August 23, 2023
By Sam Weiger
Austin Sol vs. New York Empire
Friday, August 25 - 6:00 PM/ET - Watch link
New York and Austin have coexisted in the AUDL since 2016, but this is the first time they’ve ever met. The Empire are expected to win this game, but Austin is a dangerous team right now. The Sol were considered the underdogs in both of their playoff games so far, but they emerged victorious both times. Is it time to start believing in them?
With the way New York has been playing, absolutely not. At the end of the regular season, they defeated Colorado and Salt Lake by four goals each on back-to-back days. A couple of weeks ago, they beat a hungry and talented DC team by five goals in the East Division Championship. New York’s only weakness before these three games was their scoring, but they put that concern to rest by scoring 23 goals against Salt Lake and 24 goals against DC.
The Sol have had a much less comfortable journey to Championship Weekend. They had to overcome a late rally from Carolina to win by just one goal in the first round of the playoffs. Then, they had to go to double overtime against Atlanta and would have likely lost if not for a devastating drop by Brett Hulsmeyer. Nonetheless, Austin is now playing better than they did all season thanks to the improved play of a couple of O-line stars and their entire D-line.
Kyle Henke and Mark Evans had low completion percentages during the regular season, but they have been completing passes at a much higher rate in the playoffs. Austin’s D-line has had a surprisingly high conversion percentage in the playoffs, thanks to strong leadership from Joey Wylie. They will not get many break chances against the Empire, though. New York allowed an average of 4.67 break chances per game in three recent games against DC, Salt Lake, and Colorado.
New York may be extra aggressive early on, as Austin has been slow to start in both of their playoff games so far. The Empire had strong first quarters against DC and Salt Lake, and they could easily take a two-goal lead or more in the first quarter against the Sol. New York has not blown a two-goal lead or more since 2019, so the first quarter could be the most important quarter of the game.
The Sol will be without their leading passer, Jake Radack, for the first quarter against the Empire. He will also begin the game with one unsportsmanlike conduct foul (UC). This means that he will be on a short leash, as one more UC foul will result in his ejection. It will be important to watch how he handles the situation, because he will have to deal with New York’s incessant trash talk.
Duncan Fitzgerald is likely to have a heavy workload in the first quarter with Radack out. He has completed at least 40 passes against playoff teams three times this year, and his three best completion percentages of the year came in these games.
Evan Swiatek has been Austin’s most dominant player in the playoffs this year. This postseason, he leads all AUDL players in assists, goals, and plus/minus. While Swiatek’s last two offensive performances have been impressive, they are not unprecedented. New York superstars Ben Jagt, Ryan Osgar, and Jack Williams have all had similar or even better offensive performances in past Championship Weekends. Do the smart thing and place your bets on the Empire, unless you’re somehow convinced that Austin can pull off the biggest upset in AUDL history.
One Big Number:
7 - New York scored seven first quarter goals in their recent wins over DC and Salt Lake.
96.74 - In Fitzgerald’s three games with at least 40 completions against playoff teams, he completed 96.74 percent of his passes.
Minnesota Wind Chill vs. Salt Lake Shred
Friday, August 25 - 8:30 PM/ET - Watch link
In a recent Championship Weekend survey, only 3.6 percent of AUDL players picked Minnesota to hoist the championship trophy this year. Minnesota’s lopsided loss to Colorado this season convinced many that the Central Division champion would be the weakest team at Championship Weekend. This is Minnesota’s chance to prove the doubters wrong and earn their first-ever interdivisional win against a worthy opponent.
The Shred have never defeated a team outside of their division, but their two wins against Colorado this season should give them confidence going into this game. Their O-line’s near-perfect performance in their first-ever West Division Championship Game is another reason to be optimistic.
Jordan Kerr enters this game as Salt Lake’s most praised O-liner, but Jace Duennebeil has been an unsung hero lately. Duennebeil averaged an impressive 9.5 total scores per game in Salt Lake’s biggest games of the year thus far, the West Division Championship and their season finale against the Empire. He has been hurting opponents with his passing and receiving, but he has been more destructive as a receiver. He set new career-highs in receiving yards in his last two games, and his receiving output could be a major factor against the Wind Chill.
Salt Lake’s D-line offense would love to get a dose of the O-line’s fluidity. The D-line has struggled without Everett Saunders, who was co-leading Shred defenders in assists before leaving mid-season. Since his departure, their conversion percentage against winning teams has been a disappointing 41.67 percent. The D-line’s poor execution was a major reason for their loss to New York, so it will be worth monitoring their performance for the remainder of the postseason.
Minnesota’s biggest concern heading into Championship Weekend is their O-line offense, which has been inconsistent over the past two months. They converted just 37.2 percent of their opportunities in the final five games of the regular season. However, they converted a much healthier 63 percent of their chances against Indy in the Central Division Championship Game.
William Brandt’s increased role as a passer in the Central Division Championship was a factor in the O-line’s improved conversion percentage. The Wind Chill have only lost one of six games when he has at least 40 completions. In that one loss, he completed 98.44 percent of his 63 passes, racked up four assists, and added on five hockey assists. It will be interesting to see if Minnesota gives Brandt a more prominent role again or reverts to giving Josh Klane the primary facilitating role.
Minnesota’s low red zone conversion percentage is another cause for concern. The Wind Chill have the sixth-worst red zone conversion percentage in the league this year, and they only converted 68 percent of their opportunities in the Central Division Championship. Minnesota’s strong winds have caused a handful of the team’s red zone miscues, but the forecast shows average wind conditions throughout Championship Weekend.
The lack of strong wind will be a benefit for both teams, but Salt Lake will still have to overcome Minnesota’s home-field advantage. The Wind Chill have scored more goals per game at home than on the road. The Chicago Union are the only team that has beaten Minnesota at Sea Foam Stadium since 2021, and the games were relatively close.
Inexperience could also play a role in the outcome of this game, as both Minnesota and Salt Lake are vying for their first AUDL Championship Game appearance in franchise history. Austin and Atlanta both showed signs of nerves as they fought for their first Championship Weekend appearance, so keep an eye on how the Wind Chill and Shred handle pressure situations. One thing is for sure: Salt Lake will have a good hold percentage, as they have in nearly every game they have ever played. Can Minnesota keep up? We’re all eager to see.
One Big Number:
355 - Duennebeil averaged 355 receiving yards per game in his last two games.
21.57 - The Wind Chill are averaging 21.57 goals per game at home this year, compared to 19 goals per game on the road.