April 26, 2022
By Evan Lepler
We’re just three days away from launching the 2022 AUDL season, and it sure feels like we’re on the verge of a very special journey.
Unlike last year, when we were rebounding from a nearly two-year pandemic pause, we’ve got tremendous continuity across the league as we embark on the new slate. That familiarity will be showcased immediately, with spicy rivalry matchups that will inevitably deliver both intensity and consequence.
It starts with the Atlanta Hustle and the reigning champion Carolina Flyers on Friday night, continues with the New York Empire and DC Breeze on Saturday, and follows with the Chicago Union and Minnesota Wind Chill in Week 2, a week from Saturday. Those six franchises, each ranked among the top seven in Adam Ruffner’s preseason Power Rankings, all begin the season with Championship Weekend as the baseline expectation.
In a 12-game season, of course, every result matters.
Furthermore, we’ve got three talented expansion franchises that tantalizingly enter a wide open race out West. The San Diego Growlers are understandably the favorite in their division thanks to back-to-back West crowns, but the Colorado Summit, Portland Nitro, and Salt Lake Shred all arrive with instant credibility, poised to compete in the present. The Summit, Nitro, and Shred each have concocted an interesting mix of star-power and depth that, at the very least, has fans eager to see what they can be.
Meanwhile, beyond the obvious headlines, there are a dozen or so hungry challengers that truly believe they can smash expectations and create their own surprising title run. The Austin Sol have arguably the toughest schedule in AUDL history, but they’ve been practicing outdoors since January to prove they can handle it. The Montreal Royal demonstrated their growth in 2021 by becoming Canada’s ultimate kings, and now they re-enter the main continental competition, hopeful to potentially bring the postseason back to Quebec. Even the Detroit Mechanix, who are riding an incomprehensible 50-game losing streak dating back to 2017, surge into 2022 with a stronger roster and renewed mojo.
“It seems strange to say, but I think we have a bit of a target on our back this year,” said Detroit’s Andrew Sjogren. “Nobody wants to be the team that loses to the Mechanix.”
For just a few more days, all 25 franchises are 0-0, each with a dozen games on the schedule and bubbling with optimism. The AUDL’s second decade officially begins on Friday, with a firm foundation and fascinating future ahead.
The Full Field Layout
Last season, the Chicago Union featured the most efficient offense in AUDL history. Can their conversion rate be even higher in 2022?
No, it turns out that’s not even the goal.
“We’ll be looking to be much more inefficient, in fact,” said Chicago's star handler Pawel Janas.
“Because of our speed, we’ll be putting it deep much more often,” added Janas. “Last year, we were a team of hybrids. This year, we’re a team of shooters and bucket-getters. Different philosophy.”
Never shy to speak boldly about his teammates, Janas thinks Chicago will have the fastest O-line in the league, with Paul Arters, Ross Barker, Jack Shanahan, and Jeff Weis anchoring the cutting core. Aside from Barker, the other three only appeared in 13 games combined last year, but the Union are banking on more availability and production for that crew, along with continued growth from Eli Artemakis, who just turned 20 years old and showed flashes of excellence as a rookie in 2021.
In the backfield, Janas will be primarily flanked by Sam Kaminsky, who will shift over to offense after playing 93 percent of his points on D a season ago. Chicago also expects marquee free agent Dalton Smith to be a versatile cog, capable of contributing in a variety of roles throughout the season.
To put it succinctly, Janas does not buy into the narrative that Minnesota has leapfrogged Chicago in the Central Division hierarchy.
“I think people see our departures and think we’re not gonna be as competitive, but they ignore that all of our young guys have gotten a year better,” he said. “I think we’re more than capable of winning a championship this year, and unlike last year we won’t have as big of a target on our backs.”
The Union open their season this Sunday against Pittsburgh, with the high-profile "Game Of The Week" contest at Minnesota on tap after that.
Speaking of the Thunderbirds, their star Max Sheppard still believes in his team after a disappointing 1-11 record in 2021. Certainly, part of that belief stems from Pittsburgh’s return to the Central Division, where they advanced to the division title game as recently as 2019.
“I absolutely loved playing in that [Atlantic] Division, and it definitely made us better, but playing New York and Boston and Raleigh twice was an experience; those teams are good,” said Sheppard. “They are the blueprint of a championship team. They set the standard. For me, personally, it just fueled the fire.”
The Thunderbirds have a new coaching staff for 2022, with Max Barowski and James Greeno replacing Pat Hammonds. Their offense will also look dramatically different, with Thomas Edmonds no longer on the roster and Jonathan Mast dealing with a knee injury, uncertain when he’ll re-take the field. Sheppard expects he may do more handling, hopeful that their added size downfield will enable Pittsburgh to win more battles in the air. In particular, Noah Robinson, a 6’5” cutter who caught 15 goals in three games back in 2018 but hasn’t played in the AUDL since, should join CJ Colicchio as hard-to-handle height that’s capable of scoring in bunches.
Perhaps Pittsburgh will rediscover its winning ways back in the Central Division, but there will be an immense amount of pressure to gel quickly and take care of business on the road this Saturday in one of the sneaky mesmerizing Week 1 matchups.
The Thunderbirds, who suffered seven straight setbacks to close the 2021 season, will be looking for their first win since last July. Meanwhile, the Detroit Mechanix and their astonishing 50 consecutive losses will be seeking their first win in exactly 1,827 days, dating back to their 23-14 triumph over Chicago on April 29, 2017.
“The streak is pretty much all I think about,” said Sjogren, who led the league with 53 goals in the regular season last year. “Being a part of the team that breaks the streak means a lot to me. That’s why I signed with the Mechanix this year.”
Following an offseason where former Mechanix standouts Johnny Bansfield and Nathan Champoux re-joined the team, Detroit has arguably its strongest roster in a decade. Will that be enough to end the misery once and for all?
To their credit, Mechanix veterans are not trying to steer the conversation away from the past. It has seemingly become jointly a unifying force and rallying cry as they begin 2022.
“We’re not trying to skirt around it or suppress it,” said Detroit handler Bryan Walsh. “We’re fully embracing [breaking the streak] as the goal and being very transparent about that. Win a game. Then build off that. That’s really the sole objective in our path.”
The Salt Lake Shred may be a brand new team with a daunting Week 1 schedule, but the new Utah franchise has been quietly building chemistry, hopeful they’ll be able to handle these early tests.
“I think this Shred team has more ‘unknown’ talent than any other team in the league,” said Salt Lake’s Jordan Kerr, one of a handful of Shred players with previous AUDL experience. “Once the games start happening, I think a lot of people are going to take note and realize that there are some young stars on this team and that we are definitely a team on the rise.”
It’s fair to say that preseason expectations are wildly different for the Shred compared to the last time a team from Utah took the field. Eight years ago, the Salt Lake City Lions experienced a winless summer in their only season in the league. Since then, the local ultimate scene has developed into one of the premier youth pipelines in the country, providing the Shred with a much more solid foundation as they prepare to make their debut in San Diego against the Growlers.
“Every player on the team is counting down the hours until we get our shot at the Growlers,” said Kerr. “I’m not going to come out and say we’re the favorites, because we’re not. San Diego’s got bonafide stars up and down their roster, but I think we can use our talent and energy to hang with the Growlers. I think we’re all excited to play San Diego first, as we can then use that almost as a benchmark of where we need to be in order to be one of the top teams in the West Division.”
It’s entirely possible that Salt Lake’s ‘unknown talent’ will prove this wrong, but heading into the season, most projections will put them third amongst the trio of expansion teams. That’s because while the Shred signed several solid AUDL contributors—Kerr and Jacob Miller from the Spiders, Ben Green and Joe Merrill from DC, Garrett Martin from Seattle, and Joel Clutton from Dallas—the Summit and Nitro unquestionably recruited more headliners who have already been MVP candidates in the league, not to mention others who very well could contend for that award in the years ahead.
The Colorado conversation has to begin with Jay Froude and Jonathan Nethercutt, a pair of dynamic talents who have a lengthy resume of past AUDL accolades. The University of Colorado Mamabird pipeline also gives the Summit an army of young rising stars, including Alex Atkins, Quinn Finer, and Danny Landesman, just to mention a few.
Portland also arrives with notable AUDL experience. With Eli Friedman, Chris Larberg, and Scott Radlauer, at least one of those dudes has competed in every Championship Weekend since 2016. But the Nitro’s greatest weapons are likely their AUDL rookies who’ve been chomping at the bit for the opportunity to compete on this stage. Raphy Hayes and Jack Hatchett need little introduction after both earning spots as alternates on the USA World Games team, while Leandro Marx and Daniel Lee showcased their offensive brilliance in Portland’s preseason contest against the Oakland Spiders.
“Of course, I think we’re phenomenal and can compete with anybody,” said Portland Head Coach John “Future” Thornton. “But then I see the best of the AUDL, the best talent and years together; you don’t just, wishful thinking, expect that to take place. I’m very realistic, regardless of talent, you need the years of experience together. But I’m also looking at guys who have what it takes and can compete with anybody in the West.”
It’s certainly easy to overlook Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle because they are not the new cool thing in the West, but their collective experience and potential should also make them dangerous in any matchup. The Aviators looked feisty in Colombia, the Spiders competed admirably in their preseason Portland tilt, and the Cascades are quietly lurking with a truly sensational young core.
By the way, Seattle has also signed Matt Rehder, one of the dominant big men in the sport. While Rehder anticipates being primarily a practice player for the Cascades due to other life commitments, he did agree to play in “one or two games” this season, perhaps as soon as Week 2, when Seattle hosts Colorado on May 7.
Beware of all ‘wild west’ cliches, but it’s somewhere between possible and likely that the West Division leads the league in chaos this year, with everyone beating one another to create a compelling and contentious race for the three available playoff spots.
Seven On The Line
- One of the steady refrains I’ve heard from coaches around the league is that this season, unlike last year, will be tougher to maintain roster consistency from one week to the next. That’s not to say that commitment or buy-in has waned. Generally, it’s increased. But life for ultimate players is busier now than it was last spring, when widespread vaccinations were still rolling out and the college ultimate season was canceled. Consequently, deeper teams will have an edge, and there’s also an element of scheduling luck that will factor into the season’s overall results. These are not excuses for anything, but they are realities to recognize as you survey the road ahead.
It’s super fun to hype young players, and we’ve got a bunch of new names to know. As Daniel Cohen pointed out in a tweet on April 14, there are 10 members of the recently announced USA U-20 National Team that are on AUDL rosters, and becoming familiar with this group is a good place to start. Seattle leads the way with three of these rising stars: Tucker Kalmus, Declan Miller, and Zeppelin Raunig, while Boston, Philly, and Salt Lake each have two apiece, Declan Kervick and Benjamin Horrisberger for the Glory, Ed Brown and Adam Grossberg for the Phoenix, and Will Selfridge and Everett Saunders for the Shred. Lastly, though certainly not least, young Oregon State star Felix Moren should be an immediate contributor for the Portland Nitro.
Philadelphia and Boston will collide this Saturday in an important tone-setting season opener for both franchises. Last year, the Phoenix and Glory each won on the other’s home-field, but both teams ultimately fell short of the postseason. As you might expect, both now believe they are ready to take a step forward, but obviously only one can begin 2022 with a victory. “Of course, you go into every single game wanting to win,” said new Phoenix Head Coach Roger Chu. “And in terms of tone-setting, that would be amazing. It can be hard to start the season out on the road. It would set a great tone. As a coach, part of navigating it as well with new and younger players on the team is understanding how to process wins because not all wins are equal. Regardless of win or lose, to me the tone is really set with what comes after. We’ve won or we lost, and then that’s over with and how do we improve? That’s how the tone really gets set. Of course, the game matters, but we can’t just focus only on that. We have to focus on continuous progress.”
When the Flyers take the field on Friday night as defending champions, they will feature a very familiar group of players. In fact, the anticipated 20-man roster for the 2022 season opener features 14 of the 20 individuals who competed against New York in last September’s title game. Furthermore, there are three others—Suraj Madiraju, Andrew McKelvey, and Grayson Sanner—who played significant minutes for Carolina last year even if they were not on the active 20 for the final. Consequently, the Flyers will only feature three newcomers this week, but all of them have past AUDL experience. William Coffin played 23 games for Seattle in 2018-19, Charlie McCutcheon appeared 31 times for Minnesota from 2017-21, and Player Pierce will take the AUDL field for the 50th time on Friday night, beginning his sixth season with his fourth different team.
I’ve been dwelling the duty to share this news, but part of the job, in addition to sharing who will play, is to reveal who won’t. Unfortunately, some teams, including the Flyers and the Hustle, have been hit by significant injuries in the preseason. Carolina will be without 2021 Second-Team All-AUDL performer Allan Laviolette following a torn ACL in March, while Atlanta will be missing Jakeem Polk, who suffered a ruptured Achilles, and Ben Gagne-Maynard, who also will miss the season due to a knee injury. It was also a massive bummer to see Dallas’ Connor Olson go down in the Legion’s preseason scrimmage. Subsequent tests revealed a torn ACL, ending Olson’s 2022 campaign before it could even start. Here’s to smooth recoveries for all these guys!
This will be year two of having yardage stats for every single game, and I’m super excited to have the data become a regular component of league chatter. Obviously, statistics do not always tell the full story, but they can be super valuable to add context and perspective. Last year, in 130 games, including the postseason, we witnessed 239 instances of an individual throwing for at least 300 yards in a game, and there were 152 occasions of a player accumulating at least 300 receiving yards in a game. Notably, there were only 13 players who recorded at least 300 throwing and 300 receiving yards in the same game. New York’s Ryan Osgar was the only player in the league who did that twice, both times against the Boston Glory.
One of the fun statistical outliers from 2021 was Matt Jackson’s receiving yardage, which reached into the negative 300s over the course of the season. Serving primarily as a reset handler for Dallas, Jackson finished the year with -337 receiving yards, the fewest total receiving yards in the league (or the most negative yards, depending on how you wanna look at it). Only two other players registered negative triple-digit totals, and Matt Weintraub’s -152 and John Clyde’s -107 barely compare with Jackson’s mark. It became a point of amusement throughout last season, but if you’re rooting for him to set a new “low” this summer as a member of the expansion Colorado Summit, you might be disappointed. “This is gonna make my fans sad, but I’m hoping to finish with positive yards this year,” said Jackson. “I think I can get downfield, and in fact, I want to get downfield. I’m gonna try and grease our offense with my legs as much as my impeccable dump spacing.”
Nearly 3,000 words in and barely a mention of New York and DC, who meet in the Fox Sports “Game Of The Week” season premiere this Saturday night. Of course, so much has already been written and said about the Empire-Breeze rivalry over the past couple months, particularly with their overtime showcase in Medellin 10 days ago.
Obviously, it’s another huge game this week, with the Empire and Breeze both stacked with deep rosters and tremendous expectations. Both teams finished 10-2 in the regular season last year, and both have reason to believe they can be better in 2022.
Arguably the biggest difference between this particular New York-DC showdown will be the fact that it will be shown exclusively on Fox Sports 2, beginning at 11:00 PM ET on Saturday evening. For viewers in the United States, that will be the only way to watch beyond actually attending the game in person. The game will also re-air on Wednesday night at 9 PM ET on FS2. Set your DVRs accordingly.
Considering that previously every game was available live on AUDL.tv, this will be an adjustment for everyone, especially the league’s biggest fans who’ve been loyal viewers through the years. But in order to upgrade the television package to have several games air live on FS2 throughout the season, this was a sacrifice that had to be made.
“It’s certainly not ideal, but this is part of the process of moving up the media food chain,” said Tim DeByl, the league’s long-time President of Media. “We understand our fans are used to watching all games on AUDL.tv, and these games will be on AUDL.tv 30 days later. We’re excited to be on FS2 multiple times each week, as that is an important factor in the growth of the league.”
It should be noted that the game will still be live on AUDL.tv for viewers outside of the United States.
It’s not perfect, but I fully expect New York and DC to deliver another thriller chapter this Saturday night, and over the long-term, the AUDL’s partnership with Fox Sports will definitely expose our tremendous product to more eyeballs over the course of the season.
So here we go with the 2022 journey! It’s a new decade for the league, with a 10-year foundation to build upon as we continue to evolve and flourish on the professional sports landscape.
Thank you for reading, and I’ll talk to you Friday night for the much-anticipated opener at the home of the reigning champs!