Photo by Valerie Cason

Thursday Thoughts: Week 8

May 18, 2017 — By Evan Lepler

1. Saturday's South Division showdown between the Cannons and Flyers is a must-win for Jacksonville's home field chances in the playoffs.

The Raleigh Flyers are 6-1, the Jacksonville Cannons are 5-1, and both are coming off signature wins over the defending champion Dallas Roughnecks. If you take a quick glance, these teams look just about even. But when you look deeper into who they have played and who they have left, you realize it’s not close.

The Flyers still have three games remaining against the Nashville NightWatch (0-7), and after this weekend, their only remaining non-Nashville road game is at the Atlanta Hustle (2-3). Comparatively, the Cannons have just one game left against the NightWatch and five touch road challenges remaining on their schedule: two at Raleigh, one each a Atlanta, the always challenging Austin Sol (1-5), and Dallas.

When you factor in Dallas’ remaining schedule, the Roughnecks only have one of their final six games outside of Texas, and that’s the Cross Coast Challenge tilt in Madison on June 3.

This is not to say the Cannons don’t have a chance to make a substantial run; it is only meant to emphasize the importance of this weekend. Jacksonville enters on a four-game winning streak, and through six games, the Cannons have already matched their win total from last year. Their offseason additions like Jeremy Langdon, Tyler Kunsa, Mike Hickson, Jordan Huston, Chris LaRocque, and Jakeem Polk have all made big plays thus far, and their collective presence has allowed some of Jacksonville’s top returners to alter the roles.

Highlights from Jacksonville's historic win against Dallas on May 12.

The Cannons have plenty of weapons, and the pieces are seemingly fitting together better than ever before. But if they don’t hold serve at home on Saturday, they can kiss goodbye their hopes for a number one seed.

2. Minnesota is the last undefeated team in the AUDL, but the Midwest is far from settled.

One could argue that the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds (2-1) looked more impressive at times during their loss at Seattle than Madison has looked in any of its wins throughout the season thus far. That thought leads to the idea that maybe, just maybe, this Saturday could be a pivotal moment in the changing of the guard in the Midwest Division.

Though Pittsburgh is the only team that has beaten Madison in the regular season over the last two years, the Thunderbirds still have never won inside the Radicals house. But, prior to this Saturday, they have never been at Breese Stevens Field to face a Madison team that was nearly as vulnerable.

The Thunderbirds are hopeful that Tyler DeGirolamo (seven assists, 13 goals in two games in 2017) will return from a groin injury that kept him out of the Seattle game, and Pittsburgh also returns the young phenom Max Sheppard, who scored eight goals in their season opener, to the lineup after he missed the previous pair of games for College Regionals and graduation.

On the flip-side, the Radicals are expecting Peter Graffy and Sterling Knoche, each of whom has played just one of the team’s four games, back on Saturday. Plus, Tom Annen will be making his season debut, and the towering veteran Scott Richgels, who had claimed to be retiring after last season, has been lured back onto the field for this big matchup against Pittsburgh.

Highlights from the last matchup between Madison and Pittsburgh during the second round of the 2016 AUDL playoffs.

Regardless who prevails on Saturday, though, we still are a ways off from really figuring out this division. After all, the Minnesota Wind Chill (5-0) sit atop the pack with the only perfect record in the league, and the guts of the Wind Chill’s schedule does not arrive until July. If Minnesota can beat Madison at home on June 10, there’s a good chance that the Wind Chill could finish June at 9-0 heading into their July gauntlet. From July 1-22, the Wind Chill will play five times, four of which are on the road. This stretch includes road trips to Madison and Pittsburgh and concludes with a home date against the Thunderbirds.

All three of these teams envision themselves as Montreal-bound, and the anticipation will only heighten over the next six weeks before Minnesota’s true test begins.

This Saturday’s clash in Madison should be an epic exposition. The Radicals, as the perennial power, have to be considered the favorite. But when you notice what’s happened around the league over the past few weeks, that may not be the most enviable spot to be.

3. Austin and Atlanta are still alive in the South playoff race.

Atlanta and Austin have just three wins combined in 2017 through seven weeks of play, and both teams have only beaten Nashville so far in the South. But if the Cannons fall to 5-2 this weekend, Saturday’s survivor between the Hustle and the Sol will both look at Jacksonville as the team to chase down in the hunt for a playoff spot.

From the Hustle’s perspective, they feel they let a win slip away against the Cannons when they lost by two on April 22, and they are thirsting for their rematch next weekend. Since its almost impossible to imagine Dallas losing a third straight while playing at home against a Hustle team who will be on the second day of a back-to-back, Atlanta’s Saturday game with Austin is a critical turning point for the team’s season.

If Atlanta can earn a split in Texas and get through the weekend at 3-4, then a win against the Cannons next week could get the Hustle within a half-game of Jacksonville in the race for third place. Plus, in this hypothetical, the Hustle would have set the tone against the Sol, whom they play twice more in the month of June.

Meanwhile, Austin is hoping that a home win over Atlanta can be the boomerang for the Sol’s season. If the Sol can sweep their three-game series against the Hustle over the next six weeks, with two of the three games at home, then Austin could easily imagine themselves—via wins over Atlanta and Nashville—soaring from 0-5 to 6-6, with a ton of positive momentum heading into a July 8 date at home against…you guessed it… Jacksonville! On that day, the Cannons will have already played Dallas the day before against a Roughnecks team that, after this past weekend, is very thirsty for revenge. Consequently, it’s possible that 6-6 Austin could be facing a fatigued Cannons squad that may be 7-5.

These pathways are obviously extremes. The reality is that despite undesirable starts to the season, the playoffs are still within reach for both Atlanta and Austin. In order to have a chance at getting there, however, it’s likely one of these teams, which appear to be pretty even, will have to dominate the other. They meet three times, and if either squad only wins two out of three, that may seriously dampen the already long shot odds for both.

Highlights from the last Atlanta and Austin matchup, which went to overtime.