Photo by Sean Carpenter – UltiPhotos.com
The D’s the thing wherein you’ll earn the wearing of the ring.
There is one kingmaker in Major League Ultimate: defense. Defense after the pull, defense after the turn, converting break opportunities with your defense. Defense is not the only thing, but it is everything.
Short Sips of Hot Bitter Blackness. A hint of far-off stone-fruit sweetness. A smoky thickness lingers from the roast.
I hope whatever affliction the Rumble had in 2014 isn’t contagious.
A handy step-by-step guide to scoring break goals: 1. Start the point on defense. 2. Force a turnover. 3. Throw the disc into the end zone. 4. Catch the disc in the end zone. The next chart is the raw data delineating how successful each team in the East was at completing those steps in 2014:
|DPP||D Poss||D EZ||D Goal|
The Current and the Whitecaps hold down the top two spots, the Spinners follow in a convincing third place and the Rumble bring up the rear. Boston is slightly more efficient at converting breaks, but D.C. is more effective at generating possessions. Philly is second in converting throws into the end zone into goals, while the Rumble never move their things out of the basement.
One of the telling stats from 2014 was the inability of the New York Rumble to throw potentially goal-scoring throws on the defensive end. They threw fewer discs into the end zone on defense than any other team scored defensive goals. Let that wash over you like darkness washed over the Dude. While 30 defensive goals will probably damn a team to last place in and of itself, possessions that end without even a shot at the end zone are wholly failed possessions – at least if we accept that the goal is to, well, score goals.
We’ll cover the Rumble’s outlook in their own preview coming next week, but the short of it is that I expect them to show marked improvement in 2015. My larger concern this week is that the Rumble may be Patient Zero for some as-yet-unidentified communicable disease to which they have now developed antibodies. The rest of the league, if not inoculated, could suffer a similarly gruesome fate.
Tastes good so far. Future health consequences are sticky.
Future to the Back, We’re Looking to the Past
We need only look at the two finalists from last season to affirm the value of defense. The D.C. Current and the Vancouver Nighthawks were both led by defenses that could go on an extended run of breaks at any point in any game. In fact, both teams proved this in the title game. D.C. started the game by going up 10-2 before Vancouver was able to score consecutive offensive points. It took Vancouver until the third quarter to start a run of their own, but that run was of the 7-2 variety and served to pull the Nighthawks back within four points.
Take a look even further back to the 2013 Boston Whitecaps, who closed out the title game with a 4-1 run and took home a title over a San Francisco Dogfish squad formerly billed as an unstoppable offense. Over that season, Boston established themselves as the most consistent team in the league in large part due to their success converting break opportunities into goals.
Forcing your opponent into a turn is the first half of playing defense. The second half is scoring. Finding the correct balance of the two within each team’s defensive rotation will determine how the 2015 Eastern Conference plays out.
Ah, the core of the non-veganoid breakfast. Boiled. Scrambled. Poached. Fried. Loco Moco’d.
The Many Paths to Enlightenment
Myriad defenses can create a turn, whether through pressure all over the field or strategic pressure on specific points of an offense. D.C. placed a premium on having an overwhelming host of fast, strong and large defenders. Vancouver built its strategy on the unique skillset and size of Morgan Hibbert. For two seasons, Boston has subtly tilted percentages in favor of the defense and then taken full advantage of the offensive firepower lurking in their defensive rotation.
While coaches and strategy set the table, the players cook the meal. A coach may have the ideal devastating defense drawn up, but if players aren’t up to the task, results will remain wanting. Depending on the scheme, a successful defensive rotation needn’t generate an overwhelming number of blocks in order to be successful. Even so, individual players who do are among the most valuable in the game.
Basic patterns emerge if we take a simple measure of which players take the disc from their opponents rather than waiting for a gift. First, players who average one or more blocks per 10 points played are rare finds. Only five players in the East (Jack Hatchett, Dominique Gibson, Nate Castine, Ben Fleming and Quinn Hunziker) did so in 2014. Second is that, while 19 players in the East averaged one or more blocks per 20 points played, their uneven distribution effectively by team illustrates that blocks are only one part of the defensive picture: D.C. had six, NY had six, Boston had four and Philly had three.
Still, the Current dominate the list of block generators with three of the top five, six of the top 10 and the only two O players to average more than one block per 20 points played (Peter Prial and Calvin Oung). The flipside of talking about defense in ultimate is the defense your offensive rotation plays after it has turned the disc over.
This is the category in which the D.C. Current continuously outpaced their opponents:
|O Points||Opp. D Poss.||Opp. D Poss./O Point||Opp. D Goal||DG%DPP||DG%D Poss.|
While Boston and D.C. tied for the fewest break goals conceded, Boston was the offense least likely to present break opportunities while D.C. was the best at preventing break opportunities from being converted. In addition to the basic reward of not conceding goals, tenacity after the turn allows the Current to be a more creative and aggressive offensive team, which lightens the mental burden of perfection carried by the offense. Boston, once a turn occurred, was hardly different than NY in terms of conceding a break goal, in effect increasing the perceived weight of unattainable perfection in offensive execution. Philadelphia’s offense, while closest to D.C.’s in the rate at which they allowed defensive possessions, conceded the highest rate of break conversions to their opponents which similarly increases the burden on the offense.
Freeing the collective offensive mind to trust that it can recover from errors not only has a buoyant effect on the offense, but it also helps the defense maintain optimism from the sideline. When the defense trusts that the offense will work hard to get the disc back, they needn’t fret about not scoring breaks from the opening pull. In essence, an offensive rotation committed to strong defense lightens the mental load for every member of the team and unifies the team’s commitment to victory.
None of this is news to sports in general – or ultimate specifically; of course preventing the other team from scoring increases the likelihood your team will score more points. What’s become clear over the past few years of MLU is that the larger field favors a team with a gifted defense rather than a gifted offense. It is often said that offense wins games and defense wins championships. But in ultimate, it is more accurate to say that offense loses games while defense wins them. No team in the conference conceded less than one break opportunity per two offensive points in 2014; further proof that even the best offensive players and teams must play very good defense.
Stake with your eggs?
The stakes this weekend are like hitting the opener of a musical performance. You get just one chance to strike the tone for the rest of the evening. And when you do it right, the anticipation for what comes next only builds. Recovering from a bad opening is possible if you’re sufficiently talented, but there’s only one first impression. After this weekend, we may be able to pick out the leitmotifs that will follow teams and individuals throughout the season. We’ll also know which of the three Eastern Conference teams playing this weekend will have a shot at season-long perfection.
And if any team gets the crowd as excited as the opening to the Muppet Show gets anyone with a sense of humor and a pulse, we’ll be able to identify the early season favorite.
Waffles or Pancakes?
Choose… but choose wisely.
Boston ruins Philadelphia’s home opener to the tune of 21-17.
While Boston will undergo sizeable change this season, their team still has all the makings of a strong season. And, since no one knows what their offense will look like, they will be difficult to prepare for. Philadelphia had issues in the last week of 2014 adjusting to the curveball that the D.C. Current threw by switching up rotations in a game that only the Spinners had a vested interest in winning. Unless there has been a behind-the-scenes reworking of Philadelphia’s core concepts, the Whitecaps will be well-prepared for the Spinners’ style of play.
D.C. defends The Dojo in their home opener 22-19.
The Current are ready, and with the ability to see the Whitecaps play Philadelphia the night before, they will not be caught off-guard by whatever the Boston brain trust has cooked up for the opening weekend of play. While the Current have their own turnover from 2014 to deal with, keeping the core of their offense intact should give them an early-season edge over Boston’s new-look offense. In addition, the speed and aggression of D.C.’s defense is exactly the wrong prescription for a team that will have played the preceding night and may be travel-weary and leg-tired. If the Whitecaps come out sluggish in any way in this game, this could turn from a close loss to a blowout.
Beverage of Choice
Players or matchups to take in.
As the season opens and the offensive sides of each team display all manner of impressive plays, keep an eye on the seven keepers of the true power to change the game in an instant: The Defense. Gibson, Hatchett, Castine, Fleming, Delrico Johnson, Brian Marshall, Leon Chou, David Cranston and Patrick Lindsey all averaged over one block per 20 points played in 2014 and are playing this weekend. Will they start the season off with a statement or a question? Will other defenders emerge in the early going and announce their presence with authority?
Opening Weekend Place to Be
Why… both games of course!
Not only that, but I’ll be in the broadcast booth trying my hand (er… voice) at providing commentary on both games. I’m wholly excited and super-anxious about this opportunity. Is it only a matter of time before I prattle on about something pointless? Will I mispronounce the names of others and forget my own? Will I get excited and shout something unintelligible? Only time will tell. But this is your opportunity to learn along with me about what I see during these games.
All the waiting and preparing is done. I’m so excited to see what these teams will be like in 2015 that I’m feeling jittery. Or was it the coffee? Either way, the season is here!