 teams in the very good-to-solid category. A legit 68 percent of the league.
As for the other eight teams? Well, in basketball parlance, these guys are firmly entrenched in the lottery. DC (4-6) and Minnesota (4-7-1) are both definitely better than bottom. Each has gotten blasted by its top 10 divisional foes while simultaneously looming as talented enough to upend someone from the "any given day" category. These two teams, with the right roster management and individual player development, could easily battle for the playoffs in 2016.
Lastly, like any league after more than 80 percent of the regular season, you have the "thanks for playing" tier, consisting of Charlotte (1-10), Cincinnati (2-10), Detroit (0-11), Nashville (1-9), Philadelphia (0-11), and Rochester (1-9). It’s still pro sports, and some of these teams have threatened the league’s best with fourth quarter and overtime drama. But aside from the NightWatch’s early triumph over an undermanned Cannons club, these six have only gotten wins against each other.
At this time in the AUDL, canning the coach and splurging on high-priced free agent talent are not yet traditional tactics. But hierarchies, by nature, are fluid and evolving. If a team is unhappy with their current status, they can do any number of things to attempt to change their future fate.
That brings us back to the premier group of title contenders. A quick rundown of the strengths & weaknesses of each:
Why They Can Win the Title: Solid depth, a season-long upward trajectory, and relatively underrated/unknown contributors
Why They Won’t: Lack of experience
Championship Odds: 12-1
Why They Can Win the Title: Size, explosiveness, and confidence
Why They Won’t: Questionable composure
Championship Odds: 10-1
Why They Can Win the Title: Their innovative system can befuddle first-time foes, great depth when healthy
Why They Won’t: Offensive firepower is lacking
Championship Odds: 8-1
Why They Can Win the Title: Plenty of explosive throwers, an underrated defense, Tyler DeGirolamo
Why They Won’t: Top players have not always prioritized the AUDL
Championship Odds: 6-1
Why They Can Win the Title: Defensive firepower, offensive stability, and healthy confidence
Why They Won’t: Plagued by stretches of inconsistency, especially in the opening quarter of games
Championship Odds: 10-1
San Diego Growlers
Why They Can Win the Title: Top end talent, growing cohesiveness, peaking at the right time
Why They Won’t: Early season struggles hurt playoff chances; on the brink of elimination
Championship Odds: 20-1
San Francisco FlameThrowers
Why They Can Win the Title: Great depth, steady leadership, and confidence that they can beat San Jose & Seattle, since they have already done both
Why They Won’t: Lacking a generational individual talent in his prime
Championship Odds: 10-1
San Jose Spiders
Why They Can Win the Title: The most talent, the championship pedigree, and Beau
Why They Won’t: Western gauntlet could take its toll
Championship Odds: 2-1
Why They Can Win the Title: Tons of talent, a nice blend of youth & experience, and the Seattle system
Why They Won’t: Defense cannot stop San Jose when the Spiders are playing A-game
Championship Odds: 5-1
Why They Can Win the Title: An emerging star like Isaiah Masek-Kelly, an army of active defenders, and the easiest path to the Final Four
Why They Won’t: Injuries to Mark Lloyd & Jonathan Martin mitigate overall firepower
Championship Odds: 8-1
Championship Odds Summary:
San Jose: 2-1
San Francisco 10-1
San Diego 20-1
San Francisco traveled without several key pieces, including captains Eli Janin and Lucas Dallman. Eli Kerns, Jordan Jeffery, Sam Chatterton-Kirchmeier, Jason Yun, and Lucas Young were additional cogs that the FlameThrowers were missing. All season long, the team’s leadership had touted its depth; this would be the weekend to verify it.
“Our mentality going into the weekend was that it was time to prove that we were the deepest team in the league after everybody kept saying it,” said San Francisco Coach Josh Greenough. “The biggest concern was going to be how fast the new lines gelled on O. Alec Surmani moved into a full-time handler role after being a lane cutter for us all season. It was a return to his traditional role, so mostly a mental shift, and Sam Swink stepped back into a primary handler role after a few weeks out with a bad back. Other folks were taking on their usual roles, but were probably facing one level defender higher on the other team’s ladder than they would have normally.”
On Saturday, the FlameThrowers contained the Riptide by doing their best to limit Gagan Chatha’s deep cutting. Viewing him as a crucial piece of Vancouver’s attack, they constantly switched fresh defenders onto him every point. Even though Chatha finished with five goals, most of them came on O points when the Riptide was behind. San Francisco’s ability to retaliate and hold serve on offense after taking the early lead helped them close out the 22-19 triumph.
One day later, the FlameThrowers matchup with Seattle looked very different than the previous week, when San Francisco had prevailed 25-21 in overtime. Whereas the FlameThrowers were missing the aforementioned group, the Cascades added studs like Matt Rehder, Donnie Clark, Ray Illian, and Will Chen, all of whom had missed the first meeting against San Francisco.
“We wanted to start the game like the day before, knowing that we might have heavy legs late,” said Greenough. “The opposite occurred, as a few miscues and nice Ds put us in a hole. They had made a few adjustments by clogging the middle of the field and taking away horizontal cuts with poaches and switches.
“Credit to Seattle. They took away more Ds with great plays than we gave them. In particular, Ray Illian and Will Chen had some highlight-reel blocks.”
Clark scored five times, while 13 other Cascades found the end zone at least once. Rehder and Zane Rankin each registered five assists, while Clark, Illian, Rankin, and Chen all registered multiple Ds.
“Our defensive intensity and sideline energy throughout the game was the biggest factor for us,” said Seattle Captain Reid Koss. “One thing we’ve talked about a lot is being able to compete at the highest levels we can right at the start of games and not waiting until halftime to get to that level, and I think this was us starting to meet that goal.”
The victory lifted Seattle to 7-5 with two games remaining, both against Vancouver. While the Cascades have not clinched a playoff berth yet, they know that one win in the final two games will secure second place in the West.
Even though it is late in the season, teams continue to unveil some wrinkles with their personnel. The Seattle Cascades introduced Carleton product Jesse Bolton during their Bay Area road trip on June 20-21. This past weekend, Bolton played his third game in a Seattle shirt and made several contributions in the team’s 10-goal win over San Francisco. “He’s a great player that is just going to keep getting better as he starts to develop chemistry with the team and getting into shape,” said Koss.
Originally posted on http://theaudl.com/articles/ata/tuesdaytoss12