Photo by Scobel Wiggins – UltiPhotos.comFirst, a brief introduction. I am Ben Beehner, defensive cutter for the Seattle Rainmakers. Since its inception, I’ve played every year for Seattle, joining Danny Trytiak as the only third-year member of the Rainmakers. I’ve helped run tryouts, recruit coaches and lead practice pods.There are two reasons why I’m the one previewing the West Coast. First, there’s nothing I love talking about more. And second, nobody knows it better than me.As the third season of the MLU begins this week, we’ve got plenty of storylines in the Western Conference. In this first article, I’ll look at the top two teams in my preseason ranking:

Portland Stags

Right now, the Stags are favorites to win the West. After finishing last season with an 8-2 record, they bring back over 20 returners. That includes Timmy Perston, the springy deep threat that amassed 30 plus goals in the 2013 season.Despite returning most of their roster, the Stags have lost players at several key positions. The biggest loss will be Eli Friedman for part of the season. Last year, Eli was the central focus of the entire Stags offense, racking up 19 goals and 20 assists in 217 points played, the most in the MLU. The Stags would typically line up their offense in a 3-1-3, putting Eli in the middle to get open on an underneath cut, before dishing to another handler. But this year, rumor is that Friedman will be missing significant playing time to travel abroad. Can anyone temporarily replace the Stags’ most talented offensive player?The answer is likely no. I predict the Stags abandon the 3-1-3 (or German) offense and return to their bread-and-butter: hucking downfield to Timmy. With all-star offensive cutters Cody Bjorkland and Timmy Perston downfield, expect a horizontal offense that focuses on creating space and looking for deep shots. It’s still unclear who will be taking those shots. Last year’s top handlers like Jeremy Norden, Ben Lohre and Breeze Strout will not be returning in 2015. Another loss will be athletic cutter Camden Allison-Hall. The current gossip is that he may have suffered an ACL injury that could prevent him from playing this season. These spots will likely be filled with rookie players Matt Melius and Tad Jenson, both Portland-community veterans, who will be called on to help calm and organize the offense.As for the Stags defensive line, Topher Davis will be the star. He’s simply a notch faster and smarter than most team’s starting players. Along with downfield defender Riley Meinershagen, this defensive line has a very high ultimate IQ. Look for them to punish foolish shots by other teams. Overall, this D-line will struggle to stop athletic cutters like Vancouver’s Brendan Wong or Seattle’s Khalif El-Salaam, but they will punish unwise hucks from shooters like Seattle’s Danny Trytiak or Vancouver’s Kirk Savage.This team has great chemistry, top talent and strong coaching. Expect them to start the season strong. The way to stop them will be taking away their first option on offense and preventing the easy deep shot to Perston. If the hucks fall short and teams put pressure on the handlers, this team will make mistakes. On offense, teams need to use powerful downfield cutters and not slack off. In the past, Portland has gone down early in games only to rally back in the second half. How well a team can stop that counterattack will determine who wins the game.

Seattle Rainmakers

This year’s Rainmakers roster is stronger from top to bottom than 2014. Like Portland, the Rainmakers have lost some top offensive talent from last year, but the new additions make them the deepest team on the West Coast.Bringing this squad together is an impressive coaching staff led by Head Coach Steve Gussin. Joining him are assistant coaches Fiona McKibben, Kate Kingery and Charlie Mercer. Historically, Seattle has started the season as the best-practiced and best-coached team. Expect nothing different this year. The coaching staff has implemented a great system for feedback and support, strengthened by the buy-in of the core returning players.On offense, the downfield cutters are straight-up terrifying. Danny Trytiak, 3-year veteran and second-year captain, has the ability to get easy unders before turning upfield and releasing monstrous throws. With Danny’s pinpoint hammers, a defensive mark becomes irrelevant. His favorite targets will be superstar cutters Khalif El-Salaam and Mark Burton. These three combined for over 100 points last year. When they’re hot, there’s no defense in the league that can stop them.On defense, the Rainmakers added some great talent. Cam Bailey and Evan Klein, two defensive stars for the AUDL last year, have signed with the MLU and are poised to blow up. Last year in the AUDL, Klein and Bailey both had an unreal 25 defensive blocks for the season. The question this year will be if the defense can convert on turnovers. Last year’s defense was able to get blocks but unable to capitalize on them. If they continue to struggle and convert those points, it puts extra pressure on the offensive line to play mistake-free.So how do you beat this team? Well, the most turnover from last year’s roster is among the offensive handler corps. Yet this year’s new players like Jeff Pape and Andrew Lynch are masters of maintaining possession and keeping cool under pressure. The real wild group is the downfield cutters. At times, Danny Trytiak’s cross-field hammers appear unstoppable. Yet when the shots don’t land, defenses can capitalize on those risky decisions, the Rainmakers may find themselves in a hole.With a strong core group and a fresh crop of new players, the Rainmakers are best poised to be strong for years to come. Practices have been hard fought with young homegrown talent stepping up big. With its depth and youth, Seattle should finish this season stronger than last year.