July 11, 2023
By Evan Lepler
- Thunderbirds strike first
For a team that’s averaged just 4.25 wins per season over the past four years, Pittsburgh improving to 5-4 with 21-18 home win over Chicago on Friday night represented a noteworthy achievement.
The Thunderbirds are now 4-1 at home, with their only Steel City loss coming by one against Philadelphia. “Blocks came early and often, including a Callahan a couple points after we narrowly missed another,” said Pittsburgh’s Clint McSherry, describing the Friday victory. Thunderbirds rookie Mikey O’Brien led the effort with four blocks, as Pittsburgh created 16 blocks, their most ever in a game against Chicago. Neither team was particularly crisp when it came to break chances, as the Union went 3-for-9 and the Thunderbirds finished 5-for-16. “We got the disc plenty, but often gave it right back,” said Chicago’s Sam Kaminsky. “We forced backhand to stop [Max] Sheppard’s flicks, but he just kept breaking the mark and hitting beautiful break-shots to the back right corner.” There’s no question Max Sheppard was a thorn in the Union’s side, producing four goals and five assists. “Max Sheppard is so [bleeping] good,” added Kaminsky. “He is by far the most talented player in the Central Division.” At the end of the night, both teams were 5-4, and Pittsburgh actually had the momentary edge for third place in the division courtesy of the head-to-head win. But the Thunderbirds could not enjoy their victory for too long.
- Chicago's firm response
In a cool wrinkle that is uncommon—though not unprecedented—in other sports, the Thunderbirds and Union reconvened early on Saturday morning to share a bus ride back to Chicago. Apparently, Jace Bruner and Jerry Kelly helped the Union win the spirited Super Smash Bros. competition during the seven-plus hour journey, and between movies and conversations, it was a relatively pleasant experience for the two teams.
“On a personal level, it’s nice to spend a bit of time outside the lines with opponents,” said McSherry. “When you’re on the field, it’s pretty much all business and outside of a healthy respect—or disrespect—for a guy’s play, you don’t really know them. Nobody was having a heart-to-heart on the ride back to Chicago, but a little banter on the road and at stops along the way is a nice reminder that after the clock winds down, the people we play against are regular folks.” Once the Saturday night rematch started, the Thunderbirds carried over their momentum to win the first quarter 5-4, but Chicago reclaimed control from there, outscoring Pittsburgh 16-9 the rest of the game to prevail 20-14 and split the weekend series. Furthermore, the Union surged back into third place in the Central standings and won the point-differential across the two games, giving them the tiebreaker against Pittsburgh with two weeks left in the season. “Getting Dex Dremann for Saturday was great for our D-line O to retain the disc and score on break opportunities,” said Kaminsky. Indeed, Dremann went 15-for-15 and the Union went 8-for-14 on break chances in the second game of the weekend, a marked improvement from Friday night. “Chicago also deserves credit for playing a considerably better game on Saturday,” said McSherry. We played a lot of hard-nosed defense on Friday, while Chicago had employed a considerable amount of zone and poaching defensive sets. That may have worn us down more than we realized come Saturday night and contributed to a decline in our blocks…I don’t have any any big takeaways from the weekend except to say that I think this is probably the best version of an AUDL doubleheader that I’ve experienced. I was skeptical beforehand, since it seems a bit strange and isn’t what the league has historically done. But having gone through it, it made for a good playing weekend where neither game felt unfair due to fatigue or circumstances off-field, and the tactical chess match the coaches have to play with both rosters and game plans in such short order makes that part of the matchup much more compelling.” The Union, with a road trip to Minnesota and a home game against Madison remaining on their schedule, know they control their destiny. “If we win-out, we are in the playoffs,” said Kaminsky. “[If we] only win one, then need Pitt to lose at least one. [If we] lose both, then need Pitt to lose both [against Indianapolis.] Do I think Chicago Union can make some noise in the playoffs? Absolutely. But right now, we just need to get there first.”
- Sol need fourth quarter comeback to defeat Havoc
Austin trailed for almost the entirety of the first three quarters on Friday night against Houston, and the Sol were down 18-14 midway through the third against a team they had beaten three times already this season. But with the possibility of losing their home playoff game lurking prominently, the Sol flipped a switch and outscored the Havoc 11-2 over the final 16 minutes, prevailing 25-20 after a 7-1 rout in the fourth.
“It has certainly been difficult to get up for eight games against the Texas teams, especially finishing our regular season with five straight against them,” acknowledged Austin Captain Jake Radack. “We remember what it felt like being the little brother to Dallas a few years back, and how we would treat it like the Super Bowl when we played them. We also know how hard it is to win a doubleheader, no matter who the opponent is. This was actually the first doubleheader sweep the Sol has had since I moved to Austin.” Houston’s Ben Lewis was easily the top standout on Friday night, producing eight goals, four assists, one block, and 532 total yards, but the Sol completed 15-of-20 hucks and capitalized on their chances when it mattered, finishing 8-for-16 on break chances. Kyle Henke delivered five goals and three assists, while Mark Evans tallied four assists and three goals. “It definitely took longer than we wanted to apply some pressure against Houston, but come the fourth quarter, when the urgency set in, there was little doubt that we would pull away,” said Radack.
- Austin's "lame" 9-3 regular season
In their first three meetings against Dallas, Austin dominated in a fashion not normally seen. In three first halves against the Legion earlier this season, the Sol scored 45 goals and allowed just 12. Truly staggering. So that’s the context for the average fan’s surprise when they saw how Austin only led Dallas 12-11 at halftime on Saturday night. The Legion certainly upped their game, producing a season-low 18 turnovers, but the Sol still created second half separation, leading by as many as five en route to a 24-21 victory. “We just needed to persevere through the heat and our tired legs,” said Radack. Consequently, the Sol wrapped up perhaps the least inspiring 9-3 season in AUDL history. A month ago, then Austin was 4-3 with five Texas tilts remaining, Henke admitted how ‘it’s a lame 9-3 if we can get there, but all we can do is play the games ahead of us.’ Also true, which makes the Sol particularly tough to handicap heading into the postseason. They will be hosting either Atlanta or Carolina in a few weeks, and while Austin will probably be considered an underdog against either opponent, the Sol have been very competitive in their recent home games against the Hustle and the Flyers. “Looking forward, we couldn’t be more excited to play a playoff game in front of our home crowd,” said Radack. “We feel like we’re playing our best right now and getting hot at the right time. Don’t let us win one.”
- Carolina flying back into action
When Carolina retakes the field this Saturday against Atlanta, it will have been exactly five weeks since the Flyers last played an AUDL game. They beat the Sol 22-20 on June 10, back in Week 7 of the season, and with the help of a postponement against Dallas when the Legion had flight issues, we haven’t seen them since. But it’s not like the Flyers can ease back into their schedule. There are serious stakes as the Hustle head to Durham County Memorial Stadium this weekend. The Flyers, 6-3 and in third place in the South Division with three games left, know they can still take the regular season title and earn the top seed in the South Division playoffs, but they need to win each of their final three games. They also go to Atlanta on July 22 and will make up the missed game against Dallas on July 25. (Yes, they are hosting Dallas on a Tuesday night in the final game of the entire regular season.) If the Flyers can win this weekend, it will set up a first-place showdown next week in Atlanta, with the Game of the Week spotlight shining on the South. If the Hustle go into Carolina and clinch the division on the road, it will render the rematch virtually meaningless, as Atlanta will know they are the top seed regardless of that result. The two teams are 1-1 against each other this season, with Atlanta winning 24-19 on May 5, but Carolina prevailing 21-15 on May 21. In both previous meetings, the winning team had just 12 turnovers.
- 71 straight losses
There was clearly an easy narrative building that Detroit had a great chance to win against Madison, with the Radicals coming off a heartbreaking home loss the night before, traveling to Michigan without several key players, and maybe, just maybe, the Mechanix finally could get off the schneid against the also-struggling Radicals. Nice try, folks, but Detroit’s gonna Detroit, and despite all the factors working in their favor, the Mechanix laid another embarrassing egg on Saturday against Madison, as their interminable losing streak reached its 20th different prime number. Astonishingly, the Radicals won 23-14 despite completing only 172 passes; the Mechanix had 393 completions, but mustered only three break chances and trailed the entire game. “We threw a lot of zone looks at them,” said Madison’s Jack Kelly. “It felt similar to the Radicals of old. Make opponents throw as many passes as possible, and they will eventually turn it over. Alternatively, Detroit played a mostly person defense with a backhand force. They also did a ton of strict face-guarding, which allowed our throwers to be in control as long as they just put the disc in open space because there was no poaching to be threatened by.” The Radicals were pleased to get their second win of the season, but Friday’s loss, along with many of the other razor-thin setbacks they’ve endured, meant that no one was overjoyed by beating the Mechanix for the 20th consecutive time. “It is truly saddening to talk about having a bounce-back win at Detroit,” said Madison’s Avery Johnson. “Winning against Detroit should not be considered a feat of any kind, but rather an inevitability as assured as the sun rising each morning.” The Mechanix have three more chances at snapping the streak this season, against Toronto this Saturday and at Madison and Minnesota the following week. And, to state the obvious, it’s clearly starting to look like their one-goal loss at Indy on June 17 is far more of an outlier than an indication that a win is near. But you never know.
- Portland's own streak continues
I’d be surprised if Adam Ruffner removed Detroit from their not-so-proud perch at number 24 in this week’s Power Rankings, but Portland made a compelling Week 11 case to usurp the Mechanix’s seemingly forever home at the bottom. The Nitro were outscored 55-24 in their two road games at Salt Lake and Oakland, bringing an embarrassingly shorthanded roster to a pair of inevitable beatdowns. It’s bewildering to realize that the Nitro only lost to the Shred and Spiders by two and one goals, respectively, when they hosted them back in May.
Here in July, Portland traveled with only 14 players, six shy of the standard 20, and that included four players who were previously considered practice players and were making their 2023 AUDL debuts. Against the Spiders on Saturday, Portland actually broke Oakland on the game’s opening point, but then surrendered the game’s next 14 breaks. The Nitro turned it over 45 times against the Spiders, the most in any game in the AUDL since the pandemic. “The scores are ugly, but we held our heads high and I’m proud of the team’s positivity and growth despite the adverse conditions,” said Portland Captain Jake Johnson. “Salt Lake and Oakland played to the degree I would’ve expected. It felt like playing against playoff teams. Salt Lake demonstrated their patented, patient, seamless offense as well as their relentless D. Oakland played intelligently in the windy conditions and used their whole roster well. Both teams were effective in fast-breaking and capitalizing quickly on our mistakes.” Though Portland has a long way to go to match Detroit’s losing streak, the Nitro do carry an ignominious 19-game skid into their Friday night home game against San Diego. Meanwhile, the 11-0 Shred are looking to become the first West Division team ever to complete a perfect regular season on Saturday against New York, while the 6-3 Spiders need to win two of their final three games to make the playoffs, starting this Saturday against 6-4 Los Angeles.
Looking ahead, Week 12 will feature the final three interdivisional games of the 2023 regular season. Two of the three could very well be previews of potential Championship Weekend pairings.
Certainly, New York’s contests with Colorado on Friday and Salt Lake on Saturday headline the weekend, as the Empire put their 24-game winning streak on the line. It’s been exactly 22 months since New York last lost (against Carolina in the 2021 title game on September 11, 2021), and the Empire are eagerly embracing the upcoming challenges against the Summit and the Shred.
So far, the East Division has gone 5-2 in interdivisional play this season, while the South has gone 4-4. Currently, the West is 1-2 in these crossover games, while the Central has gone 1-3.
Following DC’s win over Boston this past Saturday, I decided to ask Joe Merrill, who has played against New York a bunch along with being a member of Salt Lake’s inaugural team in 2022, his admittedly biased thoughts on the Empire-Shred showdown.
“I’m a big fan of the underdog, so I really hope Salt Lake pulls through,” said Merrill. “I think that Salt Lake adding Joel Clutton is a game-changer, especially against New York, like especially for [Jeff] Babbitt. I think that’s gonna be a really fun matchup to watch [...] I think [the Shred] have the athleticism, and I think New York has the experience, and it’ll be a really fun game, and I really hope Salt Lake pulls through, but it’s gonna be a true test.”
Saturday night, 9:00 PM Eastern, live on AUDL.tv. (It will premiere on FS2 on Sunday morning at 10:30 AM eastern and then re-air at 10:30 PM Eastern on Sunday evening.)
Talk to you then.