May 30, 2023
By Shaggy Shragis
The Philadelphia Phoenix picked up their first win of the season against interstate rival the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds, bringing the Commonwealth Cup back to the City of Brotherly Love. Despite the game getting closer than the Hotbirds would have liked, fire ultimately conquered thunder 20-19. This was the first time in Commonwealth Cup history that the away team was victorious, as each of the prior three meetings had gone to the home team. It was also another spectacular game for the Philly defense, and a shaky performance from an O-line that has yet to find their groove as a unit.
First the good stuff: hats off to another premier performance from the Hotbird D-line. With an astounding 62% conversion percentage, and a break on nearly 40% of all opportunities, the Philadelphia defensive unit smothered Pittsburgh for the full 48 minutes. They wreaked havoc on the Thunderbird starting O-line, which scored just 6 times on 17 chances, two of which were out of timeouts. This was an especially strong start to the game for the Philly D line as well, which held the Thunderbirds starting O-line to just two scores in the entire first half.
We should make a particular mention of Eric Witmer, whose primary responsibility was covering Max Sheppard. In the first half, Sheppard touched the disc just three times. The first Witmer fell down on, the second was on a break throw, and the third was on a fast break. Sheppard led all players in plus minus, a testament to his elite playmaking ability at all levels, but Witmer’s performance stifled the all-AUDL Pittsburgh star. Those three touches were the fewest in a first half for Max Sheppard in the last three seasons.
Pittsburgh's backup offensive unit, sent out when the starters kept getting broken, was perfect. They converted on all four chances, and did so without a single turnover. This could be a quirk from a small sample size or a testament to Pittsburgh’s depth. I choose to attribute it to impressive preparation from the Phoenix leadership and coaching staff. Against the expected looks and matchups, everyone on the Hotbird D-line was outstanding. When the Thunderbirds went off script, the defense fell down to earth.
While the defense had a spectacular game, the offense once again struggled to put away a lesser opponent. While the Defense started out hot, and the Offense began the game ice cold, with four unforced turnovers leading to an opening break for Pittsburgh. The Phoenix offense would not score until their sixth time with the disc, a dismal start for a game, though Philly would rebound to take a 16-10 lead at one point in the third quarter. While much can be made of the run that Pittsburgh put together to bring it to a one point game, the reality is they simply converted on chances the Phoenix were already giving them. The Thunderbirds went four for four on break chances from the end of the third and through the fourth quarter, while being just three for eight up to that point.
The final two possessions for the Phoenix at the end of the third quarter were a microcosm of the offense's struggles throughout the game, and really throughout the season. Philadelphia had a drop from CJ Colicchio in the end zone, and after regaining possession, Pollard on the goal line threw the disc out the back. Philadelphia failed to generate any downfield motion, and it resulted in a high stall throw that missed the mark. The Phoenix will need to be able to put together more consistent offensive series in order to have a chance in their upcoming contests versus Carolina and DC. Some of this should solve itself, as Alex Thorne and Greg Martin will return to the lineup, presumably allowing Philadelphia to maintain its rhythm.
Despite the struggles, there were bright spots for Philly’s O-line. Sean Mott had a spectacular game, touching the disc over 50 times and coming through in tough spots over and over again. James Pollard surpassed 400 yards for the third game this season, and Calvin Trisolini had his best performance as a Hotbird, with nearly 50 touches, a goal, an assist, and two crucial blocks. Max Charles’ took the spot as the ninth member of the offense, Greg Martin and Alex Thorne’s replacement, and had a pair of fun goals—one on a deflected huck and the other wide open in the end zone.
I would be remiss if this writeup did not include some second quarter tomfoolery by the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. The first occurred midway through the second quarter as Jordan Rhyne caught an uncontested goal before being plowed through by Pete Zaccardi. Rhyne popped up and chased after Zaccardi, but the hero of this “fight” (no punches and barely a shove was thrown) was Calvin Trisolini, who immediately cut off Zaccardi’s retreat, forcing him to confront an irate Jordan. Pollard tried to diffuse the situation, but Pittsburgh’s Alex Thomas picked that moment to start yelling at Sean Mott—Mott is without question the most likely person on the Phoenix to escalate a heated situation—and this turned disastrous for the Thunderbirds. The added layer of scuffling led to the eventual ejection of Pete Zaccardi for the flagrant foul on Jordan Rhyne. Had Trisolini not forced the confrontation, or had Thomas not instigated with Mott, Zaccardi would have escaped the situation with a technical, and Pittsburgh would have kept their player with the 4th most blocks on the team. AUDL referees are loathe to actually eject players, and without being forced to by the prolonged situation, there is no way they would have made such a consequential call.
The second bit of chicanery was a last second foul on Pollard. As time expired in the first half, Trisolini put a blade to James Pollard that was swatted away by Pittsburgh’s Mikey O’Brien, ending the quarter. In order to make the defensive stand however, O’Brien’s follow through sent him crashing into Pollard, knocking him to the ground. The AUDL rules are pretty clear here: even if the defender gets the disc first, if their follow through would cause them to collide with the opposition, it is a foul, particularly if the offense—in this case James—was standing still. After much discussion (and a commercial break), the foul was eventually called, and Pollard was given an untimed throw at the front of the end zone, which resulted in a goal to Mott. The announcers—and the Pittsburgh players and fans—were irate, largely because they did not understand the rules of the AUDL and said a lot of irrelevant things like, “the contact happened after Mikey got the D” (which doesn’t matter) or “the contact was incidental” (which isn’t true and also doesn’t matter).
This was a much needed win for the Hotbirds, and a chance to build momentum before hosting the 2021 champion Carolina Flyers next weekend. Once again, the defense carried Philadelphia, largely because of their stubborn unwillingness to turn the disc over on a break opportunity. Max Trifilis and Brandon Pastor have yet to throw a single turnover, and the unflappable Pastor looked especially dynamic for Philly on the counterattack. If the offense can pull themselves out of the basement—only Dallas is worse than the Hotbirds on offense—they have all the tools necessary to turn the season around. Even if they continue to struggle, the schedule will get much easier, with just two of the next seven games coming against 2022 playoff participants. Hopefully the Phoenix will take the lessons learned from this early part of the season and use this win to springboard themselves into a second half run! To help them get #firedup this Saturday, buy your tickets to the Carolina game now and be ready to cheer, as the Hotbirds take on the 2021 AUDL champion Carolina Flyers in a nationally televised game.