May 17, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
1. Defending Toronto's Pull Plays
Anyone who’s watched the Toronto Rush game knows that their pull plays are simple and practically unstoppable. Head Coach Sachin Raina jokes that when he was a player, his only job was to center the pull to Thomson McKnight. The rest of the point consisted of McKnight throwing to Cam Harris cutting under, then Harris hucking to Andrew Carroll deep. It was a foregone conclusion, and Raina wasn’t required to do anything else. Toronto’s stellar set plays have continued into 2018, as the Rush are one of only four teams averaging fewer than 10 passes per goal.
DC Breeze Head Coach Darryl Stanley will have a chance to scheme his defense around those pull plays in Toronto this Saturday. According to Stanley, the difficulty in defending Toronto’s pull plays derives from Toronto’s smart and switchable players.
“I think a lot of teams aren't super successful at defending it because Andrew Carroll has improved his throwing ability tremendously over the last several years,” said Stanley. “Cam Harris is a good thrower, and he's also extremely fast and can go deep. They're at a point now where they can just reverse that connection just as easily. If you start to overplay one half of that, you start to think, ok, we're going to really load up on Cam, Andrew is a smart enough player that he'll come back underneath for all those free yards. They're still doing just fine - they gained 30 yards off of that one play.”
The Breeze will look to slow Toronto by attempting to force the disc out of the hands of Toronto’s stars.
“Andrew Carroll and Mark Lloyd are probably their get-out-of-jail solutions,” continued Stanley. “Whenever they're in trouble, they look there. I think [our gameplan will] be trying to restrict that. See if we can't find ways to make every single player on their team contribute their fair share, as opposed to Mark Lloyd doing all the heavy lifting, or Andrew Carroll beating us to the endzone so many times in the game.”
Though they’ll lack Lloyd against the Breeze, Toronto will be happy to rely on their depth. They bet that no team in the league has the skill beyond the top seven to hang with them. The Breeze are well-coached and will provide a good test. If they manage to force Toronto out of their gameplan, how will Toronto’s offensive flow hold up if they can’t score in the first fifteen seconds? If McKnight is squeezed out of the backfield, or Burelle made a thrower, will Toronto’s offence continue to look smooth?
2. Breeze Road Trip
After a Saturday game in Toronto, DC will pile back onto the bus for a trip to face a Montreal Royal team with their backs against the proverbial wall. They are entering the meat of their schedule, which began two weeks ago in New York (a loss) and then continued at home against the Raleigh Flyers (a win). DC will now play at Toronto, at Montreal, at home against the New York Empire, at the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, at home against Toronto, and then finally at Toronto. That schedule is a meat grinder.
Rowan McDonnell is preaching calm, noting that “team chemistry [is more important than] wins right now.”
Regardless, poor play during this stretch could doom the Breeze’s playoff chances early. Stanley is considering focusing the team’s efforts – by playing his stars heavy minutes in only one game – against only one of Toronto or Montreal to boost the odds that the team leaves the road trip with one win.
Montreal is not an easy place to play. They have one of the two most dedicated and passionate fan bases in the league, and the city is truly a hostile environment for opponents. When a visiting offence is broken, it requires veteran focus to ensure that a loud and boisterous crowd doesn’t boost the home team to several breaks in a row.
Furthermore, Montreal will likely see the return of star Quentin Bonnaud, though he may be limited both in activity and minutes. Bonnaud has been sitting with a dislocated thumb, but he’ll likely be healthy and playing against DC. Stanley believes that Montreal’s chances ebb and flow with Bonnaud.
“I think whether [Montreal] wins or loses is almost solely dependent on whether Quentin Bonnaud plays. I think he's absolutely one of the best players in the division,” Stanley said. He went further, explaining that, “when they lost to Philadelphia, Quentin got injured on the first point. He did not play against Ottawa when they barely scraped by. He didn't play when they lost to Philadelphia the second time. And he didn't play against the Rush. The streak of losing is almost directly tied to that he has not been playing.”
Furthermore, every game that Montreal plays gives another opportunity for newcomer Morgan Hibbert to find his groove. Though he hasn’t yet fit fluidly into Montreal’s vertical stack offence – coming from the horizontal system of the west coast – a star of his caliber cannot be held down for long. I’m expecting him to break out and dominate any game now, which would add yet more challenges to DC on its road trip.
Like McDonnell, Stanley is similarly focused on process over results at this point in the season.
“I'm not really extra-concerned about two losses [if they happen on this road trip]. It's not the end of the world,” Stanley said. “I think getting one win or two wins is a success. I don't think we can fail, as far as the season goes, today.”
3. Can Anyone In The Midwest Stop Madison?
After adding Kurt Gibson, Nate Goff, and Ross Barker during the offseason, the Chicago Wildfire have to be relatively disappointed with their 2-2 start. Though they have had injuries that have held out a number of their top players, they have yet to make a decisive statement so far in 2018. Pawel Janas continues to be amazing, already with 25 assists in only four games played. Chicago Head Coach Adrian King thinks he’s been even better than he was last year.
“His decision-making ability has improved quite a bit, even over last year. I'm excited to see him against that [Madison] zone.”
The Madison zone will indeed be a test for Chicago, but the Wildfire won’t be without help for Janas. Gibson is close to a return from a hamstring injury and should play. He is reportedly jogging, and he says he’s going to try it. Goff has also had some hamstring issues, but King expects him to be healthy by Saturday. The only key player that likely won’t be playing will be veteran defender Michael Egan.
Regardless of who Chicago fields, the Madison Radicals have been a juggernaut so far this season, particularly considering they just beat another AUDL team 37-8.
“I definitely did the double take at the score. That was pretty unbelievable,” said King. “I'm really impressed they can score 37 points, which is unreal.”
Like any game against Madison, the key for Chicago will be patience. Are there two more talented handlers on a team than Gibson and Janas? They’ve only played twenty-one points together so far this season, so they’ll be learning on the fly against as opportunistic a defense as exists in the sport of ultimate. Talent will get you far, but chemistry and patience will be question marks whose answering will decide the fate of the game.
4. Battle At The Top Of The West
For the first time in league history, the Los Angeles Aviators and San Diego Growlers will do battle for the position of leader in the historically tough West division. The stars on show will be Travis Dunn, Sean Ham, Tim Beatty, Sean McDougall, and others.
These two teams have done battle before this season, and have been interstate rivals since the two teams' inceptions in 2015. In both teams’ first game of the year, Los Angeles spanked San Diego 30-17 way back in Week 2. However, neither coach believes that result to hold any weight. They both consider that game to be useless during their respective preparations for this week’s contest.
“One, they've been playing much better, and two, their lineup's gonna look different. And their younger guys have developed a lot more chemistry, it seems, than what they had at the start of the season. As far as I'm concerned, they're a completely different team than what we beat in the first week,” explained Aviators Head Coach Jamison Gorin.
“They had pretty much their full roster from what I could tell, and we were missing a lot of our guys,” agreed Growlers Head Coach Kevin Stuart. “That wasn't an excuse, but it certainly helps to have some of your big guns there. I think that first game allowed us to get a lot of our young guys in, and see what we had towards the lower part of our roster. To see what kind of depth we have. It always kind of sucks to lose by 13, but it sometimes happens, and I think we learned from that game.”
If that game means nothing, then what should we expect from the game?
Both teams will be without a large number of contributors. San Diego will miss several rotation players, including Josh Kohl, Trevor Purdy, and Jake Gutkowski. All are important players, but none are as important as the stars that were missing in San Diego’s loss to Los Angeles, such as Dunn who has been great so far in 2018.
Los Angeles will be missing even more talent. Tom Doi and Eli Friedman – both O-Line stars – will be absent, as well as D-Liners Zach Theodore and Brandon Severson. They and several others will be in Virginia for Beach Nationals – a downside of rostering so many talented players. Ronnie Eder will have another game’s worth of run on the D-Line for Los Angeles.
Despite missing key rotation pieces, both teams will run their usual systems. Los Angeles will use their offensive stability and switchability to score easy holds. Beatty will still be around throwing aces. McDougall will terrorize any defender that attempts to match him stride for stride down the field. They’ve been the third highest scoring team in the league, at 25.4 goals per game, and they’ll continue to score at a high rate while collecting blocks on the D-Line.
San Diego, on the other hand, attributes its success thus far to depth and conditioning.
“If you watched our record for the last three years before this one, we started out really slow, and I think part of that was because guys were maybe not taking that training regime seriously at the start of the season,” said Stuart. “Along with that, we weren't as deep, so we were having to run our top 7 guys out there for three quarters, and by the end, can't keep up… Now we're able to play deeper lines, and I think you're seeing that when you look down and see twelve or thirteen guys score at least one goal on our roster.”
So expect a high scoring game, coupled with few turnovers, and likely an increasingly fast pace as the game ages. The winner will be the leader of the West.