Photos by Brian Caniff, Pete Guion, Scott Houghtaling, and Cameron Sparling – Ultiphotos.com
Major League Ultimate announced today that the 2017 schedule will, for the second season in a row, feature cross-divisional games during the regular season.
During the first three years of league operation (2013-2015), all MLU games were played exclusively within conference, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, with the champions of each meeting in Philadelphia for the MLU Championship game.
After successful cross-divisional matchups in the 2016 season, the league did announce that in 2017 the Philadelphia Spinners will head West to take on the Seattle Rainmakers, while the Vancouver Nighthawks will return East for the first time since the 2014 MLU Championship to take on the D.C. Current.
“In 2016 the goal was to inject some new and exciting events into our regular season lineup, and cross divisional play helped us do that.” said David Kucherlapati, Vice President of Operations for MLU. “League wide, we’d like every game to be special for those in attendance and we currently feel that cross-divisional play is the most logical step now and in the future.”
During the inaugural season of cross-divisional play we saw New York Rumble take on the San Francisco Dogfish and the Portland Stags visit the Boston Whitecaps. The Eastern Conference went 2-0, maintaining their undefeated record set by victories in the first 3 MLU Championships. The 2017 matchups will give the Western Conference another chance. Unlike in last season’s matchup, which featured the first cross-divisional games for both the Rumble and Stags, each team in the 2017 games will have appeared in at least one MLU Championship.
The reigning MLU Champions, the Philadelphia Spinners will travel to Seattle to take on the 2015 Western Conference Champions – The Seattle Rainmakers. While the Rainmakers fell to the Stags in the 2016 Western Conference Final, they have been a consistent contender in the Western Conference every year. Seattle is a veteran team with several big names, including 2014 Breakout Player of the Year Khalif El-Salaam, 2016 Western Conference Offensive Player of the Year Brad Houser and 2015 Rookie of the Year Evan Klein. Coached by veteran club players Kate Kingery and Fiona McKibben, the Rainmakers will look to defend their home-field against their Eastern opponent.
The Spinners will look to stay undefeated against the West when the head to Seattle. A team that has improved each season, Philadelphia has found a potent balance of young talent and veteran leadership in 2016, with several players taking home post-season awards in addition to the title. Lead on offense by 2016 Eastern Conference MVP Billy Sickles, the team featured Philadelphia stalwart veterans like Nick Hirannet, David Brandolph and Trey Katzenbach, while getting key contributions from rookies Greg Martin, Ethan Peck and Vince Reydams, among many others.
While Philadelphia has a date with the Rainmakers in the Pacific Northwest, the other cross-divisional game in 2017 will serve as a rematch for the 2014 MLU Championship, as the Vancouver Nighthawks fly south to take on the Washington D.C. Current. While the Current soundly defeated the Nighthawks during the 2014 final, both teams have undergone a significant shift both roster and strategies in the last 2 years.
The Nighthawks, who lead the league in rookies last year with 20, will look to build on a rough 2016 season in which they showed flashes of elite level play, but were only able to convert that into a single win. Lead by returning veterans Erik Hunter, Taylor Nadon and Phillip Davidson, the Nighthawks saw contributions from standout rookies like Graeme Barber, Victor Cheng, Mitchell Dozzi-Daigle and Sascha Lo. While no members of the 2014 Western Conference Championship team remain on the roster, that may not be problem as their opponents have also gone through a major shift in the past 2 years.
For the Washington D.C. Current, 2016 was also a year of transition. With former Head Coach Keven Moldenhauer returning to the field, his former coaching partner Will Smolinski was given the reigns of the franchise and began to institute his 3-Year Plan. Along with Assistant Coaches Sam McClellan and Jacob Nuxull, Smolinski built a solid roster in 2016, combining veteran members of the 2014 Championship team (Erik Salmi, Delrico Johnson, Lloyd Blake, Eric Miner, etc.) with younger talent (Joe Freund, Andrew Ferraro, Kyle Khalifa, Mikey Moses, etc.) to begin to develop Washington D.C.’s next champions.
While the full 2017 MLU Season schedule has not been released yet, you can bet that these cross-divisional matchups will be circled on the calendar for coaches and players, as well as fans. “We are excited to once again be doing cross-divisional play.” said MLU’s Executive Vice President, Nic Darling. “It’s a big investment, but it’s important in that it supports our goal of providing a entertaining game for our fans and positive experience for our players.”
As was the case in 2016, all teams will continue to play a 10-game season. The cross-divisional games will still count as regular season games in terms of playoff berths and seeding. Both of the 2016 cross-divisional matchups came down to the wire, with New York holding on to beat a resurgent San Francisco, and Boston narrowly handing Portland their first loss of the season. With the success of the inaugural cross-divisional series, the league has high hopes the that 2017 edition will produce equally as entertaining games.
“We hope that in addition to adding enjoyable events for fans that these games will also provide a welcome challenge for the teams involved.” said Kucherlapati. “We hope to see the number of these cross-divisional games grow in the future.”