Photo by Morgan Tencza
By Alexander “Shaggy” Shragis
PHILADELPHIA - After a strong 2 - 0 start, the Philadelphia Phoenix find themselves under .500, dropping the first three in a five game road trip. After a brutal and wet loss to Raleigh, the Phoenix have managed a strong showing through the first three quarters of their past two contests against Atlanta and Pittsburgh, before brutal turnovers in the fourth cost the Phoenix both games. While the Nix have to be pleased with their first half showings in both the Hustle and the Thunderbirds game, they will need to figure out how to finish if they hope for a strong finish to the season.
Righting the ship is no small task, as the Phoenix are on the road again this weekend, stopping in New York on Friday before travelling to Boston to play the Glory for the first time in team history. Both the Empire and the Glory present unique challenges for a Phoenix squad who’s future could come down to tiebreakers against either team, and the Philadelphia coaches and players have their work cut out for them as they attempt to plan for the upcoming weekend.
“I think the Team is in a good spot right now,” said rising Phoenix star Paul Owens, “We’ve shown we can battle with them [the top teams in the division]. Our defense continues to impress by earning blocks all across the field, our high pressure makes it miserable for opponents offenses.” Owens went on to address the Phoenix’s end of game struggles, saying “I think moving forward we just need to stay focused for all four quarters, we are in these games and I know we can finish them out if we stay locked in with all 20 players.”
Photo by Morgan Tencza
The New York Empire suffered their first loss since 2018 last weekend, July 2, against the DC Breeze. The Breeze were closest to dethroning New York in 2019, losing all three games by a combined four points. They led throughout the contest on Friday en route to a convincing 20 - 17 win. Although this has to be deflating, New York was missing several key contributors, including Marques Brownlee, Josue Alorro, Jack Williams, Elliot Chartock, and former Phoenix player Ryan Weaver, all starting members of the offensive and defensive lines for a New York team that usually runs very tight rotations. Returning at least some of these players for the Phoenix game will present a very different challenge for a Philadelphia team looking to make the Empire loss look like a streak.
When the Phoenix and the Empire last met, they played a close one in Conshohocken which saw Philadelphia lead for most of the game, only to be outscored in the fourth quarter and lose 22 - 20 (fourth quarter woes for the Phoenix… sound familiar?) This Empire team is not the same as the 2019 team, both by lineups and by statistics. In 2019, New York led all teams in Offensive efficiency and third in per game +/-. They were third in turnovers per game, second in points allowed, and fourth in completion percentage. The 2019 AUDL champion New York Empire has a case as one of the greatest AUDL teams ever.
This 2021 iteration does not. This season the Empire rank seventh in offensive efficiency and 10th in per game +/-. They are turning it over more as well. The Empire completion percentage is down from third in 2019 to near the bottom in 2021 (tied with the Phoenix’s in fact). And New York has played a schedule that should have buffeted their numbers. Outside of their two games against DC, the Empire have played only Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, two teams which rank near the bottom in most categories. New York should be putting up numbers similar to the Alley Cats, a two and four franchise who’s gaudy offensive statistics are buoyed by the fact that they have gotten to play a hapless Detroit Mechanix two times already this season.
New York is the favorite, but there are certainly weaknesses that the Phoenix will look to take advantage of on Friday as they are hungry for a win. Not only is a win always important, but it would take on extra meaning against this Empire squad, a team coached by Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nunez. Two longtime coaches in the Philadelphia ultimate scene, one expects that many Phoenix players will take this game personally.
Saturday features the first game in franchise history between the Philadelphia Phoenix and the Boston Glory. Although the Empire lead the Glory in the Atlantic Division standings, this will be a far larger test for Philadelphia as they play a brand new team with very little footage on how they play. Boston itself is probably unsure of how they play. Of the 41 players on their active roster, only 11 have played in every game this season, and only 5 have over 100 points played in Boston. While so few games on film makes them a difficult team to scout, it also makes it hard to develop chemistry amongst the players.
Boston’s biggest struggles this season have been defensively. Defense around the league has been on a decline, as across the AUDL teams are more efficient than ever before, but Boston’s first season in the league has presented a steep learning curve. They will hope to improve against a Philadelphia squad which has shown a tendency to turn the disc over offensively.
Players to Watch
New York has a bevy of stars to choose from. Ben Jagt, Jack Williams, and Jeff Babbitt are three of the most prolific players in AUDL history. Add in names like Ryan Osgar, Elliot Chartock, and Marques Browlee, and you have the most star studded roster in the league. But you can read someone else’s words about those players, I am giving you some under the radar content!
Philadelphia’s struggles have not come downfield, but from short throws and backfield miscommunications. It is not the New York bigs who will play a deciding roll in this game, but rather their handler defenders. With Josue Alorro and Ben Katz—the best double teamer in the league—who is somehow averaging a hand block a game despite sporting a wingspan that would be lucky to sniff six feet, both out, New York is going to need to scrap to find a way to disrupt the Phoenix backfield. On the offensive side of the disc, John Lithio is a dangerous cutter who, after a breakout 6 goal performance to open the season, has cooled off considerably. New York would love another big game from Lithio to relieve some of the downfield pressure from Ben Jagt and Jack Williams.
Boston is not without burgeoning stars of their own. Ben Sadok—18 assists, 17 goals, 1800+ throwing yards, 1300+ receiving yards—Tanner Halkyard—1400+ receiving yards and a league best per game plus minus at +31—and Henry Babcock—1300+ throwing yards and 14 assists—are the backbone of this Glory team and three of the eleven players to have played in every game this season for Boston. Yet as of writing this, Sadok is listed as questionable for the game, and Halkyard is listed as out. This drastically changes the tenure of a Boston Offense which already teeters on the verges of uncertainty.
However, the player to watch this game is the former Phoenix stalwart Nick Patel. A fixture on the 2019 Philly D line, a big moment from Patel might unravel an emotional Philadelphia squad on the road during a back to back. On the flip side, facing off against their former teammate might fire the Phoenix up.
Philadelphia clearly felt the losses of Marc Sands and James Pollard against Pittsburgh, as they struggled to maintain offensive consistency through four quarters and could not contain the Thunderbirds in the deep space. However, another week with the handling trio of Dustin Damiano, Alex Thorne, and Max Charles should continue to improve the Phoenix’s offensive output. Look for Matt Hanna, in his fourth game with the Phoenix, to replace some of Sands’ production.
Photo by Morgan Tencza
The Phoenix defense will be looking to bounce back after watching the Thunderbirds post some of their best offensive numbers ever. Eric Witmer will play a huge role in disrupting New York and Boston. A medium sized guy who plays like a giant, Witmer could be pivotal in shutting down some of New York and Boston’s large cutters underneath. Also, at a weekend of matchups against former Phoenix players, 2018 Empire stud Jimi O’Connell will make his season debut for Philadelphia after last appearing for the Phoenix way back in 2015.
You can watch the Phoenix play Friday in the Game of the Week, and catch the Nix Saturday only on AUDL.tv
Update - With a tropical storm set to move through New York Friday, the Empire game could be a wet one. Hard to tell who this favors more. In 2019, Philly came within a bad no foul call of knocking off New York during a rainy game dripping in lightening delays. We also saw Philadelphia play one of the worst games in franchise history this season during a rainstorm in Raleigh.