April 30, 2018
The South Division is a twisted, gnarled clump of interspersing and intersecting team records. The best are capable on a good day of beating any team in front of them, including the heavyweights in Toronto and Madison (if it comes to that). The South has three legitimate title contenders in the Raleigh Flyers, Dallas Roughnecks, and the renewed Austin Sol, and that doesn’t even include one of the three remaining undefeated teams in the Atlanta Hustle. This past weekend elucidated quite a bit, as I expected. There were two games between heavyweights: Austin beat Raleigh, but Raleigh beat Dallas. In lieu of more games as evidence, let’s rank the divisions in terms of skill, execution, and potential come the playoffs.
Dallas Roughnecks (3-1)
Dallas has thus far played the hardest schedule in the league, playing Raleigh, Los Angeles, Austin, Raleigh. They have three remaining games against Austin, but the rest of the games are against the less-talented crews in Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Nashville. Dallas has had no single player carry them, with even contributions across the roster. Jay Froude has adapted brilliantly to the offense, leading the team in assists and second in goals. Dillon Larberg has led the D-Line like a master, and Matt Jackson’s presence on the field means an offense will never be without a reset option. Wes Nemec lets the guys control the flow on the field, and there’s enough veterans left over from the perfect 2016 run that they know how to win.
Dallas has the horses. They have giants who can guard Mischa Freystaetter or Ethan Pollack, as capably as they can be guarded. They have athletes who can guard Jacob Fairfax. They have handlers who can guard Freystaetter. Dallas lost in Championship Weekend to Toronto last year because the supporting cast failed to adapt when all the stars came out to play in the playoffs. They took their win for granted.
This roster will take nothing for granted. They came out hungrier than ever, and they have made their statements loud and clear four games into the season. Though they lost to Raleigh on Saturday, Dallas has nothing left to prove until the playoffs.
Raleigh Flyers (4-2)
What a long strange trip it’s been. And it's not even May. Raleigh has played the most games in the league, at six, yet only two players – Matt Ellis and Terrence Mitchell – have played in every game. A litany of stars have played in half of Raleigh’s games or fewer. This is the path coach Mike DeNardis wanted for his team, as treacherous and crooked as Count Olaf, so that his team would be fire-hardened come playoff time. At 4-2 with the team’s most difficult stretch of the season out of the way looks like a positive outcome.
Raleigh’s position behind Dallas – after beating them – and ahead of Austin – after losing to them – may seem bizarre. However, their deep shots were working to perfection during their Texas road trip. They had a slightly more talented roster against Dallas. When playoffs roll around, I favour a complete Raleigh roster over Austin.
Most importantly, the team’s newest additions are fitting in marvellously. Freystaetter is beginning to dominate, compiling three assists and 11 goals in his last two games. He is starting to stretch his game, looking more comfortable in tight spaces. His deep game will always be there. Bob Liu is looking like the solid possession handler that the team perhaps lacked in their playoff loss to Dallas in 2017. He’s thrown 251 completions to only eight throwaways on the season; no one with more completions has fewer throwaways in the league.
Raleigh only has two games remaining against championship contender teams, at Madison and at home against Austin. They will be without Jonathan Helton against Madison, and the two-time MVP has been fantastic whenever he’s played. It’s difficult to predict the team’s record for the rest of the season without knowing all of their stars’ availabilities, but Raleigh has succeeded thus far with a roster in flux. They will all be available come playoff time, which means Raleigh is still as threatening as ever.
Austin Sol (2-1)
Austin has thus far played the second-hardest schedule in the league, playing Los Angeles, Dallas, and Raleigh. That they are 2-1 with a slight advantage in points scored per game (23) to points scored against (22.67) speaks to their quality, consistency, and ability to rise to the occasion. Losing a talent like Matt Bennett, wizard thrower anchoring the D-Line, hurts dramatically, but Austin has triumphed regardless.
But can Austin play any better? They’ve caught a Dallas team without Chris LaRocque and Dalton Smith, Los Angeles without a majority of its starting offense, and Raleigh without Jon Nethercutt or Freystaetter. They haven’t flubbed a single quarter yet this year, but they also haven’t put forward a dominant performance in which their defense has broken a team’s spirits with several breaks in a row. Two of their three games have required overtime, and all have produced highlights that will end the season on the AUDL Top Ten Plays list.
Austin has had terrific availability all season, minus the Bennett brothers. You can only beat the teams you play, but Austin hasn’t yet had a chance to face a full-strength Dallas or Austin. I therefore have to rank them third in the cutthroat South. This doesn’t take anything away from them. The first draft of this piece had Austin in first in the South, and they may well deserve to be there. They have played more consistently than any team outside of Madison, and they do not make mistakes. It will take a juggernaut to beat Austin come playoff time. Austin could conceivably win a championship given good health and good luck, or miss the playoffs if Atlanta continues their hot streak. Is that true of any other team in the league?
Atlanta Hustle (3-0)
It feels weird and wrong to place a division leader in fourth place for a divisional power ranking, but Atlanta hasn’t proven themselves better than anyone above them on this list. They’ve beaten Tampa Bay twice and Nashville once, yet the point again remains: you can only beat the team in front of you. However, Atlanta won’t get a chance to play the divisional powerhouses until the end of the season, which will be their chance to prove themselves contenders. Kyle Stapleton mentioned to me that he expected to be 3-0 coming into the Austin game. His confidence has been proven correct, but Austin will be the team’s most challenge test yet. A win there would go a long way to full faith in Miranda Knowles’ new system.
Tampa Bay Cannons (1-4)
This team is better than their record. They have talent up and down the roster, with throwers as skilled as anyone in the league in Bobby Ley and Cole Sullivan. Nathan Vickroy has been an under-the-radar MVP candidate, with the most scores (goals + assists) in the league.
The problem with being Tampa is that they have to play Dallas, Raleigh, and Austin multiple times each. Every loss to Atlanta hurts, leaving only Nashville as a beatable opponent. Tampa Bay would probably beat up on the lower tier teams in other divisions, but alas, they don’t have that opportunity.
Nashville Nightwatch (0-3)
The South Division that foists losses on Nashville perhaps more than on any other team. Mike DeNardis is convinced that Nashville would be a .500 team in any other division. Nashville should earn some wins this year, but likely only a small handful. The South is a dark and fearful place.