May 26, 2023
By Shaggy Shragis
The Philadelphia Phoenix (0-4) travel west this Saturday to take on the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds (2-1) in a must-win battle for the Commonwealth Cup. This will be the fourth all-time meeting between the two franchises, and the Phoenix hold a 2-1 advantage over the Thunderbirds. For the Thunderbirds, it is a chance to hold on to the Commonwealth Cup and stay on top of Indy in the Central Division playoff picture. For the Hotbirds, it's a shot at the much needed first win of the season.
Philadelphia will be without Greg Martin and Alex Thorne for the match, two large gaps in the O-line that will be difficult to fill. We should see the return of CJ Colicchio to the lineup, who was sidelined with a hand injury after a solid game one performance. CJ spent the previous two years with Pittsburgh where he put together back to back 50+ score seasons. His return to the city is tantalizing, and he is a big cutter to fill Greg Martin’s role.
Alex Thorne will be trickier to replace. Despite having the worst statistical season of his career, Thorne has been the most consistent part of the Hotbird backfield. We could see Anthony Prato reenter the lineup, as he did in Boston. Prato is a solid handler, albeit without the throwing creativity of Thorne. We could also see the Phoenix shift to a more cutter centric offense, pulling a Brandon Pastor or Justin Keller over from the D line or (heaven help deep defenders) move Nate Little to the O-Line and only throw hucks.
If Philadelphia wins, it will be because the defense imposes their will on the game. If you remove the Detroit game—Central Division stats should always be calculated without the Detroit Mechanix —Pittsburgh is averaging just 14.5 points an outing. The most potent weapon for the Thunderbirds is former MVP candidate and perennial All-Star Max Sheppard. A lightning quick first step and a dynamic thrower, Sheppard is putting together another All-AUDL season. The Phoenix will likely lean on Eric Witmer as the primary defender for Sheppard, a matchup Witmer has done well with in the past. Outside of Sheppard, Pittsburgh has talent, but they are failing to put it together, converting less than half of all opportunities. Much like the early season Phoenix, these are self-inflicted problems: of Pittsburgh's 19 turnovers per game, only 8 are from opponent blocks.
The Hotbird defense is more than equipped to force and take advantage of said turns. Despite coming back down to earth against the Empire, Philadelphia still boasts a top 10 break percentage, scoring on two out of every five times out on defense. A big part of this has been an emphasis on valuing possessions. Of the 7 Hotbirds with the most playing time on defense, two players—Max Trifillis and Marc Sands—have yet to throw a turnover. In fact all of the starting seven on the defense are completing more than 90% of their throws. Add in Brandon Pastor, who shifted over to the defense last weekend and has thrown zero (0) turnovers in 2023, and you are left with a unit that simply does not give the disc back. This is tough news for Pittsburgh, who struggled down the stretch against Minnesota to regain possession on a turn.
On the opposite side of the disc, it will be interesting to see if Philly can stoke the deep game they ignited against New York. After going a perfect 12-12 on hucks against the Empire, the Phoenix are now second in the league with a 75% completion rate on deep throws (Detroit is a perfect six for six which barely counts). Pittsburgh did a good job against Madison’s deep game, but struggled to contain Minnesota on long range strikes. Even with Greg Martin out for the game, James Pollard, CJ Colicchio, and Sean Mott are the kind of deep threats that give an opposing defense fits.
If the Hotbirds hadn’t laid the stinkiest of stinkers against Boston for game three, I would be much more confident in their ability to pull out the win. That said, Philly appears to be the better of the two Pennsylvanian teams, and they desperately need the win. A loss for Pittsburgh leaves them a pretty clear path towards the playoffs, whereas a Philadelphia defeat would essentially slam the door on their playoff chances. Philly needs this win. Hotbirds by 4 on Saturday, we bring the Commonwealth Cup back where it belongs, and then we all enjoy the beach for the holiday weekend.
You can watch the game on AUDL.tv. There will also be pre and post-game game coverage on our Instagram page. After Pitt, the Hotbirds return home to take on the 2021 champs, the Carolina Flyers. You can purchase tickets to that game here.