Photos by Scobel Wiggins and Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com
In the dive down into the data to prepare for the MLU title game, a number of similarities became apparent between Boston and Seattle, but no single piece was so striking as to require a specifically focused investigation or explanation. And while we’ll get more into these similarities later this week, it is sufficient for now to type that Seattle and Boston are very similar teams in terms of their aggregate numbers. However, if we consider the rate at which these two teams dropped discs (Boston drops .98% of their passes while Seattle drops 1.12%), we will indeed find an important common thread between these two title contenders.
Drops are, in many ways, analogous to penalties in football. They are unforced errors in completely normal situations. They are bound to happen, but their frequency is often a strong indicator of team success. Teams which make more unforced errors are more likely to lose. Teams which make fewer are more likely to win.
Among many possible reasons for a specific team having a high drop percentage, a subset of reasons stand out to me as particularly relevant: The amount and type of disc-work a team does on a weekly basis. The frequency needs to be very high, connections must be made between the correct groups of players and the disc-work must be specifically relevant for their players or to their schemes. Most of the catches made in a game should be similar to catches made in practices and drills and workouts. In so doing, the actions and expectations become routine for players, groups and teams.
Teams which can predict the future state of the field as a group due to having previously been in similar situations are more likely to succeed. This is the essence of coaching and training. It is to repeat actions and situations until mastery of the physical and mental commonalities is achieved. Then, a team begins to form as the individuals have more energy and focus to expend on learning each other rather than learning their own roles. If we think of a team as an agglomeration of individual actors whose fates become inextricably bundled yet individual performances remain differentiable, we can grasp that the interests and understandings of each individual in relation to the group be balanced. Each individual must be able to perform basic tasks up to competency. Each individual must be aware of the other tasks. Each task must build to the success of the whole. The whole learns to act as its own entity, like the difference between an ant and an anthill.
Drops in regular situations across the team (rather than limited a specific individual) often indicate a systemic flaw. In the cases of the Rainmakers and Whitecaps, the lack of drops indicates systemic strength.
The season-long stories of both Boston and Seattle have been stories of improvement. The Whitecaps started the season 0-2 to drop below .500 for the first time in three seasons. There was a consensus of concern around the league about the viability of this year’s edition of the Boston side as they sat at 2-3 following a second loss to the Spinners. Then, over the remaining five games, the Whitecaps would go 5-0, winning by 2, 7, 1, 13 and 13 for a combined score of 114-78.
The Rainmakers also started the season off 0-2. They then rolled off three wins (San Francisco, San Francisco, Vancouver) before alternating a loss with a win for the remainder. The impressive thing about this run is that two of those three losses came to the Stags’ regular season juggernaut, while the third was a one-point loss to Vancouver in the final game of the season when Seattle had already clinched a playoff spot.
The trajectory of Boston can be traced by following which players played which roles over the course of the season. As the roster was pared from a huge initial list down to a quite-useful and cohesive core surrounded by some movable parts, the team’s performance stabilized before steadily improving. The trajectory of Seattle is best understood by looking at their goal differentials against Portland (-9, -3, -2, +1) and San Francisco (+3, +6, +8). Each displays a clear upward trend over the course of the season. This points to the preparation the team’s coaching staff put in to train the players and devise plans of attack as well as the commitment of the players to executing the plan.
This steady improvement over the season is the reason the coaching staffs of the Rainmakers and Whitecaps received my first place vote for coach of the year in their respective conferences. The key similarity between these teams is the way their staffs have guided each team to play as a progressively refined version of its best self.
In Boston’s case the plan is clear and obvious whenever the games are watched live or on video. Their offense relies on simplicity, clarity and efficiency. Their defense, while it takes some unorthodox approaches here and there, is largely straightforward. It is clear that they do not play the same identical vanilla defense over the course of a game or a season, but the differences are subtle from point to point and game to game. Types of matchups, which players are being played in hopes of keeping them out of the offense or which are being looked at as potential victims for blocks, shifting marks subtly inside or around, changing reset defense from tight and preventing to sagging to narrow the upfield lanes all vary. And the team executes these plans together directly with little subterfuge.
Seattle, on the other hand, shows far more unexplained and ad hoc motions in their offense and defense. There are one-time cuts which occur at different points in the season and are never seen again. There are defensive looks which it takes multiple stop-and-reassess watches to decode. There are unexpected doubles, many poaches and switches, risks taken on unlikely blocks and more. A higher percentage of throws from Seattle are the types of spacing and timing combinations which cannot serve as the core of an offense, but can be encouraged to occur through structural tweaks and chemistry. That we on the outside might not be able to cleanly and quickly parse what Seattle does doesn’t mean that Seattle is any more or less able to explain exactly what works about their offense or defense.
The postulation is solely that from the outside; it is near-always easy to determine what the Whitecaps are doing and why. The Rainmakers provide more unpredictability.
In other words: Seattle plays like Seattle while Boston plays like Boston.
That each plays an identifiable style which nets strong results is a fortunate byproduct of actualization rather than a process of conforming to a preconceived ideal. The road to success is not to mimic the six-man Boston vertical stack, nor is it to ape the angles Seattle attacks on defense. Nor is it to mirror Seattle’s standard horizontal look on offense, or to just roll the disc out the side a little often like Boston’s defense. Rather, the road to team success is to take stock of where and who the team is in order to determine the best route forward. It isn’t an accident that Seattle and Boston are in the MLU Championship. Each committed to team-level improvement over the course of the season and didn’t lose heart when faced with early adversity. Week by week, each team discarded their ineffectual options in service of refining their on-field preferences.
This Saturday will pit two teams at the end of a season-long journey against one another. The teams will be the best on-field versions of themselves, as their improvements over the course of the season are plainly evident. While they have never been tested against each other, they have already defined themselves in opposition to their previous selves. And therein lies the secret. Whether the old Delphic maxim to “Know Thyself” or the rephrased modern advice to “Get In Where You Fit In”, the song remains the same: Before you can build your team or topple your opposition, you must first work to know your self. To get where you want to go, it is useful to know where you are.
It has been interesting and quite pleasing to watch these two teams develop over the course of the 2015 season. They represent the best of the league, and have earned the right to play for the title by doing the necessary work. The greatest reward, however, is not in the winning of the coming game, but in learning (or reinforcing) how unique a challenge any successful group venture is. Only one team will win this weekend, but both have already been on enlightening journeys over the course of the season which show how different paths may well lead to the same destination.