May 3, 2022
By Evan Lepler
With 11 games over three days, there was a lot to like about Week 1.
Expansion teams flourished, new stars emerged, and fascinating storylines from coast-to-coast virtually write themselves. Furthermore, the highlights were plentiful, and the Callahan count was preposterous.
It sure was great to have the AUDL back, with all its spirit, suspense, and scintillating layouts. The road to Championship Weekend will be a riveting journey, even if it ends with the same two teams as last season—Carolina and New York—meeting for this year’s title on Saturday, August 27.
Amidst the excitement surrounding Salt Lake, the offensive explosion in Portland, and the important early-season results for Austin, Boston, and Montreal, nothing I saw this past weekend changed my perspective that Carolina and New York are the two teams that everyone else is chasing.
On Friday night in Durham, the Flyers defense mounted a staggering display of consistent pressure against Atlanta. One night later in DC, the Empire offense perfectly mixed patience and playmaking to a dazzlingly high level against a very solid Breeze D-line. Privileged to see both these units in person, my mind kept returning to the similar thought that Carolina and New York are on a collision course to meet again with the AUDL’s towering trophy on the line in August.
Certainly, the Flyers and Empire are balanced teams, with dynamic athletes on both sides of the disc, but their respective strengths were particularly accentuated in Week 1. Carolina only registered eight blocks, but the steady and relentless pressure forced one difficult high-stall reset after another. The Flyers held the Hustle to just 14 goals in their 16-14 victory, in which Atlanta completed 72 more throws then Carolina, an illustration that all the passes did not necessarily lead to offense against the North Carolina defense.
“Their reset defense is killer, they switch a ton, they poach, and they do it really well,” said Atlanta’s JP Burns. “So it’s really tough across the whole game.”
Austin “Draco” Taylor and Christian Olsen performed admirably to maintain possession for the Hustle offense, however their 122 combined completions resulted in less than five yards per throw, and they each finished with negative receiving yards, meaning the Flyers defense more often than not forced them to go backwards to regain the disc.
“It was a classic Flyers-Atlanta game,” said Carolina handler Sol Yanuck. “Watching Christian and Draco cut us to pieces with a thousand little throws, and in the end, we ramped it up and ramped it up and ramped it up, and eventually we got the two blocks we needed to win the game. Big shout-out to our new guy, Charlie McCutcheon. We’re over the moon to have him and he’s an instant impact guy for us right away.”
McCutcheon, making his Flyers debut, recorded his second block and second goal of the game with just over three minutes remaining, giving Carolina a late lead that would not be relinquished. Offensively, Yanuck led the Flyers with 449 passing yards and three assists, while Anders Juengst scored five goals, including a thrilling layout Callahan that showcased how even the O-liners can defend with jaw-dropping excellence.
Meanwhile, the New York Empire completed over 100 passes before their first turnover of the season and generally looked unstoppable against DC, finishing the contest with a 97.4 percent completion rate that topped the league in Week 1. Ben Jagt, Ryan Osgar, John Lithio, and Charles Weinberg all accumulated over 200 receiving yards apiece, effortlessly gaining significant underneath chunks and keeping the disc moving.
“Our decision-making was better than it was literally all last year,” said Osgar, who threw seven assists and led all competitors in the game with 542 total yards.
With the precision that New York showcased, one would reasonably assume that the Empire were just picking up exactly where they left off from a year ago, however they were also integrating a largely new offensive system.
Why would they reinvent the wheel when they were just a few points away from winning a championship last season?
“Because playing strict vert is incredibly exploitable,” said Osgar. “That’s how [the Flyers] beat us. They had a plan and made our offense ineffective. Our ‘system’ was one-on-one matchups and just be more talented. Good teams play team defense and can stop individuals. Our new system allows us to better abuse poaches, give bigger iso lanes, and switch the field more dramatically.”
Osgar also noted how most of New York’s turns came when they made decisions that went against the principles of their new system, which only affirmed their collective mission to pursue offensive excellence. Against an opponent like the Breeze, whom they defeated 22-19 on Saturday night, that precision was required.
“They are a really good team, and we had to play a clean game to win it,” said Osgar.
We still have nearly four months before Carolina and New York could potentially collide, and the Flyers and Empire should have several challenging matchups between now and August. Specifically, Atlanta and DC both have the personnel and coaching braintrusts to, at the very least, throw some speed-bumps on that road to Madison, while other contenders like the Sol and Glory will also get to take their best shots at last year’s finalists.
But the level we saw from the Flyers and Empire on opening weekend matched the sky-scraping ceiling that we anticipated from both powerhouse programs. And the bad news for their upcoming opponents is that both teams still feel that they can get significantly better.
The Full Field Layout
A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Shred were really struggling to reset the disc at one particular practice.
“It was getting a little bit weird,” said Head Coach Bryce Merrill.
Obviously, the Shred worked out the kinks before this past Friday night, when they stormed into San Diego and shocked the two-time defending West Division champion Growlers with a magical 24-22 victory. One day later, riding the high from their historic first win, Salt Lake avoided a possible letdown by scoring five of the first six goals in Los Angeles and never once trailed en route to a 25-22 triumph over the Aviators.
Yes, the franchise’s first weekend ever went about as well as anyone could have reasonably expected, but the Shred did not stun themselves with their achievements. They fully believed they could match up and compete immediately as an expansion team.
“We wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t think we had the talent to compete with any team on any point,” said Merrill. “It was neat to have the outcomes this weekend, but we’re right where we want to be with a strong start, understanding there are a lot of games left.
“We cannot wait to get in front of the home crowd [in Salt Lake City].”
The Shred will have the first of their six Friday night home dates on May 13 against Seattle, and this past weekend put the rest of the West on notice that Salt Lake might not be number three on the expansion hierarchy in the way that many assumed them to be. The Portland Nitro and Colorado Summit may have more previously known assets on their rosters, but Salt Lake certainly did not hesitate to take and make big plays against their opening weekend opponents.
“I hate to say it, but they came out hungrier than we were and it got them a W,” said Growlers veteran Travis Dunn. “Defensively, even when we adjusted our game plan mid-game, we never really put enough pressure on them. And to their credit, they were very patient and methodical with the disc. I was impressed with their overall play. They were also a very athletic group. It felt like every one of them moved very well, so it was hard to get a step on them.”
How patient were they exactly?
Well, the Shred completed 618 passes in their two games. The league’s other two teams that had doubleheaders this past weekend, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, completed 473 and 354, respectively.
Salt Lake’s offense sizzled both short and deep, with Jordan Kerr anchoring the efficient effort as an unstoppable initiator. In two games, Kerr totaled 16 assists and four goals, with 642 throwing yards and 419 receiving yards. By any measure, the 24-year-old vaulted himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation with his brilliant Week 1 performance.
“We designed the offense around Jordan,” said Merrill. “He’s a unique and a unique style of player that’s worth building around, and that’s not to take away from the other six guys, but we built it to emphasize and use his strengths that are difficult for defenses to contain. We are cutter-driven, and our goal is to get the the disc in the middle of the field and let guys like Jordan make plays.”
Former DC cutter Joe Merrill—no relation to Bryce—and 18-year-old phenom Will Selfridge were Kerr’s most frequent deep targets, as the two downfield dynamos combined for 19 goals in the two games. Luke Yorgason, Jacob Miller, and Sean Connole also distributed the disc masterfully, with Yorgason throwing for nearly 900 yards on the weekend.
But as good and fun and smooth as the Salt Lake offense was, the Shred still fashion themselves as a team led by its defense, and 11 different dudes registered blocks on the weekend, led by Chad Yorgason’s five, four of which came on Friday against the Growlers. Joel Clutton and Porter Oyler each contributed their own insane highlight-reel block on Saturday against the Aviators.
Against LA, when they recognized that their legs were understandably fading a bit on the second day of the back-to-back, the Shred offense orchestrated a 48-throw point that lasted nearly four minutes to help put the game away, a magnificent showcase of their ability to manage the moment, especially as an expansion team with minimal AUDL experience.
“Obviously, we struggled with legs in the second half of the back-to-back, but I was proud of the guys for digging in and slowing the pace at a couple of opportune times to stay fresh and stay physical and stay ahead of the play,” said Merrill. “And we were able to string together enough plays over the two hours to stay ahead and finish it off.”
Since 2015, when San Diego and Los Angeles joined the AUDL, a road team had swept a SoCal doubleheader five different times. All five of those teams who accomplished that advanced to the playoffs, with three making it all the way to the AUDL championship game, and two—the 2015 Spiders and 2017 FlameThrowers—taking the title.
The Shred became the sixth team sweep a SoCal road weekend, suggesting a very promising future is ahead. They know they have a long way to go, but it is hard to fathom a more fantastic start to their tenure in the league.
“This really affirms for us what we’re doing and what we’re trying to build here,” said Merrill.
Of course, the Shred were not the only expansion team to light up the scoreboard against their opening weekend opponent.
The Portland Nitro racked up 29 goals on Seattle on Sunday at Providence Park, scoring 17 in the second half to break open what had been a tight game through the first couple quarters. Daniel Lee and Leandro Marx both finished +10 as the Nitro cruised to a 29-24 victory in their inaugural AUDL game.
“Our offense is definitely one of the most talented lines top to bottom I’ve every played on,” said Marx, who played collegiately at the University of Oregon and also on the 2019 U-24 USA National Team. “We have depth in every position, and I am really excited to see what we can do as a unit.”
Several Seattle Cascades accumulated eye-popping statistics as well, with 18-year-old Declan Miller accumulating 859 yards while veteran handler Adam Simon threw for 608 and finished with a total of 851, but the Cascades D-line only converted two of its eight break opportunities for the game, diminishing an otherwise encouraging performance. Plus, Seattle struggled to slow down Portland’s big-play attack; one of every 6.6 Nitro completions was a goal, which far and away made them the quickest-scoring offense in the league this past weekend.
“We’ve tinkered and experimented with a lot of different sets and have gotten a lot more reps since that [exhibition game against Oakland,] and I think it showed on Sunday,” said Marx. “The atmosphere at Providence Park is amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my ultimate career. The fans are so excited and it’s so encouraging to see such big turnouts so early. It’s truly a privilege to get to display the sport in such a profound environment to so many people who have never watch competitive ultimate in person before.”
Portland will look to start the season 2-0 at home when they host Colorado this Sunday, one day after the Summit open their inaugural season under the Space Needle at Memorial Stadium in Seattle.
Seven On The Line
- If a tree falls in the forest and no one can hear it, does it make a sound? Similarly, if the Detroit Mechanix announce a bunch of marquee free agent signings, but none of them play, can they really break the streak? On Saturday night in Grand Rapids, there was no sign of Johnny Bansfield, Mac Hecht, Nathan Champoux, Jake Steslicki or Mark Whitton, and the Mechanix were just good enough to be moderately competitive and fall by four for their 51st consecutive loss, a streak dating back to April 2017. Pittsburgh snapped their own seven-game losing streak by prevailing 17-13 in a game that was suspended and called early due to extreme weather. Max Sheppard accumulated four goals, two assists, two blocks, and 384 yards of offense, but the story of the 53-turnover game overall had to be Detroit’s inability, once again, to get over the hump in a home opportunity against a opponent that was shorthanded and beatable. “Guys came hungry and that’s all we can ask for,” said Mechanix handler Joe Cubitt. “Every game we are getting better, but for a lot of [our players] it was their first AUDL game, and the pace definitely took them by surprise.”
- The weather was not much better for Pittsburgh on Sunday in Chicago, when they were greeted by ‘typical Chicago spring conditions,’ as Union Captain Ross Barker described them. “Windy and cold,” he said. “It was 50 degrees, but the wind was considerable and that made it feel colder than that.” Despite those meteorological realities that made for some sloppy ultimate, the Union offense still went unbroken over the 48 minute game, as Chicago rolled 19-8. They were the only team that was not broken at least once across the league this past weekend. “Maybe that’ll silence the haters,” said Barker. “I think it’s safe to say it’s a guaranteed win if you never get broken.” While a team can win with fewer breaks if they win every end-of-quarter situation, Barker’s point is well taken. Meanwhile, the Union D-line converted 11 breaks on their 29 branch chances amidst the swirling wind. Among Chicago’s dozen guys that played primarily D-line, 11 of those 12 dudes had either a goal or an assist or both. With a road date at Minnesota on tap this Saturday in the Fox Sports "AUDL Game of the Week", the Union are expecting a much tougher test in Week 2 against the Wind Chill.
- In one of the most exciting Week 1 games, Boston edged Philadelphia 25-24 on Saturday night in Medford, MA, utilizing efficient offense and timely defense to begin the season 1-0. “After a long winter without competition, I was worried that it would be hard to catch up to where we left off,” said Boston handler Cole Davis-Brand.
“Happy to say that it felt like as a team we were right back at it.” Davis-Brand completed all 44 of his throws for 423 yards, while adding 343 receiving yards and six assists to lead the Boston O-line. It’s not like Ben Sadok was quiet in the backfield either, as the chatty lefty dished for 395 yards and and completed all 51 of his throws too. Tannor Johnson scored five times with three assists, while Orion Cable chipped in with four goals and four assists. “Their O-line made some clutch plays late in the game,” said Philadelphia’s Jordan Rhyne, who went 70-for-70 and produced 836 total yards of offense despite the result. “Cable and Johnson are big, fast, smart players and are tough to stop. Those two were release valves they could rely on when their O got stuck.” The Phoenix scored with 33 seconds left to inch within one, but unlike a season ago when Boston struggled to put the Philly away when they met in Massachusetts, the Glory used seven completions to run out the remaining clock. “Huge relief to come out with the win,” said Davis-Brand. “Leadership gave the energy of ‘happy, but not satisfied.’ A handful of adjustments that we hope to make this weekend in Canada for a doubleheader should better prepare us for arguably the best offense in the league for Week 3 at home vs. New York.” The Philly folks were understandably disappointed, but also encouraged by their opening performance, particularly while missing key guys like Alex Thorne and Greg Martin. “This team is feisty and not afraid of other teams and wants to win,” said Rhyne, who’s back in the AUDL after last playing eight years ago with the now-defunct Cincinnati Revolution. “Our O-line looked unstoppable for big portions of the game, which I think is rare this early in the season. We had young kids and AUDL rookies like Adam Grossberg and Gavin Abrahamsson stepping onto the field, not being overwhelmed by the moment, and were making big plays all over the place.” The schedule-makers did Philly no favors with road trips to Boston and New York over the first two weeks of the season, and the Phoenix will head to face the Empire as sizable underdogs this weekend before returning home to host Montreal in Week 3.
- Speaking of Montreal, the Royal continued to own the Rush, winning their seventh straight against Toronto and matching their largest ever margin of victory against the Rush in their 26-19 triumph on Saturday night in Ontario. Previously, Toronto had beaten Montreal 14 times in 17 meetings, but the franchises’ respective fortunes have noticeably flipped since this new streak started in 2019.
Malik Auger-Semmar anchored the most recent effort, registering four goals, three assists, and three blocks for the Royal, who converted 10 breaks in 12 opportunities to start the season 1-0. Christophe Tremblay-Joncas, Charles Asselin, and Antoine Rousseau all tallied multiple blocks for Montreal, who will look to move to 2-0 when they host Boston on the Glory’s back end of their back-to-back doubleheader this weekend. Phil Turner continued to be a defensive gamer by producing three blocks for the Rush, but the D-line converted just two of their nine break chances, as a young Rush team that’s littered with AUDL rookies gained valuable experience. “I think the main story to the game was the amount of new faces to the team and to the league itself,” said Rush handler Ryan Poloz, who completed 50 of his 51 throws on the night. “Overall, a lot of positives to build off of. I’m excited to see our team continue to improve, gain more AUDL experience, and come away with some wins.
- The sheer magnitude of AUDL storylines each week can relegate very meaningful action into afterthought territory, but Austin’s 20-17 win in Dallas should be recognized as a potential landmark moment. Yes, the Sol beat Dallas a couple times last year, but by beating their Texas rival on the road again, while missing a plethora of key contributors who were unavailable due to College Regionals, it illustrated how Austin has passed the newly rebranded Legion.
With 10 of their first 11 games against teams that made the playoffs last year—and the only non-playoff contest being a trip to Breese Stevens Field in Madison—the Sol new there was an urgency to get off to a good start. “I see a higher floor for us than I had anticipated,” said Austin’s Kyle Henke, who scored four goals, dished two assists, and recorded 502 yards of offense in the Sol’s victory. “0-6 had felt like a very realistic start for us in my head, but my mindset has shifted, seeing us show up at Dallas and put one in the win column.” Along with Henke, Evan Swiatek, Mark Evans, Paul Starkel, and Reese Bowman each finished with multiple goals and assists for the Austin O-line, while Jake Radack paced the team with 415 throwing yards and four assists. Dallas was also shorthanded, missing key playmakers like Ben Lewis, Kaplan Maurer, and Carson Wilder, but the Legion still kept it close on the rare occasion in this rivalry where the wind was not more of a story. “The wind was calm, so lots of hammers and tough to generate turnovers,” said Dallas handler Brandon Malecek. “We had a couple hucks into coverage in the second and third quarters that was most of the separation in the score…Kyle Henke muscled out a couple cross-field deep goals down the stretch from Swiatek and Radack that really stymied our late game push.” The Sol and Legion, both off this coming weekend, meet again in Austin on Friday, May 13.
- No team recorded as many breaks in a single game as the Atlanta Hustle, who went 14-for-17 in break chances in their Saturday rout over Tampa Bay.
Despite coming off the hard-fought loss to Carolina on Friday night and falling behind 6-5 in the opening quarter against the Cannons, the Hustle closed their opening weekend on a 19-6 run, winning 24-12 in their home opener. “I think some of it was conditioning,” said Atlanta’s Matt Smith, who followed up his number one ranked SportsCenter Top 10 snag on Friday with three more goals on Saturday. “We had some fresh subs and our team seemed to pick up more energy as the game went on, and it felt like they got gassed. I also think the zones got more aggressive and they didn’t adjust well [...] Credit to Tampa for fighting hard and coming out sharp. I think they are a better team than the score reflects.” The Hustle only turned the disc over seven times in the game, the fewest for any team in any game this past weekend.
- Last year, in 130 AUDL games, there were nine Callahans. On opening weekend in 2022, over the course of 11 games, there were four! It started with Anders Juenst’s crazy soaring snag on Friday, and then DC’s Christian Boxley, Toronto’s James Lewis, and LA’s KJ Koo all had their own Callahans on Saturday. This feels more fluky than meaningful, but it’s certainly something to watch going forward. The most Callahans ever recorded in a single season came in 2018, when there were 22, with 22 different players recording one apiece. In AUDL history, seven players have multiple Callahans. Mike Drost, Jay Froude, Ryan Gorman, Jonathan Mast, Kyle Stapleton, Scott Trimble, and Mick Walter all have two.