By Alexander “Shaggy” Shragis
The sky high Phoenix have fallen down to earth after two tough losses to Raleigh and Atlanta last weekend, and look to bounce back against a familiar foe this Saturday: the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. Philly and Pittsburgh squared off in week three at the South Philadelphia SuperSite, and the Phoenix cruised to a 27 - 18 victory en route to their first Commonwealth Cup.
Context is everything however, and Pittsburgh has to feel more confident heading into this week 5 matchup. In week 3, they were coming off a close loss to the New York Empire on Friday, then traveling to Philadelphia to play Saturday afternoon. For this game, they are coming off a bye and at home; meaning fresh legs and a fresh attitude for the contest.
The Phoenix on the other hand went into the previous game off a bye themselves, at home, and after a convincing and emotional win over the Tampa Bay Cannons to begin the season. Now they have lost two straight, both on the road, both in brutal fashion after falling to the Raleigh Flyers 23 to 11—a game in which the Phoenix managed to tally only three total first half points—and a tough loss to the Atlanta Hustle in which Philadelphia led at half time, only to be outscored 14 to 5 in the remaining two quarters.
Philly will be without a trio of key players for week 5. Marc Sands—a consistent O-Line cutter whose stat line belies his on field value—is out indefinitely as he recovers from an ankle sprain suffered during the Hustle game. Jake Butrica—a Phoenix rookie whose work as a defensive handler has made him one of the most dangerous players in the league—will miss the game as well. James Pollard—the best shot clock player in the league—is also recovering from an injury. This is bad news for Philadelphia, who sorely missed Sands down the stretch of the Hustle game and has leaned heavily on Butrica and Pollard to carry the defensive line.
The Phoenix will return two crucial handlers for this meeting however, as Alex Thorne and Max Charles are back in the lineup after a three and two game hiatus respectively. A large part of the Phoenix success in the first game against Pittsburgh this season was the brilliant efficiency of the offensive line, which had only one turnover through the first three quarters, and did not give up a single break until the game was almost over. Alex Thorne and Max Charles have yet to throw a turnover on the o line, although Charles had a few in the first game playing defense against Tampa, and a return of such consistency would be a boon to a team that had a combined 53 turnovers last weekend.
Photo by Morgan Tencza
Turnovers, particularly unforced ones, have plagued both Pennsylvania franchises this season. Pittsburgh is second worst in the league with 27 turnovers a game, and is second worst in completion percentage as well: 90.6%, only half a percent out of last. Philadelphia has not fared much better, averaging 23.5 turnovers per game with a 92.9% completion percentage. Those numbers are skewed by a 32 turnover performance against Raleigh, but turnovers are an issue that has plagued past Philly teams. This is great news for the defenses however: both the Phoenix and the Thunderbirds are top ten in blocks per game for the season.
Despite these slippery fingered statistics, bright spots abound for both teams. Pittsburgh sports this writer's 2019 MVP pick in Max Sheppard. Although Sheppard has fallen back down to earth this season—already with half as many turnovers as he had throughout all of 2019—he is a highlight reel waiting to happen both as a thrower and as a receiver, and wields big play possibilities every time he touches the disc. CJ Colicchio, AUDL journeyman and the lone bright spot for the Thunderbirds when they played in Philadelphia, is quietly putting together one of the most exciting seasons in the league. With only four games played, CJ is tied for eighth in the league in plus minus with a +21, and is top three in per game plus minus. Colicchio has transformed himself from a role player to a primary offensive threat, and with the Phoenix struggling to contain him in the first matchup he will be looking to feast on more than just barbecue this July 4th weekend.
Photo by Marshall Lian
The Phoenix are sporting an all star cast of their own. Through four games, Greg Martin is first in the league in goals per game and second amongst all players with 21 total goals, despite many on the list having played in more games. An explosive cutter, Greg Martin is somehow averaging a goal or an assist every third time he touches the disc, which would be remarkable if he hadn’t averaged a goal or assist on every other touch he had in 2019! With unmatched explosiveness and an unparalleled trust from the Philly handlers, Martin has proved to be nigh uncoverable through the first four games of the season. Greg is only two goals shy of his 2019 goal total, and just eight goals short of his career high for a season, so there is an outside chance he surpasses that mark in this game alone.
2019 All-Star Sean Mott may be having a quiet season by his standards, but the new AUDL yardage statistics are shouting a different story. Not only is Mott averaging over 250 yards throwing and receiving for the season, but he has put together 2049 yards of total offense. Two Thousand Forty Nine through four games! There is no context for that kind of production. Mike Arcata has also had a prodigious start to the season, both in counting stats and yardage. Mike may be the only player in the league to have amassed over 300 yards in a single quarter, which he did against the Atlanta Hustle this past Saturday. The bulk of those yards came on a pair of massive hammers, which not only travelled 60 yards down the field, but crossed the entire 160 feet of it before landing softly in the hands of the receiver.
Photo by Marshall Lian
Philadelphia loves to air the disc out, throwing more hucks per completion than nearly any other team in the league. Although their offense has been behind most of these long balls, look for the defense to start launching the disc more in this Pittsburgh game. Nate Little and Eric Witmer have both proven to be devastating downfield on a turn, and are positioned well to take advantage of some sloppy offensive sets by the Thunderbirds. Speaking of huckers, Pittsburgh ranks near the top of teams ready to throw long as well. The Phoenix should look to capitalize on these deep throws, as an errant Pittsburgh pass may lead to defensive miscommunications and a quick break on the other end.
This is sure to be a thrilling rematch between two Pennsylvania teams desperate for a win. Catch all the Commonwealth Cup action July 3rd, only on AUDL.TV!