Marc Sands, Mike Arcata, Scott Heyman being upstarts - PHOTOGRAPHER Morgan Tencza
By Alexander Shragis
PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Phoenix (3 - 5) travel to the DC Breeze (5 - 2) for the first matchup between the two squads this season in what is shaping up to be a huge game for both teams. The Phoenix need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. DC needs a win to maintain their inside track at a home playoff game, and slam the door on the upstart Phoenix.
Although this is the first meeting between the two teams this season, both squads are very familiar with each other. The Phoenix and the Breeze played three times in 2019 (three DC victories) and twice in 2018 (a DC victory and a tie). Despite over a dozen games against each other—many of which were close contests—the Philadelphia Phoenix have managed to beat the DC Breeze only once, and Marques Brownlee and Nicky Spiva were the best players for Philly in that game!
If Philadelphia wants to make the playoffs, they will likely need to repeat that feat twice—defeating DC this weekend and then winning the rematch at home on August 6. To achieve something so difficult, the Phoenix will need to accomplish two tasks: play four quarters of efficient offense, and make the DC backfield look mortal.
Offensively, the Phoenix could do with a bit of gerrymandering. In three of their five losses this season, the Phoenix have tied or won three of the four quarters. Yet brutal score disparities in a single quarter—the first quarter in the most recent Atlanta game or the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh for example—have knocked Philadelphia out of otherwise winnable matches. If only Philly could shove all their poor quarters into a single game, say the miserable display in Raleigh, the Phoenix would have a winning record!
Dustin Damiano scans the field against Atlanta - PHOTOGRAPHER Doug Ellis
For the Philadelphia offense to round into form, one of two things need to happen. Either the handling core of Dustin Damiano, Alex Thorne, Max Charles and potentially the rookie Casey Thornton need to start putting points on the board, or Mike Arcata and Sean Mott need to be more efficient. Damiano and Thorne, ranked first and second on the team in completions per game, and both have been fairly consistent with the disc, carrying completion percentages of 96.6% and 97.4% respectively. Yet the huge number of throws (607) has resulted in just 27 assists, and a plus minus of +27. If you combined all that into one player, that individual still would not lead the team in plus minus or assists.
By contrast, Mike Arcata—assist leader for the team with the third most assists in the league—has 31 all on his own. Add in 23 from Sean Mott and you have over a third of all Phoenix assists this season accounted for. Yet neither player has been particularly efficient. Mike Arcata is just a hair above a 90% completion rate, and Sean Mott is at 94.9% (a career high). Thus Philadelphia is presented with a conundrum. They need the disc in Mott and Mike’s hands to score; yet Sean and particularly Arcata have been too unreliable to anchor the offense through four consecutive quarters. Damiano and Thorne have been steady as a rock, yet the Phoenix have routinely needed to have scores come from downfield rather than their handling duo.
DC has had none of those issues. Their leaders in completions—Johnny Malks and Rowan McDonnell—lead the team in assists, and both have completion percentages of over 97%. In fact, you have to go to the Breeze defensive line to find any players completing less than 95% of their passes. That sort of consistency is remarkable, and was the guiding force behind one of the most efficient offenses in league history until a brutal game against Atlanta knocked them from that pedestal.
Defensively, the Phoenix will need to take that historically efficient DC offense, cut them down to size, and most importantly, score the disc. It is a good matchup for the Philadelphia defense, which is shorter and quicker than most of the Atlantic divisions defensive lines. Elite handler defenders Jake Butrica and Allan Michel will need an exemplary performance to shut down the sensational DC backfield. They may get some help from Eric Witmer. Philly has leaned on Wit in the past to deal with larger cutters, but utilized him in Pittsburgh against Max Sheppard, a player who presents a threat similar to Rowan McDonnell. The Breeze have concentrated most of their height and athleticism on the defensive side of the disc, and that will let the Philly coaches: Dave Hampson and Nate Venditta, explore some newer matchups for the Philadelphia defense.
Allan Michel gets the D in New York - PHOTOGRAPHER Doug Ellis
Another potential wrinkle could be to shift Mike Arcata from the O line to the D line for the games against DC. Mike Arcata was the best defender in the league in 2019 against Rowan Mcdonnell, and a similar performance here in 2021 would go a long way towards upsetting the Breeze. Arcata also has a nose for putting the disc in the end zone, and shifting him to the defense could help the Philly D line notch some breaks, something which they have struggled to do all season. Of course, moving Arcata away from the offensive line would leave Philadelphia dangerously low on downfield threats, particularly with Marc Sands still recovering from an injury. It would also break up the electric Mike Arcata to Greg Martin connection, which accounts for more goals than any other duo this season!
This game will be a good matchup for the weekend, and a great indicator as to whether Philadelphia has the chops to tussle with the big players in the division, or if DC is really a championship contender. Be sure to watch the game on AUDL.tv, and get tickets to the Nix for when they return home for their final three games in August!