April 5, 2023
By Evan Lepler
Back in 2014, after a straight sets loss against Novak Djokovic in a tournament final, a tennis reporter asked Rafael Nadal, “Rafa, you said you like challenges, so are you glad that Novak Djokovic exists?”
Immediately, Nadal answered with a smile, “No.”
Shaking his head, he added, “I like challenges, but I’m not stupid.”
This clip resurfaced recently on social media, which inspired me to pose a similar question to DC Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley, whose team has repeatedly been on the cusp of greatness only to experience heartbreak at the hands of an exceptional rival.
A couple days ago, I asked Stanley, “Are you glad that the New York Empire exist in the form that they currently are in the AUDL?”
Stanley, the Breeze’s leader since 2017, responded, “I’m gonna go with Rafa there. No.”
He chuckled, then elaborated.
“We’ve pushed a long time here in DC, and for us not to have broken through is just unfortunate,” explained Stanley, who’s gone 45-18-1 in five regular seasons at the helm of the Breeze but has yet to take the franchise all the way to Championship Weekend. “It’s really unfortunate that the timing of our growth and our ambition as a team coincides with the Stevens’ growth and ambition with the Empire. It’s not to say that I’m complaining. It’s not that it’s not fair or unfair. It’s just unfortunate. I’ll go with Rafa and say it’d be great if one of these years they weren’t all that much of juggernaut and we could say that ok, now we’re in the final four and let’s see what we’ve got. I think I would like that.”
It’s not like DC hasn’t been super competitive against New York. The Empire have won eight of the past nine meetings, but those eight wins have come by a total of 18 goals, including four one-goal games. And before this recent stretch of relative domination, the Breeze had beaten the Empire in nine of their previous 10 collisions, a different time when DC defeated New York by one goal on five different occasions.
In the past 20 meetings, as the New York-DC rivalry has blossomed into the fiercest rivalry in the league, the two teams each have 10 wins against one another.
“People just take it personally and have a lot of pride in their team,” said New York’s Ryan Osgar, after the Breeze and Empire’s thrilling exhibition showcase in Colombia a year ago this week.
Over the past two years, including the playoffs, DC has gone 21-6 overall, but just 1-4 against an Empire team that’s been on an even more impressive tear. New York’s a sparkling 27-3 since the pandemic pause, 42-3 in their last 45 games dating back to the 2019 opener.
There’s no question that the 2023 Empire are looking as strong as ever, but you could say the same about the Breeze. In addition to marquee free agent signings like Thomas Edmonds, Cole Jurek, Joe Merrill, and Andrew Roy, the most important DC improvement may be from within.
“One of the things that’s excited me about the Breeze is that our core is so young and our core is still growing,” said Stanley. “They’ve yet to hit their peak as individuals and, clearly, collectively.
Stanley also mentioned that his star center handler, who turned 24 in January, has significantly leveled up.
“Jonny Malks has taken another leap forward, and he looks, wow,” Stanley gushed. “He’s blowing my mind in practice with his throws, his attention to detail, his increased athleticism. He is a different tier of player, and he was already a very, very good player.”
Heading into the 2023 journey, there’s a slightly different feeling for the Breeze’s sixth-year head coach, as he has already decided that this will be his final season on the DC sideline. But when asked if there’s an added sense of desperation, he laughed and mentioned that currently it just feels like a normal preseason.
“I think that’s something that I was concerned about going into the season for myself, and I was hoping it wouldn’t change my sense of who I was and how I coached,” said Stanley. “And I don’t think it has. Not yet. And part of that is, thank goodness, we’ve had a really strong preseason. It’s one of those preseasons where you have time to build [...] I feel a lot less desperate because I’m not just rushing the team forward because we have to; it’s more I’m building a foundation that gives us what we need.”
One additional dynamic to this year’s East Division race will be the interdivisional challenges that are awaiting both the Empire and the Breeze. Whereas a year ago each team exclusively played against divisional opponents during the regular season, the 2023 slate features a slew of difficult tests against other Championship Weekend contenders. New York has a home date against Atlanta along with a two-game trip to Colorado and Salt Lake, while DC is set to take on Carolina twice in their first five games, a home-and-home against the reigning South Division champs that will certainly add more early-season spice to the East Division playoff chase.
A few weeks away from opening day, the battle for East Division supremacy remains arguably the juiciest storyline in the league. And since New York’s existence—or excellence—is not in doubt, the DC Breeze understand that their continued growth and determined effort will be the only way to ultimately overthrow the Empire.