Photo by John King – Ultiphotos.com
No appetizers, nothing on tap, no last call. This weekend we’ll be relaxing and taking a look at the teams that we are saying good bye to. We’ll get plenty of coverage of the Portland Stags and the Philadelphia Spinners as we lead up to the MLU Championship. The teams set to face in the final tell the story of the season. Through them we can learn a lot at how the Eastern and Western champs got to where they are. From the blowout games to the nail bitters every game matters. All of these teams are looking to get better next season, but the question is how are they going to get there. Looking at what happened this season will help us understand where they need to go and what they need to do.
It’s a BBQ and I’m enjoying some cheap beer, so grab a can of your favorite swill and dig in.
Franks and Beans
New York Rumble
Over the last few seasons the Rumble have been the punching bag of the east. The only time they finished the season over 2-8 was in 2013 when they finished 3-7. That’s rough. The only team to come close to that kind of record is the Dogfish, who the Rumble beat this year. Coming away from this I don’t want you to conclude that the Rumble are just a bad team. They’re not. They just haven’t quite pulled everything together yet.
There are pieces of the Rumble that are really starting to shine. Marques Brownlee is a great example of this. This season he racked up 12 goals, 12 assists and 21 blocks. In 2014 and 2015 he had a combined 13 goals, 4 assists and 16 blocks. In one season he has more than doubled his numbers, tripled in the case of assists. Matt Weintraub is another guy that has really stepped up on the Rumble putting in 23 assists this season (2nd in MLU in a 4-way tie).
One of the things that has really hindered the Rumble over the past few seasons is player turnover. They have had a lot of trouble holding onto their top talent over the off season and it shows in team chemistry. While they did pick up a few guys like Sean Mott and Mason Compton, what the team really needs is consistency. This season we saw 293 turnovers from the Rumble, the third highest in the league, and the highest in the Eastern Conference by 45. The Rumble’s 87.2% completion percentage is the lowest in the league. The Rumble just needs to do a better job holding onto the disc. Ultimate is a game of errors and the Rumble aren’t doing a good enough job mitigating them.
We did see the Rumble improve dramatically in one area this season. In 2015, they had a league low 20.7% in defensive scoring efficiency (DSE). This means that off of a turnover we can only expect them to convert that into a goal one in five times. With how hard defenses have to work to get that turn, giving the disc back is pretty rough. This season the Rumble jumped up to a 29% DSE, jumping them two places in the overall DSE rankings. To combine with this the Rumble have also increased their defensive turnover efficiency (how often they get turnovers) from 46.7% to 53.4%. This means not only are the Rumble producing more turnovers, they are scoring more goals off of them. While the numbers still need work it is good to see the Rumble moving in the right direction.
In 2017 I’m looking for the Rumble to work on their offense. They were only trailed by the Nighthawks in offensive scoring efficiency and while defense is going to win you games, your offense will lose you games if they aren’t scoring. If the Rumble can mitigate its off season losses and bring in a little more talent I could definitely see them breaking their 2-8 streak, and even a 4-6 season. Might not seem like a lot but you’ve got to take it one step at a time.
While the Rumble suffered from player turnover in 2016, the Nighthawks were been devastated by it. None of the players from their 2014 season (which went to the MLU Championship) remain on the team and Erik Hunter is the only player from 2013 (he didn’t play 2013 or 2015). With ten veterans and twenty rookie players it wasn’t a huge surprise that the Nighthawks went 1-9 this season.
Their wasn’t a lot that went right for the Nighthawks this season. It was a rough start against the Dogfish, followed by a few blowouts. That did nothing for the team’s confidence. In their final game with the Rainmakers we saw a glimmer of hope when the Nighthawks started the game with 3 breaks, but with the Rainmakers coming back and winning 11-20 it looked more like early Rainmaker errors than the Nighthawks figuring things out. They did manage one win against the Dogfish at home, and then almost won on the road at the Dogfish, 18-19. This just a week after the Dogfish gave the Rainmakers and Stags a tough weekend. While head-to-head matchups don’t translate across games, it does say that the Nighthawks were playing a tighter game against a better Dogfish team.
One of the bright spots from the season for the Nighthawks was how well their rookies were working out. Graeme Barber and Victor Cheng were great additions to Vancouver’s squad. While Hunter wasn’t a rookie, he wasn’t rejoining any former teammates, he quickly became the team’s scoring leader with 19 goals and 15 assists. Mitch Dozzi-Daigle became quite the force on defense, leading the team with 10 blocks. The team also found players like Sascha Lo and David Whitney-Brown who are still developing but look like the could be good threats in future seasons.
Like the Rumble, the Nighthawks have to work on chemistry the most. They lead the league in turnovers with 306 over the season. Getting players comfortable on the field and trusting each other is going to be the biggest thing they can do to improve. This means keeping player turnover down and really focusing on fundamentals. I don’t see the Nighthawks turning it around next season, but I certainly see them pulling out a game or two and not getting blown out every game.
San Francisco Dogfish
The Dogfish end another season with a disappointing 2-8 record. While it is lower than last season they do find themselves out of last place in the west for the first time in three years. The Dogfish were another team that saw a lot of roster turnover, bringing on 16 rookie players this season. Veterans still anchored with leaders Gabe Saunkeah, Taylor Cascino and Thomas Pineda. But we also saw a lot of rookies step up – Devon Williams and Daniel Naruo really stood out for the team.
Despite finishing with a worse record than in 2015 ,the 2016 Dogfish seem to be doing better as a team. Early in the season we definitely saw them struggle, but it looks like they started to really figure things out in their last few games. They were up 7 on Seattle (before an epic collapse – you broke my heart!) and were the only team in the regular season to keep the Stags from scoring 20 points. Really, the Dogfish have a great defense, producing turns at very high level with a 58.6% DTE and while that is 5th in the league, it is just 0.3% under the Whitecaps. They produced 126 blocks this season, 3rd highest in the league. Where the Dogfish really struggle is putting the disc in the endzone. They are only scoring an average of 16 goals a game, and that is rarely good enough to get a win. Despite getting the turnovers, they are giving the disc right back, ranking as the 2nd worst in the league in terms of turnovers with 297 on the season.
These problems again generally come down to chemistry, but also from the Dogfish rushing the disc. They get so amped up on defense that you often see them turning it on the first throw after a block. They did well on fast breaks where they were looking to huck immediately, but just as often tried a dump pass to someone who wasn’t looking. It was frustrating to watch and I’m sure even more so for the players.
The Dogfish did impressed me with a switch in their late season strategy. As we saw in their Week 10 double header they were able to compete with the top teams. On offense we saw them better utilizing the width of the field and on defense they were using their timeouts to sub in the offense to improve their chances of getting a break. With the dominance of the midfield pull, it was refreshing to see a team utilizing their timeouts in a different manner, and one that seemed to work out pretty well.
Given the Dogfish can keep their core of veterans another season and their rookies continue to improve we could see a Dogfish team fighting for that second playoff spot next season. It won’t be easy but a couple more wins and this team is right on track to be in the mix next season. But first they are going to need to figure out how to win a game on the road.
Washington D.C. Current
I’ve said it a few times, but it is still true – this team baffles me. I look at 3-7 and just don’t understand how they got there. In Week 11, this team nearly took a game from the team going to the MLU Championship. You might say that game didn’t matter as much and the Spinners weren’t trying as hard, but you better believe the Spinners didn’t show up to lose. When these guys go out on the field they go to compete and they are there to win.
This season, the Current lost two games by just one point, if those final points had gone the other way we would see a team at 5-5 and while still out of the playoffs, it tells a very different story for the season. The next closest loss was by two points. It is crazy to think that this team was only 4 points away from a 6-4 season, rather than a 3-7.
The Current has stated that they are working on a three year plan to get back into the championship and I’d say it looks like it is working out. They had a bit of their top talent drop off from last season, but their on field play hasn’t dramatically dipped. We saw big step ups from Delrico Johnson, who had a monster season with 22 goals, 12 assists and 10 blocks. Additionally we saw Lloyd Blake really step into a team leader role and getting the matching stats with 9 goals, 23 assists and 7 blocks. But the real keys that we saw from the Current were the rookies that are starting to shine. Mark Flores, Kyle Khalifa and Antoine Davis are only getting better and looking to meld well with the rest of the team.
While the Current may be looking to be on the up-and-up, they do have some areas where they really need to improve. While 4 points did keep them from 3 games, it is important to note they still lost those games, it doesn’t matter how close it was. The fourth quarter has not been good to the Current this season. The Current has been out scored 32-51 in the fourth quarter this season, only outscoring their opponents twice in the fourth quarter all season (and still losing both those games). While the fourth quarter isn’t the Current’s only problem, it certainly is a big one. Three of their losses came from letting teams go on late runs, almost four when they let New York bring a game within one after being down six.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what they need to do to fix this issue. My gut tells me that this is just a mental problem that will go away with more on field experience. The truth is that the Current remain largely a rookie team (15 rookies joined the team this season) that is still largely unproven. Given how this season went I think they are going to come into next season with a bit of a monkey on their back, but as they grow into themselves they are going to be tough to beat. I see them competing a for playoff spot next season and with their three year plan, competing for the the MLU Championship in 2018 once again.
Are the 2016 Rainmakers better than the 2015 Rainmakers? Certainly by all categories that you can count. They scored relatively the same number of goals, did much better in preventing goals, had more blocks, threw fewer turnovers and improved in OSE, DSE and DTE. And they improved their record from 5-5 to 7-3. None-the-less they didn’t make the MLU Championship this season. The one place they faltered was in their games against the Stags. So are they better than they were? We’ll explore.
Losing Mark Burton coming into the season was blow to the Rainmakers. Burton was the league’s leading scorer and a great teammate. A strong tryout contingent definitely helped swell their ranks though, as 11 rookies joined the team along with former Head Coach Steve Gussin (and former Stag). Also joining was star handler Ben Wiggins, but a preseason injury kept him off the field all season. Veterans were forced to step up and we saw big improvements from guys like Brad Houser and Cam Bailey. Other players like Evan Klein (Western Conference 2015 Rookie of the Year) and Henry Phan kept up their pace from previous seasons.
And then there was Khalif El-Salaam. This was El-Salaam’s best season with 13 goals, 21 assists and 5 blocks. He also only played four games. The college season dominated most of El-Salaam’s time as well as playing on the World’s Mixed team. I’m not saying the Rainmakers would be in the Championship if El-Salaam made more games, I’m just saying you want him on the field. He is a fantastic player and would improve any team. El-Salaam still has another year of college play ahead of him, so we’ll see how he fits into the Rainmakers next season. If we ever see a full season out of El-Salaam, expect some records to get broken.
While El-Salaam isn’t the end all for the Rainmakers, he does embody what the Rainmakers are lacking and that is star players. They are a great team and the rookies they brought in definitely jumped up the bottom half the team, but they didn’t bring in anyone who the defense has to change for. Houser is certainly starting to fill that role with some of his amazing plays as the Rainmaker’s top goal scorer (11 more goals than anyone else on the team), but if the Rainmakers want to really compete they are going to need to improve that top 10% of the team.
Defensively the Rainmakers are looking good. Headed by Bailey, Klein and Phan they can compete with any team in the league. A full time El-Salaam would certainly help on offense and then just one or two more pieces and we’d see a really complete team. I’d like to see them developing guys like Peter Ostergaard or Tremont Miller. They may not get a guy that always draws a double team, but with a couple more top players they should be able to create more mismatches to take advantage of. I would also love to see them work on bringing back a healthy Wiggins, as he could definitely be a game changer.
The Rainmakers will certainly be competing for the playoffs next season. They have nearly all the pieces to be a championship level team and I’m sure the coaches are already working on a plan for how that is going to happen. Right now their biggest obstacle is the Stags, and that is a hard nut to crack.
The Whitecaps have been one of the best teams in the league for four seasons running. The Whitecaps hold 2 MLU Championship titles and the best overall record in the league. While this year we might not have seen the best incarnation of the Whitecaps they still were certainly the team to beat out east. Even with the strength of the Spinners, it was questioned whether they could get past the Whitecaps. And of course the Spinners did get through the Whitecaps, so what does the future hold for this MLU mainstay?
Losing Jeff Graham and Josh Markette was certainly a factor for the Whitecaps this season. They ended the season with their lowest OSE ever at 65.1% – which admittedly is still third best in the league and pretty good regardless, but still a step down from their 71.2% in 2015. They did see a jump in their DSE and their total goals were just about where we’d expect them to be with only 9 games played (about 20 goals under their ten game average). So overall the Whitecaps fared fairly well losing two of the top players in the league.
But losing star players still has a price. Similarly to Seattle, Boston finds itself without many stars to rely on. They have a deep roster of solid players, but their top level depth is lacking. Tied for second in goal scoring for the Whitecaps is Tannor Johnson with 17 goals. Johnson played just two games, racking up 13 goals in their final matchup with the Rumble. I’m not saying what Johnson did wasn’t impressive, I’m just saying they need someone that can do that all season long.
With 18 guys racking up at least 10 points on the season, we see most of the Whitecaps players as duel threats who are either getting the deep shot or sending it. Of the 35 players who set foot on the field for the Whitecaps this season, only six didn’t score a goal and only 3 didn’t put in an assist. What we are seeing is a team that is fairly sturdy top to bottom. What this means though is that we aren’t seeing as many guys who can consistently create mismatches on the field. Where we see this really hurting the Whitecaps is when other teams start to go on runs. If you only have a handful of players that you can really rely on in tight situations then they are going to have to be out on the field a lot and not getting the rest they need for the coming points.
Right now the three players that embody the star status for the Whitecaps are Piers MacNaughton, Christian Foster, and Benjamin Katz. MacNaughton is the only one of those that plays primarily on offense. Foster and Katz are both mainly defensive players, although we saw them coming over to play offense more this season with nearly a third of their points played coming on offense. When you see defensive stars playing on offense it points to a lack of offensive depth. This isn’t to say the Whitecaps are bad on offense, their 65.1% OSE is only behind the Stags and Spinners. But sometimes you need your stars out on the field and you don’t want to have to draw from your defense, because if you get the hold, you are going to need those guys right back out there for the break.
Really though, the Whitecaps are fine. They went 8-2 this season, only dropping two away games to Philadelphia and those were fairly close games. Boston doesn’t need to do anything in particular next season to stay at the top of the conference, they just need to keep on doing what they do. While they are going to have to watch out for Current next season, they’ll be fine just tightening up their lines and playing hard ultimate. We haven’t seen an East Coast Championship without the Whitecaps in it yet and I expect they’ll be at it a few more years at least.
As for the other two teams in the league, the Philadelphia Spinners and the Portland Stags, they have a date with eachother in the MLU Championship game, July 16 at Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, check out www.MLUChampionship.com.