April 25, 2023
By Evan Lepler
When the Seattle Cascades and Salt Lake Shred take the field on Friday night to officially launch the 2023 AUDL season, the opening pull might catch viewers off guard. Amidst all the enticing chatter about pivotal players and marquee matchups, it’s easy to forget that the league has also decided to drastically change how every single point will begin.
If you like Callahans, buckle up.
Pulls will no longer be released from the end zone. Instead, each point will start with the defense unleashing the disc from the brick mark. It’s just a 20-yard difference, but coaches around the league have been busy contemplating the ramifications, which many feel are significant.
“Anybody who’s not thinking about [this rule change] is gonna lose,” said Chicago Union Head Coach Dave Woods. “The pulling thing, especially, is such a game-changer.”
In the past, pulls needed to soar 80 yards to reach the front of the opposing end zone, 100 to sail out-the-back. Typically, they would land or be caught somewhere near the goal line and immediately get centered with a short-gaining first pass. Only the greatest distance throwers across the league, a small handful of players, could seriously endanger the other team by floating a pull toward the back corner of the end zone or forcing the team to begin from the back line.
But now, considering that most if not all pullers can sling it into Callahan country, along with the fact that the defense has 20 fewer yards to cover in their sprinting surge downfield, the initial throws of a possession could be way more intense than years past.
“We’ve been practicing with it all spring,” said Madison Radicals Head Coach Tim DeByl. “It definitely creates a lot more tension on the first passes. The pull is much more interesting to watch.”
The most intriguing dynamic pertains to the added number of instances where the offense could be trapped deep in its own end zone or even be forced to start the point from the back-line. Remember, unlike in USA Ultimate club play, the AUDL has always prevented offenses from gaining free yards on pulls that land in bounds and roll out the back. The length of the field prevented fans from seeing this too often in past seasons, but it should be way more prevalent in 2023.
“I think it’s gonna introduce just a different layer of strategy and complexity, and it may have unanticipated effects on what pulls look like in this league,” said Toronto Rush Head Coach Adrian Yearwood. “I think it’s gonna make pulls in the AUDL look very different from any other ultimate league. That may be a good thing; that may be a bad thing. The thing that I find really interesting is this league is very heavily skewed toward the offense, and this change really brings that power balance, if not in favor of the defense, it shifts the balance; it makes it much more even.”
Yearwood and others are not necessarily anticipating a bevy of majestic floaters that hover endlessly before landing in the corner of the end zone. Quite the contrary, coaches around the AUDL generally believe that teams will attempt to utilize viciously angled blading pulls that are notoriously tough to catch and often bounce or roll beyond the initial landing spot.
“Pull catchers are gonna be extremely valuable,” added Yearwood. “People who can catch the disc at an angle.”
Of course, if a pull is dropped, it’s a turnover. But some teams may decide it’s worth the risk rather than having a blade bounce to the back line and then not having any option of a backwards reset. Other teams will keep more players in the end zone to prevent any ricochet from reaching the end line.
“We’ve been practicing with two pull-catchers,” said DeByl.
One of the primary motivations behind this new rule is to limit the proliferation of sideline roller pulls, which became more and more popular in recent seasons. Along with moving the new pull’s release point from the end zone to the brick mark, another corresponding rule change states that any pull rolling out of bounds shy of midfield will be centered. Teams can still pull the disc short and force a team to start near the sideline if the pull both lands and stays in bounds, but it seems more likely that defenses will choose to try to trap an offense in the caverns of their end zone as opposed to simply double-teaming near the sideline.
“You can run some really fun pull play sets defensively to generate some short-field Ds,” said Salt Lake Head Coach Bryce Merrill.
Furthermore, aside from the tactical creativity that coaches are brainstorming, many of the league’s best pullers have been tinkering with their own technique in various ways to increase the value of that weapon. Pittsburgh’s Sam VanDusen has a cannon for a left arm, and he’s launched more pulls than anyone in the AUDL since he entered the league in 2016. With the new rule, he’s been slightly concerned with his long-range missiles soaring too far.
“[VanDusen] was still trying to calibrate that shorter pull with the hang time,” said Pittsburgh Thunderbirds Head Coach Max Barowski. “For us, it’s definitely something that we’re still experimenting with. Our offensive initiation plays, some types of plays don’t work as well as they used to. We’re really gonna be focusing on changing things up. This is a loose analogy, but having an off-speed pitch, having a slider or something like that with our pulls will throw some kinks into the offensive system.”
In the past, aside from recent sideline roller revolution, the actual act of the pull contained minimal strategy. Now, it’s arguably the most fascinating secret storyline in the league as the new season begins.
The Full Field Layout
When the ultimate world last saw Grant Lindsley, he was lying motionless on the field after a terrifying collision. Sprinting down on a pull to cover an opposing handler, he crashed into a turning cutter at full speed, suffering a serious concussion along with internal brain bleeding that had him hospitalized for multiple days and recovering for several months.
On Friday night, exactly six months and six days after the traumatic nationally televised sequence at Club Nationals, Lindsley will retake the field in an official game as a new member of the Salt Lake Shred.
It’s just one tremendous subplot of an action-packed opening weekend. In that same Friday night contest, we’ll also see Lindsley’s World Games Team USA teammate Khalif El-Salaam with his first game back as a member of the Seattle Cascades since 2019; El-Salaam played for San Diego in 2021 and appeared in just three games for Atlanta last year.
The Cascades know they’ll be taking the field as underdogs against the Shred, but they also believe that Week 1 is traditionally filled with shocking results.
“The first games of the season are pretty random,” said Seattle GM Xtehn Titcomb. “Not random, but it’s really hard to tell. Everyone’s got first game nerves and unknowns.”
Amidst the seven-game weekend slate that features 13 of the league’s 24 franchise taking the field, Seattle’s the only team in the league with multiple Week 1 opportunities. The Cascades commence their campaign with a challenging road trip through Salt Lake and Oakland, hopeful of earning their first victories away from home since June 15, 2019. Indeed, Seattle’s dropped 14 straight outside of the 206.
“It’s a bummer to start the season 0-2 if that’s what it’s gonna be,” said Titcomb, “but we could also just beat these two teams on the road and come back to Seattle feeling awesome.”
Certainly, every team league-wide is feeling optimistic on the doorstep of their dozen-game journey. It’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly will transpire, particularly in the West Division.
“The West is a crazy division, and I can see teams making the playoffs with six wins or not making it with seven, depending on the year,” said Oakland Spiders Head Coach Dan Silverstein.
The Spiders have averaged fewer than four wins per year over their past three seasons, but an extensive preseason practice schedule has the Bay Area squad believing they can be in the mix to potentially earn their first playoff spot since 2017.
One key addition to the Oakland offense is the former collegiate national champion Mac Hecht, who helped lead Brown University to the 2019 title. Hecht appeared in one game for the Detroit Mechanix last year, but the Spiders are expecting him to be a much more committed, contributing member of the team in Oakland.
“If you look at the Spiders’ roster, there are very few that have won a championship in any level of ultimate,” said Silverstein. “What Mac brings is championship experience and the ability to say, ‘This is what championship teams do.’ I think that’s something that’ll be very important to our team.”
Opening weekend also includes a pair of interdivisional showdowns: DC at Carolina and Indianapolis at Atlanta. Beyond just these two matchups, the 2023 schedule features more quirks than ever before, and the unbalanced schedules could be a major factor in the pursuit of playoff position and home-field advantage.
Look at the East Division, for instance.
The Philadelphia Phoenix and Toronto Rush both have postseason aspirations. Philadelphia has two games against New York, two more against DC, and another interdivisional contest versus Carolina. Meanwhile, Toronto has the standard home-and-home against DC, but just one game against New York, and the Rush have interdivisional affairs against Pittsburgh and Detroit, a Central Division duo that has five combined wins between them over the past two seasons.
Even if the Rush go 0-2 on their initial two-game Week 2 trip through New York and DC, don’t bury Toronto’s chances just yet. As if Philly, who started 0-3 before making the playoffs last year, needed that reminder.
Similarly in the South, Carolina and Atlanta both have treacherous schedules, with the Flyers taking on DC twice and Philly once, while the Hustle gets interdivisional battles with Indy, Boston, and New York. Not to mention the Flyers and Hustle will tangle with each other four times in the regular season alone.
Then there’s Austin, who will travel outside of Texas in Week 3 and then never again during the regular season. The Sol hit both southeast powers—Atlanta on May 12, Carolina on May 13—in a mid-May back-to-back, but have four games apiece against Dallas and Houston, respectively, along with a home game against San Diego.
Unlike last year when only two South Division squads qualified for the playoffs, there will be three postseason participants in the South in 2023, but barring Carolina or Atlanta turning into a buzz-saw against their exceptionally daunting schedules, the Sol certainly appear to have an advantage in the regular season race.
For the record, it’s not like the Flyers or Hustle are complaining.
“The dudes wanted it this way,” said Carolina Head Coach Mike DeNardis, who’s led his team to a 52-12 record in the past five regular seasons, along with the 2021 championship. “One of their biggest complaints the last few years was they didn’t play hard enough competition [throughout the season]. So I was like, alright, you asked for this, so here you go [...] This year, there’s not a ton of gimmes.”
For reference—both yours and mine—here’s a full list of the 15 interdivisional games that are on the schedule for the upcoming season:
- DC at Carolina - April 29 - Week 1
- Indianapolis at Atlanta - April 29 - Week 1
- San Diego at Houston - May 19 - Week 4
- San Diego at Austin - May 20 - Week 4
- Philadelphia at Pittsburgh - May 27 - Week 5
- Carolina at DC - June 2 - Week 6
- Carolina at Philadelphia - June 3 - Week 6
- Atlanta at Boston - June 9 - Week 7
- Atlanta at New York - June 10 - Week 7
- Pittsburgh at Toronto - June 17 - Week 8
- Portland at Chicago - June 17 - Week 8
- Minnesota at Colorado - June 24 - Week 9
- New York at Colorado - July 14 - Week 12
- Toronto at Detroit - July 15 - Week 12
- New York at Salt Lake - July 15 - Week 12
That’s three-quarters of the league—18 of the 24 teams—with at least one interdivisional game. We’ll see at least one such matchup in eight of the 13 regular-season weeks.