Tuesday Toss: 2021 Mega Preview, Part 2

June 1, 2021
By Evan Lepler

June is here, ultimate’s return is imminent, and wherever you are, I hope it’s a glorious day for a Toss. The much-anticipated 2021 AUDL season launches in three days, with a dozen different games on the agenda this weekend, featuring all 19 U.S.-based teams. Next Tuesday, for the first time in literally 95 weeks, there will be new results to analyze.

In case you missed it, here’s Part I of my Mega Preview, answering 10 questions about the upcoming season. As promised, here are 11 more as we explore the personalities, perspectives, and preseason landscape that will be foundational to our upcoming AUDL journey, beginning with a guy who was still a kid when he claimed he could become the greatest player in the sport.

11) Will Khalif El-Salaam elevate his game to an even higher level in San Diego?

When he was in his early 20s, Khalif El-Salaam boldly declared that he wanted to be the best ultimate player in the world by the time he turned 27 years old. El-Salaam articulated these towering aspirations in a 2015 Ultiworld interview, giving everyone a glimpse into his massive confidence and relentless belief in his abilities. 

Considering El-Salaam turned 27 this past November, I wondered: Six years later, did he have any regrets about setting such a stratospheric standard for himself?

“Do I regret it? No, not even close,” said El-Salaam. “I set my goals. In terms of if I think I accomplished my goals, I don’t necessarily think that I did because I wanted to be hands down the best player in ultimate. I wouldn’t say that’s the case. I would say I’m top five playing the game right now, 100 percent.” 

“I think I could say that with confidence.”

Clearly, confidence is never something that El-Salaam has lacked. Whether or not he’s currently among the five best players in the world is certainly up for debate, but El-Salaam fully believes that’s the conversation, and he embraces that mindset every time he takes the field.

After playing previously for the Seattle Cascades, he now begins his first season with the San Diego Growlers, hopeful to help his new team defend the West and contend for a championship in the heart of his personal prime. He says that consistency is the area he still can most improve, but physically he feels as strong, fast, and explosive as ever, having never paused his workout regimen at any point during the pandemic.

And if another young player decided to boldly echo El-Salaam’s aspirations to be the best on the planet, he’s just fine with that, as long as they are willing to put in the work.

“I think it’s a great mentality, but the thing about youngins is they have a lot of goals but not a lot of grind,” El-Salaam said. “Always say that, a lot of goals but not a lot of grind. [They say] ‘I wanna be the best player in the world by the age of 27’ so they work really hard from the ages of 21 to 23, and then they get lazy, and then they graduate college, and then they get a job, and they forget about the grind. 

“If anybody wants to make a statement as bold as I wanna be the best player in the world by 27, they have to recognize that from when they say it to the age of 27,” El-Salaam continued. “They have to consistently be working and that still may not be good enough. I said it at 19, put in eight years of work, and I still can’t say that I’m the best player in the world. Is that frustrating for me? Kind of, a little bit. But I also knew that it was a very difficult, not very achievable goal that I set for myself in order to push myself to work hard.”

The Growlers open their 2021 season in Los Angeles this Saturday night.

12) What happened to Los Angeles since their 2018 Final Four appearance?

Los Angeles has competed in four consecutive postseasons, highlighted by its West Division title and trip to Championship Weekend in 2018. But the newest iteration of the Los Angeles Aviators bares little resemblance to the perennial playoff participant from the past few seasons. Among the 20 individuals who battled against the Madison Radicals in the 2018 semifinals, only five are still on the roster for 2021, and only two, Sean McDougall and Michael Kiyoi, were among the Aviators’ top 15 in that game, based upon points played. Some players chose to play elsewhere in 2021, while several experienced LA stalwarts opted for retirement. In fact, McDougall nearly retired, too, before a few practices reinvigorated his ultimate enthusiasm.

“It’s a young team, full of energy and vigor, brimming with potential,’ said McDougall, a 2019 all-star. McDougall attended the first couple practices of 2021 as a maybe—unsure of his status—before finally deciding to cleat up again. 

“But that energy is tempered a little from some of the wisdom that the older guys on the team have, which creates a nice balance. I think this team has the ability to really surprise a few folks down the road, and I am super curious to see what this next generation of all-star players can do.”

Considering all the experience that they lost, retaining teenage phenoms Danny Landesman, Calvin Brown, and KJ Koo was a must in order to help keep the Aviators competitive in a vastly improved West Division. Landesman finished second on the team with 32 goals as an 18-year-old rookie in 2019, while Brown and Koo—who both played key roles in helping to lead their Cal Poly SLO team to the semis at college nationals that year—also showed glimpses of their raw abilities during their six-game stints in the AUDL. Losing veteran anchors like Tyler Bacon, Zach Theodore, and Aaron Weaver to retirement certainly stings, but those losses are softened slightly by a few additions. Sam Cook, Sam Fontaine, and Marcel Osborne all bring professional experience, and each is the kind of playmaker that can contribute immediately.

“One of the biggest things that stood out to me was just how much fun the young guys on our O-line were having,” said McDougall. “Adding [former Seattle Cascade] Sam Cook into the mix is really opening up a lot of options for the rest of the team, and pairing that with the shrewdness of [former San Diego Growler] Sam Fontaine makes for a great combination. There was a point where all the young blood were touching the disc and laughing as they moved their way down the field with quick motions. During that time, they seemed unstoppable and I simply just stood out of the way and looked on with a grin.”

Very few will forecast Los Angeles to finish in the top half of the West Division this summer, but there are more than enough pieces to remain intrigued by the Aviators’ potential. If new coach Jeff Landesman can put his top talent in the right spots and develop some nice role players around them, it won’t be too surprising to see LA in the mix for third place and perhaps even knock off Dallas or San Diego on the right day. 

“I think we will be a team that is underrated and overachieves again,” said Kiyoi.

13) Can the Raleigh Flyers capitalize on their youthful stars?

The Flyers are in the midst of an absolutely astounding stretch of both jettisoning and acquiring unbelievable talent. Among the players that have departed since 2018 include former MVPs Jonathan Nethercutt and Goose Helton, a guy that many considered a future MVP in Jack Williams, arguably the most dominant single player in the league from 2015-18 in Mischa Freystaetter, and a bunch of others that ranged from solid to very, very good. Bobby Ley and Matt Bode left Raleigh and are now with Tampa Bay, Brett Matzuka and Hunter Taylor are with Minnesota and Dallas, respectively, and Ben Dieter and Bob Liu have retired. If all 10 of these former Flyers were on a team together right now, I’m taking them against virtually any other 10 they could possibly match up against around the world.

So how in the world is Raleigh, having seen so many cornerstone contributors move on, still rightly viewed as a top contender for the upcoming season? Obviously, the new recruits can play a little bit, too.

In 2019, the Flyers added three former college standouts in Henry Fisher, Eric Taylor, and Sol Yanuck, a trio of Carleton teammates who won the championship at 2017 college nationals. Each of these individuals bring different strengths, and all assumed significant roles very quickly during their first AUDL season. While most teams would love to pick up one or two guys the caliber of Fisher, Taylor, and Yanuck, the 2021 Flyers have basically two full lines of similarly talented newcomers.

“There’s so many of them,” said Raleigh Head Coach Mike DeNardis, when asked to name two or three of the top 2021 Raleigh first year players. “I think Seth Weaver is gonna be a real super exciting guy. He came from Chicago, and he’s been super fun. He’s really explosive. He’s been challenging a lot of our veterans, especially in the handler space. From the college circuit, NC State’s Trevor Lynch has been super fun to watch. Connor Russell from Wilmington, he played a little bit with the Flyers [in 2019], but a big lefty, has all the throws, all the breaks, really athletic. On the UNC side, Anders Juengst, Matt McKnight, Alex Davis.”

“There are just so many of these kids that are coming up that you’re like, ‘Wow, every one of them adds a special feature to the team.’ So it’s super exciting to have them all.”

It spoke volumes that DeNardis initially ran off six names without even mentioning arguably the biggest name of the bunch, former Callahan winner and two-time college nationals champion Matt Gouchoe-Hanas. There’s also Ethan Bloodworth, another former Carleton champ, and another handful of rookies that have championship experience at the college level. 

In order words: it’s a ridiculously deep group, joining a roster whose depth has already been a strength for years. 

“The large rookie class, including guys that made the team last year but never got to play and guys that made the team for the first time this year, has been a big improvement,” said Fisher. “I think they raise the floor a lot and allow us to use our depth really well.”

Unsurprisingly, Fisher added even another name into the mix beyond what’s already been discussed in recent paragraphs.

“I think Walker Matthews is going to be really great for us on an AUDL field,” predicted Fisher. “I’m excited to have him on the team.”

Photos by Shelby Salkar

14) Will Tampa Bay’s Colombian connection make a difference?

Quietly, the Tampa Bay Cannons have pursued a new pipeline of talent.

“We were able to get four Colombians that happened to have family in Miami,” said Cannons Head Coach Andew Roca. “Javier Yañez is gonna be the one we use the most, considering he’s extremely deadly with his throwing ability. Jorge Delgado is one of the fastest kids I’ve ever seen. Hector Ordonez, who’s about 6’1”, is just a highlight reel wonder; he just makes these plays that are outrageous.”

“I wanna give them their shot.”

Back in 2019, Cannons’ leaders reached out to the Colombian Olympic Committee, whose involvement in ultimate includes organizing Colombia’s quadrennial World Games roster. Inquiring whether they could help facilitate professional ultimate careers in the U.S. for some of their national team participants, the Cannons were very pleased to welcome and sign Vañez, Delgado, Ordoñez, and Luis Paz for the 2021 season. 

Roca acknowledged that while the language gap has been a challenge in practice, he’s excited about the possible opportunities and contributions ahead. Vañez, in particular, has acclimated well to Tampa Bay, and is expected to be among the starters for the team’s season opener in Philly this Friday. 

“I think that every Colombian player wants to live this dream,” said Vañez, who’s 35 and has represented his country in numerous World Championship events. “I am very happy since it is a dream practically fulfilled, being selected within the 20 starting players. I feel a great responsibility to contribute the 18 years of experience that I have playing ultimate.”

The Cannons’ quartet joins a small fraternity of Colombians who have already competed in the AUDL that includes Wasdi Grimaldo with Detroit, Felipe Delgado with Pittsburgh, Estéban Ceballos and Mauricio Martinez with Montreal, and 2019 All-Star Joc Jimenez with Los Angeles.

“I hope in the future we’re able to add more [international players],” said Roca. “And we’re building resources for players to help bridge the communication gap. My new [assistant] coach, Anthony Gutierrez, and Jaime Perez, who’s injured right now, are really able to communicate and help them get up to speed.”

15) What can we expect from Boston Glory?

There’s still plenty of mystery with the league’s lone expansion team, but my tentative uncertainty has evolved into somewhat unbridled optimism in thinking that Boston just might be a top-three squad in their division by the end of the summer. The roster is undeniably talented and deep, the coaching staff is experienced, and there’s a very intriguing energy around the organization as it launches its inaugural season with cautiously high expectations.

“I think there is a really good mix of youth who don’t know to be nervous and vets who have big-game experience and know how to face the challenges,” said Max Rick, who previously played four AUDL seasons with the Rochester Dragons and Montreal Royal before signing with Boston this year. 

Glory only has a few players with past AUDL experience, but they still feature plenty of individuals with tremendous ultimate track records throughout college and club. Recent UMass superstars Tannor Johnson and Ben Sadok should be cornerstones, while Ian Engler and Henry Babcock have also established themselves as playmakers during preseason practice.

“The energy at practice is almost relieved that we can be out doing what we love again,” said Brendan McCann, who joins Glory after past seasons with Detroit, and most recently Minnesota. 

“At the same time, the Glory’s roster is huge; and that means every practice feels a little bit like a tryout.”

Ten days ago, the Glory held a full intra-team scrimmage in front of about 100 fans, an experience that whet everyone’s appetite for the season ahead. They are still establishing chemistry and have plenty of unanswered questions regarding the road ahead, but there is also a palpable feeling of confidence growing.

“During the scrimmage, I made an analogy to the Vegas Golden Knights, as we feel like a conglomerate of various teams, are a real mystery to the league, and have the potential to be successful in our first season,” said Rick, recalling the NHL’s most recent expansion franchise that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018. “Obviously, things turned out really well for the Knights in their first season, and I’d hope for similar success but am not here to claim we will make Championship Weekend. Rather, as a team, we expect to have the talent and depth to compete in this league and challenge every team in our division and put ourselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot in the tough Atlantic Division."

This Saturday, 549 days after the franchise was first introduced publicly on December 4, 2019, the Boston Glory will take the field for their first game in Pittsburgh.

16) Can Pittsburgh’s duo of Max Sheppard and Thomas Edmonds remain dominant in the Atlantic Division?

Back in 2019, no AUDL duo developed the chemistry and consistent offensive production quite like Pittsburgh’s Max Sheppard and Thomas Edmonds, who were the only pair of teammates to both rank among the top 10 scorers in the league. They consistently registered big numbers and delivered thrilling highlights, helping to carry the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds into the playoffs by winning eight of their last regular season contests following a 1-2 start. Combined, they accumulated 93 goals, 111 assists, and nearly 1,000 completions.

But here’s the reality heading into this season: The Sheppard/Edmonds duo may need to do even more in 2021 to keep Pittsburgh in contention. 

“Those guys are gamers,” said Thunderbirds Head Coach Pat Hammonds. “Shep, especially, is chomping at the bit. As a team, we know what we have in those two.”

It is fair to wonder, however, who Pittsburgh has besides those two. 

Reliable veteran handler Jonathan Mast returns, as do the massive lefty backhands of Sam VanDusen, who presumably will pull frequently and pilot the T-Birds D-line often after a turn. Experienced receiver Jimmy Towle, with 72 goals over the past two seasons, also is back on the O-line. But the excellent veteran Mark Fedorenko is gone, and steady cutter Dylan Best and speedy defender Alex Thomas have departed, too. Pittsburgh did add former New York Empire teenage champion Tristan Yarter, but there are plenty of important roles up for grabs heading into the opener against the mysterious Glory, and the Thunderbirds’ chances could very well hinge on how their crew of relatively unknown newcomers can perform alongside the returning stars.

“I’m super excited, but leading into Week 1, we still have some questions to answer about who we are,” said Hammonds. “Really focusing on utilizing the weapons we have and finding new faces to fill supporting roles around them.

“I definitely think we have a dangerous core. The blueprint for us is making sure we design and utilize our depth to keep us within striking range. We’ve got a core of guys who can be an absolute smasher line and line up with anybody and get results. If we’re within range, I feel really good about our chances against anybody.”

17) Who are some new players around the league to keep an eye on?

Orion Cable, Boston Glory
While most coaches love to rave about their top players, Amherst (MA) High School coach Joe Costello heaped uncommon praise upon Cable when he graduated in 2019. “He’s as dominant a player as there can be in high school boys ultimate,” gushed Costello in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He also described Cable as a ‘game-changing physical presence’ and ‘student of the game.’ A couple years later, Cable is a 6’5” 20-year-old AUDL rookie who has wowed teammates throughout Boston’s preseason workouts. “He had a chest-high layout D over a cutter’s shoulder that made me think, ‘that is the most unbelievable play and I will never see anything like that again,’” said Cable’s new Boston teammate Ethan Fortin. “But he did it again last week! Consider this a warning, if the disc goes up and Orion is nearby, you will be on a poster.”

Cole Davis-Brand, Boston Glory
Astoundingly, Cable is not the only recent member of the Amherst High School team that is expected to make waves at the professional level this summer. As impressed as Fortin has been with Cable, he may view Davis-Brand in an even loftier light. “If there was an AUDL rookie draft, Cole Davis-Brand would be the #1 pick,” said Fortin. “This 20-year-old Amherst High School product is the franchise-building piece that every team dreams of. His vision and throws remind me of my old teammate, Philadelphia’s Sean Mott. Cole has some growth ahead of him before he’ll make his first All-Star team, but he’s on his way.” While Fortin and most everyone with the Glory are giddy about Davis-Brand’s potential, there may still be some growing pains that occur with any new player jumping to the next level. “I hope this doesn’t go to his head,” added Fortin. “Cole, you need to improve your pace of play and your turnovers.”

John Lithio, New York Empire
Considerably older than the previous two prospects—unlike the pair of ’19 high school grads, Lithio finished his time at Hope College in 2015—Lithio is still an unknown AUDL rookie who’s poised to make a big splash for the defending champs. “John Lithio is absolutely a name that people will get to know,” said Empire veteran Ben Katz. “6’5”, fast, good hands, good throws, good awareness. He’s going to be a problem for other teams, especially considering they will have to focus on [Ben] Jagt, [Ryan] Osgar, and Jack [Williams].” Lithio actually made the Empire for the first time in 2020, but the pandemic delayed his debut. This will be certainly be the highest level of ultimate he has experienced, but New York leaders feel he’s ready to contribute immediately. “Buy stock in John Lithio right now,” said Empire GM Matt Stevens. “Playing pickup, mini, and in practice, he’s been absolutely crushing it. He just really came out of nowhere, made the team last year out of tryouts and has just been awesome.”

Nate Little, Philadelphia Phoenix
Thus far, Little’s AUDL career has featured more player panels (1) than points played (0), but the 20-year-old rookie from West Philly is ready to change that this summer with the Phoenix. “He might be the most athletic player I’ve ever seen,” said Philly Head Coach David Hampson. “He makes a play each practice, it’s hard to describe but you’re just not sure how it can be done, and it’s insane. If the Phoenix make a Top 10 play, he’ll be the one making it. He’s super young, got a lot of game to learn, but he’s incredible.” Off the field, he joined established AUDL players/voices AJ Merriman, Antoine Davis, James Pollard, and Ken Porter for a “Being Black in Ultimate” event back in late February. Though there may have been a couple ‘who’s he?’ questions then compared to his fellow panelists, his reputation as a game-changing playmaker should grow considerably in the coming months.

Aidan Lopez-Escarez, Seattle Cascades
One of the rising young stars out of Seattle, Lopez-Escarez helped lead Cleveland High School to an undefeated state championship in 2019 and earned a spot on the U.S. U-20 National Team in 2020 (Cable and Davis-Brand also made this team, as did other youthful and already established AUDL standouts like LA’s Danny Landesman, DC’s Jacques Nissen, and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Yarter). Lopez-Escarez won’t turn 19 until September, but his performance throughout the Cascades preseason has team leaders eagerly anticipating his debut. “Aidan is very good, and he’s had four or five layout blocks [in practice],” said Seattle Captain Mark Burton. “One was on me on an under that I did not expect. He is an absolute workhorse. He’s gonna be a menace, especially guarding top players.”

18)How is the eight-team Atlantic Division gonna shake out?

We’ve arrived at the section where I’ll probably anger most everyone.

Here’s my best guess for the final Atlantic standings, including playoffs:

Raleigh 10-2
New York 9-3
Boston 7-5
Atlanta 6-6
DC 5-7
Tampa Bay 4-8
Pittsburgh 3-9
Philadelphia 3-9

My instinct for the Atlantic is that all eight teams can be very competitive, but the Flyers and Empire are a few steps above the rest. I think the Glory, Hustle, and Breeze will be very comparable in the middle tier, and the Cannons, Thunderbirds, and Phoenix virtually even in the bottom tier. Every team has standout individual players capable of taking over games, meaning that every single game has the potential to go down to the wire in thrilling fashion. I firmly believe that anyone can beat anyone in this division. I’ve got the Phoenix in the cellar, but won’t be shocked if they edge Raleigh, New York, or Boston on any particular weekend.

19) What about the West Division that includes the Texas teams for the first time?

Like the Atlantic, there’s a clear top two out West as well. My hunch for the order of finish looks like this:

San Diego 10-2
Dallas 10-2
San Jose 6-6
Seattle 5-7
Los Angeles 4-8
Austin 1-11

I’ve got the Growlers hosting the West Division title game by virtue of taking the regular season tiebreaker over the Roughnecks, with no one else seriously threatening for a postseason berth. Remember, unlike the Atlantic where four teams will qualify for the postseason, only two make it out of the West and Central. 

There’s no doubt that San Diego and Dallas are two of the top five teams in the AUDL, and frankly, they might be two of the top three. With that said, their projected 12-2 records indicate that I do believe the rest of the division can still get the better of them on the right day. I take no joy in penciling in Austin for one win, and perhaps I’m dramatically underestimating both the local talent along with the challenge that visiting teams will be dealing with playing back-to-back games in the Texas heat. And though I don’t think the Aviators have the firepower to seriously contend for a playoff spot, they are the team that I am personally most excited to watch among the projected below-.500 group. I wonder if Brown-to-Landesman can become an Edmonds-to-Sheppard-like duo.

20) How will the final Central standings look?

Chicago 10-2
Madison 8-4
Minnesota 8-4
Indianapolis 3-9
Detroit 1-11

Yes, I believe the Mechanix’s losing streak will end sometime this summer! Hallelujah! 

Seriously, though, the race for the two-spot in the Central might be the most compelling playoff chase pitting two teams for one spot, which makes Friday’s opener between the Wind Chill and Radicals titanically important. On paper, Chicago is unquestionably the class of the quintet, but as I wrote last week, I still have my guard up with the Union. The good news for Chicago is that the season begins with a vastly diminished AlleyCats team who’ll be playing their second game in as many days, giving the Union a chance to overcome any early mistakes and establish their rhythm and confidence. If Chicago can play up to even 75 percent of its potential in the first month of the season, the Union should be an impressive 5-0 heading into their first road trip to Madison on July 10.

21) Most importantly, what will happen in the postseason?

Pre-Championship Weekend: Raleigh over Atlanta, New York over Boston, Dallas over San Diego, Chicago over Madison 

The Flyers will make their first final four appearance since 2015, while the Union return to the league’s premier event for the first time since 2013. The Empire will compete at Championship Weekend for the third consecutive season, and the Roughnecks will qualify for the fifth straight time, winning a division title on the road for the third time. 

Championship Weekend semifinals: Dallas over Raleigh, New York over Chicago

The Roughnecks have never lost a playoff game to the Flyers, a streak that will continue in 2021. Both teams are remarkably deep, however Dallas’s big-game experience and immense star power brings the Roughnecks back to the final for the fourth time in five seasons. The Union will be the top seed at Championship Weekend courtesy of their divisional point-differential, but the Empire will have ironed out their regular season wrinkles and found their groove for the final four. Interestingly, Chicago and New York have met in the postseason before, back in 2014 before the South Division existed and the second-place teams in the East and Midwest battled for a Championship Weekend berth. The Empire prevailed then, and I think they will stop Chicago again.

Game #121 aka Championship Saturday at Audi Field: Dallas over New York

Two years after one of the great final matchups in AUDL history, I think the Roughnecks get their revenge over the Empire in another title thriller, giving Dallas the opportunity to hoist the trophy for the first time since 2016. Bizarrely, the final will feature two teams that finished in second place in their divisions in the regular season, but that’s not anything that has prevented either of these franchises from playoff success in the past. In the end, the Roughnecks have enough athletes to throw at New York’s cutting superstars, and Dallas will finally avoid the Championship Weekend injury bug that removed key contributors in pivotal moments for each of the past two title games. 

The 2021 AUDL Championship game is scheduled for September 11 in Washington, D.C.. That’s 102 days from now, and it will be a grand celebration of our sport at a world class venue. 

But enough with the preseason hype, mostly meaningless prognostications, and mass quantity of questions. After nearly 21 months without professional ultimate, the disc flies again on Friday.

It’s time to watch, learn, enjoy, and finally get some damn answers.

Let’s go!