Seven On The Line: Week 8

June 18, 2024
By Evan Lepler

Tuesday Toss: Part 1

1. Pittsburgh’s Impressive Turnaround Continues

After starting their season with back-to-back home losses by a combined score of 41-25, few forecasted the Thunderbirds would be in playoff position with five weeks left. But after Friday night’s 17-12 triumph in Chicago, Pittsburgh has now won four of its last five games and engineered one of the more surprising in-season turnarounds in recent UFA history. 

“Our first two games against Minnesota and Madison were wake-up calls that we needed to figure out our offensive identity and get more aggressive on D,” said Thunderbirds Captain Jimmy Towle. “We took those losses seriously and made changes, which resulted in some of the best performances we’ve had in years. We’re not staying complacent, and everyone keeps pushing each other to get better.”

Friday’s battle in windy Evanston mirrored the T-Birds’ season a bit. Pittsburgh trailed 5-2 at the end of the first, but outscored the Union 15-7 the rest of the way. 

“It was a windy day by the lake with plenty of gusts and rare moments of calm, which meant a rough day for both offenses,” said Towle. “We started the game on O and came out timid…For the rest of the game, our defensive lines set the tone. The thing I’m most proud of from our Friday performance is the defense’s intensity on D and composure on O. Those players have gotten better every week and the Birds are seeing it pay off with every win we’ve picked up.”

Pittsburgh converted 11-of-22 break chances, while Chicago went just 5-for-16 on their D-line scoring opportunities. Considering the game saw 59 total turns, there were not many superb or standout statistical performances, but the Thunderbirds were totally fine with winning ugly.

“I want to shout out Dan Nicholls and Aiden Landis on their [UFA] debuts, Kenny Furdella and Connor Newell for being the rocks of our D’s offense, and Zac Byrnes for being an endless energy source,” said Towle. “We like to reference our 2019 season, where we started 0-3 before ending up in the [Central] Championship. We are underestimated every season, so we have a chip on our shoulder and know we’re better than analysts like to think. This year feels like a turning point for us.”

2. Atlanta Breaks Pittsburgh’s Two-Week Old Record

While the Thunderbirds were smashing Chicago despite enduring 26 turnovers, the Atlanta Hustle were relentlessly preserving possession against Houston. Atlanta went 13-for-13 on hucks, 13-for-13 in the red zone, and suffered just four turnovers in 48 minutes in their 27-13 humbling of the Havoc. The four turns was one fewer than Pittsburgh’s five turnover total from two weeks earlier against Indy, when the Thunderbirds set the UFA regular season mark for fewest turns in a regular season game. 

“Atlanta played unbelievable,” said Houston’s Matt Bennett. “I think people really underestimate how impressive their D-line offense is. While we may have gifted more turnovers than they earned, they still had to put it in, and they did every single time. They were machines.”

Though they weren’t completely perfect, the Hustle D-line did efficiently convert 14 breaks in 17 chances. Adam Miller and Justin Burnett each scored three goals and Michael Fairley tossed three assists while playing exclusively on the D-line. Meanwhile, Austin Taylor’s eight assists and Jeremy Langdon’s eight goals anchored the Hustle offense, which went unbroken against the Havoc D. 

The Hustle now share the all-time UFA record for fewest turns in a game—including the postseason—with the New York Empire, who had four turns in last year’s East Division title game against DC. Atlanta also currently leads the league with just 11.1 turnovers per game, the smallest average in the Association this season.

3. Carolina Cruises Over Houston

The Flyers’ D-line diabolically opened Saturday’s contest with five consecutive breaks, and Carolina led wire-to-wire in a 25-16 rout over the Havoc, their sixth straight victory to begin the season. It’s the first time the Flyers, who were founded in 2015, have started a season 6-0. 

Matt Tucker, John Wellers, and Drew Swanson all produced multiple blocks, while Allan Laviolette and Trevor Lynch combined for eight assists, seven goals, and over 900 yards to pace the Flyers offense. 

The UFA’s only remaining undefeated team, Carolina will put its perfect record on the line this Saturday night in Atlanta, where the Flyers went 0-2 in 2023.

4. San Diego Dominates Los Angeles

The Growlers outscored the Aviators in all four quarters on Saturday night in San Diego, outbreaking LA 11-1 in their 24-15 victory. It was the Growlers’ biggest win over their SoCal rivals since a 34-21 demolition back in 2018. 

“It was pretty fun to win like we did,” said San Diego Coach Kevin Stuart. “Even though I enjoy beating LA, they were banged up coming into the game, so it would have been sweeter to beat them at full strength. But I’ll take it.”

Former Aviator KJ Koo torched his old team for six assists, two goals, and 736 total yards. Travis Dunn added five assists, two goals, a block, and 481 total yards as the Growlers improved to 3-4 heading into a huge road trip to Colorado and Oakland, the two teams directly above them in the standings, this coming weekend. 

“I think that our playoff chances are in our hands,” said Stuart. “It definitely won’t be easy especially when we play Oakland three times and Colorado and LA on the road…I think our mindset has to be one game at a time. We have a little room for error but each one of these games down the stretch is pretty much a playoff game for us. Outside of our opening game disaster against Seattle, I think we have been locked in defensively, and now our offense is starting to click.”

Meanwhile, the Aviators, one year after advancing all the way to the West Division title game, find themselves at 1-6, firmly settled in the West cellar alongside Portland. Injuries to Brandon Van Deusen and Daniel Brunker, along with the departures of Marcel Osborne and Lukas Ambrose all combined to shrink LA’s margin of error, and the Aviators have been frequently plagued by an surplus of unforced errors.

“We make too many of them, and some are real head scratchers,” said LA veteran Michael Kiyoi. “This was obvious in San Diego. We just had way too many turns. Way too many. I’m not saying we should have won that game, but it should have been way closer.”

5. Seattle Stomps Portland to Reach 7-2

The first team in the UFA to reach seven wins this season? The Seattle Cascades, who earned their third double digit victory of the season on Saturday by pummeling Portland 24-13. (One day later, the DC Breeze also reached seven wins via their comeback victory over the Royal.)

But more noteworthy perhaps than even the outcome was the way the ‘Scades have continued to level up their game. They clearly had more talent than the Nitro on Saturday, but they also played brilliant ultimate, managing just 11 turnovers and going 20-for-20 in the red zone. Seattle actually shut out Portland 7-0 in the opening quarter, using a clean hold and six straight breaks to set a dominant tone. And the Cascades never let up, leading 14-5 at half, 18-8 through three, and winning the fourth quarter too en route to the 11-goal win. 

Rookie Jasper Dean enjoyed his best game yet, producing four assists and three blocks, while Mikey O’Brien, Shane Worthington, and Tony Goss all tallied multiple Ds as well. Offensively, Garrett Martin tossed six assists to lead the way. 

With one more win, the Cascades will officially punch their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. 

6. Austin Stays Unbeaten vs. Texas Teams

Though the final margin was closer than many might have expected, the Austin Sol still took care of business against Dallas on Saturday night, prevailing 23-20. After falling behind 2-0, the Sol took their first lead at 4-3 and never trailed again, hanging onto somewhere between a two and four goal advantage for the vast majority of the game.

“This past Dallas game was actually a lot of fun for the team,” said Austin’s Matthew Armour, who threw six assists and accumulated a team-high 621 total yards. “We had seven starters [unavailable], so we went pretty deep into the practice squad to fill out our roster. I think five players were making their debuts this season, and our two teenagers, Vance Mader and Taylor Masterson, caught their first ever UFA goals on Saturday.”

Joey Wylie added six assists and three goals, while Evan Swiatek produced six goals and one assist, as the Sol improved to 4-4 on the year. 

Team leaders continue to understand that their season will ultimately be measured by how they fare against Atlanta and/or Carolina in the playoffs, and despite an 0-3 record against those two top teams so far this season, the Sol still remain confident. 

“There is no shortage of confidence or belief as we near the postseason,” insists Armour. “We know that there are areas to improve, and we trust our coaches and captains to find ways to improve them. This season has given us some setbacks, but the Sol have always thrived when we’re able to harness that underdog mentality.”

7. DC Dazzles vs. Toronto

Before their wild comeback win over Montreal, the Breeze also enjoyed a solid Saturday in Toronto. DC outscored the Rush 12-5 in the middle two quarters and rolled 23-15. 

“The primary story to me on Saturday was our scouting,” said Breeze cutter Jeff Wodatch. “After our first game against Toronto, [Coach] Lauren [Boyle] and the rest of leadership did a great job identifying what they wanted to do on offense and had us really focus on stopping those things. We practiced our defensive discipline a ton last week, and it was the focus of our pregame meeting. The D-line executed the plan and made Toronto grind. We knew if we didn’t give them quick scores and made them work, then we’d get turns and tire them out.”

After earning possession, the Breeze D-line broke Toronto 11 times on 13 chances, a season-best 78.5 percent efficiency for DC. David Bloodgood, playing primarily on D-line, went 34-for-34 with three assists, three more hockey assists, and two blocks to lead the charge. Offensively, Andrew Roy, Jacques Nissen, and Tyler Monroe combined to complete 109-of-112 passes for a Breeze O-line. 

“The main takeaway was that it was a team win,” said Rhys Bergeron. “We knew that with many of our usual starters gone, it would take a collective effort from everyone on the roster in order to succeed.”

To Bergeron’s point, 18 of DC’s 19 active players recorded either a goal or an assist in the victory over Toronto.

The Hammer

With a pair of huge divisional rivalries on tap this weekend in the Central and South Divisions, I thought it might be interesting to ask some players from Colorado and Houston, who faced off against these top teams in Week 8, how they would handicap the upcoming Week 9 matchups.

The Summit lost to Madison by two and Minnesota by three, though the differing conditions make it tricky to draw too many conclusions.

“It’s somewhat difficult to directly compare the Minnesota and Madison teams due to the beautiful conditions on Friday and sloppy conditions on Saturday,” said Colorado’s Matt Jackson. “But overall, the Wind Chill felt like a more complete team. They have lots of guys that can unlock the whole field with their throws, whereas it felt like the Radicals were living and dying on Kai Marcus’ hucks. Defensively, Minnesota did a good job applying team-wide pressure in all areas of the field, and Madison relied on their younger players to win one-on-one matchups. Both teams run similar looking junk sets in the red zone; I don’t know this for sure, but it kinda feels like the Central Division teams pioneered the red zone junk, and both Minnesota and Madison are really good at making teams work for the final 20 yards.”

As for who has the advantage this weekend, Jackson suggested that home field advantage will matter.

“Minnesota felt more polished and Madison felt more gritty and energetic,” he said. “If the game was at Breese Stevens this week, I would expect the Radicals to keep the game close. But since they’ll be playing at Sea Foam, I’m betting on Minnesota to win by a handful of goals.”

Meanwhile, the Carolina Flyers could just about clinch first place in the South with a win at Atlanta on Saturday night, but the Hustle literally have not allowed either of their last two opponents to produce a single block. Can they keep it rolling against the Flyers’ much tougher defense?

“If they want to beat Carolina, it’s going to need to be with hard man D,” said Houston’s Matt Bennett. “[The Hustle] have the horses and I believe they can do it. Carolina has an insane amount of depth, that much is certain. I frankly think [Jacob] Fairfax should be in the running for MVP way more often than he is; he’s that impactful every single game. On Saturday, Carolina felt a bit more loose with the frisbee than Atlanta. Again, we gave the frisbee more than anything, but we were able to get eight blocks vs. zero in Atlanta.” 

Consequently, Bennett gives the nod to the Hustle this coming weekend. 

“Overall, I think they are definitely a great matchup,” he said. “I think both O-lines have some weaknesses and can be forced into turnovers, but their D-lines are where they have insane depth and a lot of strengths. I think if I had to choose, I’d probably take Atlanta in a head-to-head matchup between these two [this Saturday].”