Photos by Scobel Wiggins and Burt Granofsky – UltiPhotos.com[ A View Inside My Brain After Boston Defeated Philadelphia in the East ]
It is title time! It is definitive proclamation time! I shall go back and check all of the tape, notes, stats and more in order to arrive at a more nuanced and complex understanding of the Seattle Rainmakers and the Boston Whitecaps.[ Weeks of work pass in a dark room surrounded by charts, computers and notes. I emerge, hair messed and dress shabby to proclaim: ]
I stand by my assessment of these teams from their respective conference championships:
Boston is a strong offensive side built up around four exceptional talents (Jeff Graham, Tyler Chan, Josh Markette and Teddy Browar-Jarus), a group of useful and variable players and a quite proven system. Their defense generally relies on tight man with minor variations to push the margins in their favor over the course of the game. Then Alex Simmons and Eric Stevens shepherd the defense from opportunity to achievement.
Seattle is a strong offensive side centered around two exceptional cutters (Mark Burton and Khalif El-Salaam) given wide berth in the center of the field to go to work. They have a quite powerful thrower in Danny Trytiak and a complimentarily creative thrower in Gavin McKibben. Their defense is more variable than most, taking gambles and running a variety of zones and matchup schemes over the course of a given game. On a turn they rely on Evan Klein and Henry Phan to matriculate up the field.
These two teams, while they arrive at their results differently, have a slew of similar results over the season:
Top two league-wide in:
|Total Goals (GF+GA)||384||408|
Second and third league-wide (behind Portland) in:
|Defensive Conv. Rate||33.77%||31.56%|
|Total Conv. Rate||50.71%||47.18%|
|Breaks Per Game||7.8||7.1|
Overall per game:
Defense per game:
Offense per game:
This isn’t to say that the two teams are identical, but rather that they tend toward the same overall sweet-spot on the spectrum of playing styles. Their offenses complete passes at a decent clip, but have no fear of putting up deep shots as they play decent defense after the turn. Their defensive lines will take the disc a sufficient amount, but are more reliant upon converting a high percentage of their breaks chances than on creating an overwhelming number of opportunities.
So then what are the relevant differences between these teams? To start with the offense, their on-field structures are notably different. The Boston side relies primarily on a vertical stack which moves the disc upfield via the outside lanes while the Seattle side tends toward a horizontal stack which moves through the center of the field.
There is also a difference in the distribution of offensive points for each team. Boston has seven players with from 105 to 140 offensive points played, and then a long tail of players with 85, 68, 50, 50, 49 and 43 offensive points played. Seattle has 10 players with 100 to 183 offensive points played. Their next-highest is 33.
While this is a result of many functions from player availability to scheme changes and more, it is also indicative of a potential soft spot for Seattle: If those top 10 offensive players fail, there s a clear moment when the defensive side will get subbed in on offense. For Boston it is more likely that some of the overall larger offensive side will remain to work with the players borrowed from the defense.
The stark change to running a complete D-line out for offense can be a mental blow for many teams as it is a signal that things are going wrong. The gradual (or even consistent) combination of lines can maintain a sense of control and normalcy even when the situation is far from normal and nearly careening out of control.
Key to Boston’s success will be Christian Foster, Alex Simmons and Eric Stevens.
From this list of defensive players, we will start with Foster who is asked to do a lot on defense from guarding a variety of players to generating blocks in key scenarios. How his day goes as a defender often has a lot to do with how successful Boston’s overall defensive play is. His midfield pulls are aces, his full-field pulls are strong and he’s a reliable cutter who can be counted on to throw assists when given the opportunity.
For Simmons and Stevens the task is a little tougher as they are the core of a strong but not dominant offense after the turn for Boston. The two account for 25.51% of Boston’s defensive throws and 35.06% of the team’s defensive assists. They complete passes at 91.8 and 91.4 percent and can reliable steady the defensive ship when necessary. If they falter, trip, fumble or stall, the whole edifice starts to show its seams. The team can be strong enough to overcome this, but Stevens and Simmons are the high-usage high-percentage players who make everything else possible.
Key to Seattle’s success will be Burton, El-Salaam and their second handler. To start with the cutters, we know full well how much Burton we’ll see (All of the Burton), but we should expect that El-Salaam will return to the offensive rotation to provide a second powerful weapon in the center of the field for the Rainmakers. If this is the case, Seattle will be quite difficult to match up with on any offensive points.
If El-Salaam is not on the offensive line, it will be up to a host of other offensive players to fill in for Seattle as they did in the Western Conference Finals. Then again, as noted on the broadcast for that game, Mark Burton was doing almost everything for the Seattle downfield offense.
The second handler depends on how the Rainmakers fill their roles in this game. Against Portland, while Trytiak made his fair share of significant plays, the primary handler seemed to be McKibben at times. His ability to fill in as a link in the offensive chain from a handler position when the downfield cutters are faltering is a sweet release for any offense. In any case, one of Seattle’s handlers will likely step into a larger role for this game. While both handlers will be important to the success of the team, the one who plays a smaller role will liekly serve as a better bellweather for the team.
The team on the West most like Boston is…
Vertical stack. Distribute from the back. Fast, aggressive cutters who can throw. A strong and predictable but effective reset scheme. One large receiver. Two main cutters (Graham and Chan vs. Timmy Perston and Cody Bjorklund). In a sense, Seattle has the perfect blueprint to take down Boston. They showed the ability to do it in the Western Conference Finals: Take advantage of mistakes at a high rate, do what you can about the two big cutters, but focus in on the rest of the offense for your pressure. Hope to get a few early break chances, take a couple risks to generate extra chances and trust that your offense can hold off when their defense earns inevitable break chances.
The difference, for Boston, is that while Graham and Chan are undeniably the downfield engine that runs the offense, Markette and Browar-Jarus are creative throwers who see and use spaces well in critical situations (and indeed in non-critical ones as well). Portland’s offense was an overall creative offense in terms of throws (strong hammers, blades and breaks) but the most creative thrower for that team, Bjorklund, was also one of the primary downfield cutters. In the case of Boston, Markette and Browar-Jarus are not. They are handler/cutter types who work to earn angles and separation rather than maximum yards with each reception.
The quality of these throwers works well with the remainder of the players on Boston’s offense who are strong in their own rights, from the versatility of Miles Montgomery-Butler to the consistency of Matt Little and Brian Zid or the speed of Piers MacNaughton or the threateningly large Sam Kittross-Schnell.
Add in an always-useful lanky handler-type in Jake Taylor and this is simply a well-balanced offensive unit with a clear vertical stack preference. There are horizontal and side-stack set, but these are changeups.
I would argue that the biggest weakness for Boston’s offense is their defense. While individual players and individual plays are made on defense by all Boston offensive players (Here’s a nickel’s worth of advice for free: If Markette is marking you on the goal line or even the sideline… know there is a high pointblock potentiality), they are susceptible to sustained possessions and drives when playing defense. If you can survive the first few passes, the field can be worked and, in rare cases, a lead can be built.
The team in the East most like Seattle is…
While the style of D.C’s defense is more individual than is Seattle’s defense, and Seattle’s defense converts break opportunities at rate closer to Boston than to D.C., the offenses have both been, over the season, rather normal for the league. Boston’s offense converted at 71.20 percent, the Spinners, Stags, Current, Rainmakers all converted from 63 percent to 66 percent, the Nighthawks 59.53 percent and the Dogfish and Rumble pulled up the rear at just over 50 percent.
Both defenses take away things that the opposing offense wants. In the case of D.C. it often relies on individual excellence in predetermined situations to take particular players or plays away from their opponent. In the case of Seattle, while they have strong players as well, it is more frequently the result of a divergent different defensive look. This is not to imply that one is coached and the other is played, or the anything of the kind. It is more that the style of defense that D.C. plays leads to discrete moments in which a defender overtakes or overpowers the offensive player. For Seattle, the sense of power and control is more diffuse over the course of the game. It isn’t always clear exactly how they pressure, but it is clear that they are applying pressure.
The offensive similarities start with the notion of covering two cutters like Jeff Wodatch and Peter Prial being comparable to dealing with Burton and El-Salaam. Trytiak has the same type of long-range power as Markham Shofner, and while no other player is like Alan Kolick, the group in Seattle provides a lot of creativity and motion around the disc. The supporting cutters and handlers are versatile and very good at working together, which seems to be the whole reason players like Tom Doi, Calvin Oung and Lloyd Blake are so useful for D.C.
The good news for Boston is that they finished better than D.C. this season, and won against them more often than not. The bad news for Boston is that D.C. is definitely their strongest long-term antagonist. The games between these two teams tend to go down to the wire, past the wire, and onto SportsCenter. None of them are conceded, even the blowouts.
This points to a tight, all-out battle for the title.
Boston could win big or small, Seattle could win big or small.
Boston won by 7, 5, 2, 7, 1, 13, 13 (48/7 = + 6.857)
Boston lost by 2, 1, 1 (4/3 = – 1.333)
Seattle won by 3, 6, 12, 1, 8 (30/5 = + 6.000)
Seattle lost by 9, 2, 3, 2, 1 (17/5 = – 3.400)
While that one early large Seattle loss to the Portland Stags was an outlier, it seems almost as though it served as a spur for Seattle to get their act together, in the Bowdlerized parlance of our times.
Boston’s wakeup call was losing at all, let alone two games, over the first weekend and then losing again to Philly a few weeks later despite one of the most impressive near-comebacks in MLU. I know, close doesn’t really count. But that was an amazing stretch of play and I believe that it showed the Whitecaps how much they are capable of.
It is clear that if either of these teams cracks the code of your team’s offense, they will relentlessly exploit it.
I think everything points to Boston being a slight favorite. I’d also wager that the public is overestimating the spread and putting Boston too far ahead. The smart bet in this game would be for Seattle to cover or even win outright. The Rainmakers are no one to be trifled with and while Boston has the big guns out East, they are far from invincible. I would also put the over/under at 41 and take the under.
Low-Keys for the Game
Which team scores last in each quarter? When a team scores last in a quarter, do they score first in the subsequent quarter? Which defense will run off a couple of breaks in a row first? Which defense converts opportunities at the highest rate? Which offense has the most quick-scoring points? Which offense is on the field for the longest points?
Overly Specific Predictions
…that if true mean I should have played the lotto instead of writing this:
The teams each make two unforced offensive errors in the first quarter. Boston converts on one chance and Seattle converts on both, but Boston scores to end the first leaving the whole thing tied after one. Each team then changes up defensive looks while trying to press on offense a little, resulting in a quick second quarter with either one or zero breaks per team. The third quarter, however, will be when everything goes bonkers. One of these two teams is going to make the right adjustment at half, and another is going to make the wrong adjustment. It may not even be a conscious adjustment, but a team-level unconscious decision to change. I think that one of these two teams will give up a run of breaks in the third quarter and all will seem lost. The team that is down will mount an exciting but ultimately futile comeback to lose by no more than three.
In the end, it will be the Whitecaps earning a narrow victory to the tune of 21-20.
Then again, I’m of two minds: If Seattle makes a run early in the game and surprises Boston for more than three breaks in the first half, Seattle will win this game. Seattle is quick, aggressive and intelligent and if Boston underestimates this, they will pay.
In the end, I expect this to be a tight game, as I did last year when the Nighthawks faced the Current in the title game. While that game was a blowout, it was also a heavyweight title bout replete with apparent knockout haymakers, crushing body blows, comeback flurries and two competitors who did not believe they would lose until the bitter end.
I expect this game to go down to the wire, and will be fascinated if one team or the other runs away with it. In short (ha!): The biggest game of the season is upon us. Spectate away, and I hope that over the year I’ve helped you enjoy these games as much as I do!