Thursday Thoughts: Week 6

May 4, 2017 — By Evan Lepler

1. The New York Empire at DC Breeze game will establish the hierarchy for the East Division in 2017.

After watching everyone play at least twice, it’s hard to envision anyone completely running away with the East this year. Toronto, the four-time defending division champ, has looked flustered and flawed. Ottawa, Montreal, and Philadelphia, the three teams that missed the playoffs last year, all have appeared significantly more skilled and spunky than a year ago. Meanwhile, New York and DC, who meet for the first time this season on Saturday night, are set to battle for an early-season edge in the standings and, maybe more importantly, in the psychological struggle between the two feisty rivals.

Let’s face it: While the Empire and Breeze are both currently 2-1, they could each easily be 3-0 right now. The Empire played a poor second half in coughing up a halftime lead at home against the Rush back on April 8. Two weeks later, the Breeze endured an even more excruciating collapse against Raleigh, failing to hold onto a five-goal fourth quarter edge against the Flyers, ultimately falling in overtime.

The New York-DC rivalry offered a slew of incredible games last year. Stunningly, all three regular season meetings were decided by one point, two of which ended in double overtime. Perhaps even more appallingly, New York lost all three. When the squads met again in the playoffs, it was a relative rout, with the Breeze prevailing by four.

Game highlights from the double overtime classic in their final matchup of the 2016 regular season.

This Saturday is important for several reasons. Aside from the winner seizing first place, the Empire are looking to snap their four-game losing skid against the Breeze. If that streak hits five, DC’s confidence in its ability to handle New York will be mighty high. At the same time, a loss would put the Breeze in a tough position; they would be 2-2, with two of their next three games at Toronto and at New York (sandwiching a home date vs. a frisky Montreal team that already has two road wins on its resume).

A month ago, who would have imagined that New York, after a frustrating home loss against Toronto, would be in position to take control in the East? With a win, the Empire would rise to 3-1, with four of their next five games scheduled at home. New York does close its regular season with five consecutive road games, so the Empire have to realize that a run toward home field advantage will likely be anchored on a strong performance over the next six weeks. Stealing a victory to change the tone of their rivalry with DC would be a magnificent first step on that journey.

It's likely Minnesota Wind Chill will be the last undefeated team in the AUDL in 2017.

This is not a claim that the Wind Chill deserve to be number one in the AUDL Power Rankings or anything like that, but Minnesota is in a nice spot to gain some major momentum and confidence. After hosting Indy this weekend, Minnesota has its next four games against Chicago and Detroit, the two squads that appear to be at the bottom of the Midwest. Currently 2-0, it’s totally reasonable to picture the Wind Chill at 7-0 heading into their first trip to Madison on June 10.

Pittsburgh and Dallas, the other two remaining unbeaten, each have daunting road challenges before then. The Thunderbirds are heading to Seattle this weekend for the Cross Coast Challenge, and they’ll be facing a Cascades team that should be spirited and hungry to bounce back from their shocking setback at the buzzer last Friday. While Pittsburgh is traveling with a strong squad, Seattle will also probably possess its most talented 20-man roster of the season. If the Thunderbirds can find a way to win out west, their next game is at Madison on May 20, and no Midwest road team has won a Breeze Stevens Field since 2013.

The Dallas Roughnecks are deservingly atop the rankings after their 5-0 start, on the backs of their perfect 17-0 campaign a year ago. But the Roughnecks’ vulnerability showed a bit this past weekend with an undermanned roster against Atlanta, and the numbers are expected to be similar for their Jacksonville/Raleigh trips on May 12 and 13. Add in the injuries that are piling up—despite one superhuman layout score, dominant defender Dan Emmons aggravated nagging hamstring twice this past weekend—and the Roughnecks are in a spot where a mid-May loss would not be too surprising. Even if Dallas can roll through that difficult doubleheader weekend, the Roughnecks have a June 3 trip to Madison on the schedule, and the Radicals crowd should be epic for that game.

Hence, the Wind Chill are in an intriguing position, much like a major conference college football team. They already have one great resume win, and now they have to avoid a midseason stumble against on a team that, on paper, they should beat. With four meetings against Madison and Pittsburgh scheduled between June 10 and July 22, the Wind Chill would be wise to build up as large a cushion as possible. If they can gain some confidence and work out all the kinks in their chemistry before then, they will have an even better chance to take charge with possible homefield in a postseason run.

Round two of the Cross Coast Challenge between the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds and Seattle Cascades features two teams with much to prove.

In 2017, it’s rare to see ultimate between players and teams that don’t have much of a history. With the first CCC showcase between DC and Raleigh, the proximity of the two cities and past connections in club ultimate offered a fairly broad foundation. That’s noticeably not the case with Pittsburgh and Seattle, two communities that have similarly cultivated excellent youth ultimate growth alongside their high-level college, club, and professional franchises. Despite their somewhat parallel rises, they have not truly intersected on a big stage. Obviously, that changes on Saturday.

Seattle had hoped to be undefeated heading into this weekend, but San Jose’s last-second heroics handed the Cascades their first loss. As one of four West Division teams entering this weekend with one loss, they find themselves in danger of falling behind San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and it’s not like their schedule is super favorable the rest of the way. An incidental reality of hosting a CCC game means that Seattle has more road games in their division than everybody else. After Saturday, the Cascades have four of their next five on the road, including the first of their two road trips to San Francisco.

Frankly, Pittsburgh’s in the more enviable position, especially thanks to their one-goal win over Indianapolis last weekend. The Thunderbirds are 2-0 and hopeful that Tyler D and company can storm through Seattle on Saturday night. Even with the road trip to Madison on deck, Pittsburgh’s Midwest residency provides a greater margin for error. Whereas Seattle is currently jammed in a four-team race for three spots, Pittsburgh—with all due respect to Detroit—remains in a pretty desirable situation.

The Cascades and Thunderbirds both offer exciting styles, with plenty of hucks, bids, and aggressive defense. If you were on the fence about spending a few bucks to watch on Saturday evening at 9:00 PM/ET, I hope the uniqueness of the matchup will help compel you to join us. My hunch is that each team will go on multiple runs and a three or four goal deficit during the first three quarters won’t mean too much.

By the end of the night, the game could be decided by a couple critical adjustments. Many of these players will be going against one another for the first time, and the small tweaks that individuals make throughout the game, in regards to matchups and overall strategy, will inevitably lead one team to rise, and the other to fall.