The AUDL offseason has already started. You surely didn’t miss defending club and AUDL champions Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen signing with the new Dallas Roughnecks franchise. Two of the best players in the game have already found a new home. But there are many others who could end up any number of places. There are a lot of questions facing the league as it is bringing in new teams but still facing some old problems.
- Who will be the title favorite heading into the 2016 season?
At the beginning of the 2015 season, there wasn’t much doubt who the best team in the AUDL was. The San Jose Spiders were the defending champions, and despite losing Kurt Gibson to San Diego they were still undoubtedly the most talented team in 2015. They still had 2014 (and 2015) MVP Beau Kittredge, and added Cassidy Rasmussen. But with Kittredge and Rasmussen in Dallas, the window is open. The Roughnecks aren’t done adding out of region talent, they’re undoubtedly a team to watch out for.
The new franchise in Austin has a lot of potential as well, with Austin being home to perennial nationals contender Doublewide. The Raleigh Flyers won the South last year, and if they can get the same lineup playing together on the field more consistently they should be even better next year. Madison made a finals appearance last year, and always brings their A game to the AUDL. And that Madison team barely beat the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds in the Midwest finals, after the Thunderbirds had won their first round game earlier that day. San Jose can’t be counted out, though Seattle may turn out to be the new favorite in the West. Any one of those teams has a plausible championship path, and even more may be the time the season starts. And I listed eight potential contenders without mentioning the Toronto Rush. Things may be tougher for Toronto this year though.
- Is this the year a team other than Toronto comes out of the East?
The Toronto Rush have won the each of the last three years they have played. In the four playoff games the team has played against opponents from the East over the last three years, the Rush are 4-0 with an average goal differential of +12.75. But could this year be different? The trend lines aren’t pointed in the right direction for the Rush. In 2013 they won the championship. In 2014 they lost in the finals. In 2015 they lost in the semifinals. Could they take another step back in 2016?
If they do, it will be because they’re playing in an improved Eastern division. The DC Breeze have been making moves. Stars from Truck Stop like Alan Kolick, Markham Shofner, Jeff Wodatch, and Nicky Spiva make the Breeze an instant contender. Yes, DC has added big names before only to fall short against Toronto, as happened in 2014. But this Breeze team will be different than the 2014 squad led by Tyler DeGirolamo, Brett Matzuka, and Alex Thorne. The Breeze are adding local talent, not bringing in players from outside DC. This team has played together before. And unlike the 2014 team, the 2016 Breeze will be building on a much more solid base. In 2015 the Breeze surpassed expectations by going 7-7, staying in the playoff race until very late in the season. The team that the Breeze put on the field will be deeper than any previous team they’ve had, with talent that is used to playing together. The team will feature much of the core that won the MLU title for the DC Current in 2014.
Add to that improved DC squad an always resilient New York Empire team, a Montreal team that is the only team in the East to ever beat Toronto, the young and improving Ottawa Outlaws, you’ve got a division that is looking tougher than ever. Oh, and there’s one more potential complicating factor in Toronto’s quest for its fourth Eastern crown in a row.
- Will the AUDL expand to Boston in time for the 2016 season?
The AUDL has long held Boston as an ideal candidate for expansion. And now it seems to be a matter of when, not if, it will happen. I don’t think know if there’s anyone that knows right now whether or not Boston will have an AUDL team in 2016, but it would undoubtedly shake things up in the East, and the league as a whole. Boston is one of the few ultimate hubs left in North America that doesn’t have an AUDL team, the other being Denver.
The complicating factor of course, is that Boston already has an MLU team, and not a bad one at that. The Boston Whitecaps won two of the three MLU titles, and made the playoffs every year. Could having a more established semi-pro team in town result in a second tier AUDL team, similar to situations that affected the Seattle Raptors or Philadelphia Phoenix? I wouldn’t count on it. Yes, the Whitecaps are the best team in the MLU. So good that they won the MLU Championship game 31-17. So good that they may prefer to play in a league that can provide them better, more diverse competition. Anything at this point is pure speculation, but the trend has been for talent to shift away from the MLU toward the AUDL. We’ve seen it happen in the Bay Area, Vancouver, Seattle, and now DC. If Boston does get an AUDL team in 2016 (and that’s still a big if) it could be the Whitecaps could be the next team to see their talent shift to their AUDL counterpart.
- What can struggling teams do to turn their team around? Will any break their cycle of losing?
In 2014 parity became a serious problem for the AUDL. Some teams were excelling, while others were stuck putting out a product that was fit for the 2012 inaugural AUDL season, not the higher caliber of play that was more common in 2014. The Salt Lake Lions, who went 0-14 in 2014, didn’t return for the 2015 season. The Rochester Dragons, who went 1-13 in 2015, won’t be coming back next season. These teams paint a picture for the teams that currently occupy the AUDL cellar, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. Those teams went a combined 6-36 in 2014, and followed it up with a 3-39 effort in 2015. And after the South has added two potential powerhouse teams in Dallas and Austin this offseason, there’s a chance that Charlotte and Nashville fall further into the cellar in 2016 too. Charlotte and Nashville went a combined 3-23 in 2015, but unlike the other cellar dwellers they were able to either play many close games against the top teams (Charlotte) or get a win against a playoff team (Nashville).
And while performance on the field isn’t the end all be all of running an AUDL team, you’re kidding yourself if you think it isn’t relevant. The Salt Lake Lions averaged over 350 fans per game in 2014, but didn’t stick around for 2015. Salt Lake was more isolated geographically, which didn’t help its cause, but if these franchises don’t display any momentum, either on the field or in the stands, it seems unlikely that each would be coming back for 2017.
What are these teams supposed to do though? Charlotte and Nashville both seem like they could get a few more wins through internal improvement, though it definitely won’t be easy. As long as the Spinners are in town it’s going to be difficult for the Phoenix to gain traction, but getting creative to bring in 2-3 of Philadelphia’s best players might be worth it. The Phoenix did experience some success in their inaugural season when Matt Esser and David Brandolph were on the roster. Since Brandolph and Esser left after the 2013 season the only team Philadelphia has beat is Rochester. And the Dragons aren’t in the league anymore. And for the Mechanix, Detroit is actually home to club champions qualifier High Five. For whatever reason almost no High Five players have suited up for the Mechanix the last two seasons, and that surely has contributed to their current 29 game losing streak. If the Mechanix could do something to repair that relationship it might breathe new life into the franchise. The Revolution revamped their roster in 2015, designing it to develop each year, rather than go all in for one year. Their results were mixed in 2015, though they did play the Thunderbirds and AlleyCats fairly tough later in the year.
Of course another option for these losing teams is to throw some money at out of region players. It’s a tried and true tradition, and made the San Diego Growlers a playoff contender and one of the most exciting teams in the league in 2015. Could one of these teams bring in a few big names for 2016? Should they? Is the window open for any of them to move into the playoffs if they add a few big players?
- Are any of the teams in the leagues middle tier going to take a step backward in 2016?
Every year there is a team or two that after a successful season, takes a step back the next year. It opens the window for teams beneath them in the standings to make the playoffs. It happened to Philadelphia in 2014, and to DC in 2015. With increased depth in most divisions, these middling teams will be more susceptible than ever to falling to the back of the pack. There are three teams in particular this could happen to. Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Chicago.
The Hustle started strong last year, after their May 9 win over Raleigh it looked like they might challenge for the top spot in the South, and at least figured to cruise toward a top two finish and playoff appearance. They were 5-1, and had at least one win against every opponent in the division. The rest of the season they only went 5-3, with all three losses coming against Jacksonville. Given how strong Jacksonville finished their season, the entrance of two new strong expansion teams, and a very underwhelming club season from Atlanta’s Chain Lightning, the Hustle could be in for an even tougher season next year.
The AlleyCats already took something of a step back last season, finishing 7-7 after going 9-5 in 2014. It was the first time Indianapolis was left out of the AUDL playoffs. But it’s not just that Indianapolis finished 7-7, it is how they did it. On June 7 the AlleyCats were 7-3, controlled their own destiny, and just needed to take care of business against a struggling Minnesota team to make the playoffs. But the AlleyCats lost both games to Minnesota and couldn’t capitalize against a half strength Radicals team in Madison. Cats fans may point to their bizarre three weeks without a game as having an adverse effect on the team, but there is a simpler possible explanation: Indianapolis isn’t just as good as the other top teams in the Midwest. Last season Indianapolis was 6-0 against Cincinnati and Detroit, and 1-7 against the rest of the Midwest. The schedule did them a big favor last year, which helped give them an advantage in the playoff race. If they don’t have a similar advantage this year, they could take another step back.
The final team on that list was the Chicago Wildfire. Frankly Chicago has regressed every year. And it’s not clear whether or not the Wildfire hit bottom last year. Chicago went 8-5-1, with a loss to Indianapolis and a tie (due to weather) against Minnesota. Sometimes the Wildfire played very well, as they did in their one point loss to the Thunderbirds in the playoffs. But there’s reason to believe that the Wildfire could potentially be missing a couple big pieces next year.
- In the era of ultimate free agents, where will everyone end up?
What’s remarkable about the news that Beau Kittredge and Cassidy Rasmussen will be playing with the Dallas Roughnecks isn’t that they’re traveling to play with a team in a different part of the country. That’s been done before. It’s not even that they’re leaving the two time defending champions to play with an expansion team, though that is surprising (and great news for the league as a whole). What’s unprecedented about it is that Rasmussen and Kittredge left a city with an AUDL team to play with a new AUDL team. We’ve seen players travel to play with AUDL teams. The Growlers had Jimmy Mickle, Josh Ackley, Nick Lance, and Kurt Gibson in 2015. New York had Noah Saul, Justin Allen, and Matt Bode in 2014. The DC Breeze had Tyler DeGirolamo, Alex Thorne, and Brett Matzuka in 2014. The Wildfire had Matzuka in 2015. The difference is, none of those players were leaving teams in AUDL cities to play elsewhere. Kittredge and Rasmussen are most likely the exception rather than the start of a new trend, but we won’t know for sure for a couple months.
This year the Chicago looks like the team most likely to lose out on the free agent merry go round. Goose Helton isn’t living in Chicago, and while he might be coming back to the Wildfire, he might not. And while Helton had a down year (for him) in 2015, he did a great job in leading Machine to the semifinals at the Club Championships this year and would be a huge addition to any team.
There’s also the question of who else will be joining Kittredge and Rasmussen in Dallas. While there is undoubtedly local talent that will contribute, it seems likely that a couple more out of region players will join them. Players like Jimmy Mickle, and Kurt Gibson are marquee names that could end up any number of places. One option in particular is particularly interesting.
- What will the San Jose Spiders do to regain their number one status?
Since they first signed Beau Kittredge in November 2013 the Spiders have been making a splash. They brought Kittredge over to the Spiders from the MLU. They flew Gibson in for games. And in 2015 they brought in Cassidy Rasmussen from San Francisco. If there is a sleeper team in this free agent frenzy, it’s the Spiders. San Jose has shown they are willing to make big moves to be competitive.
But let’s say they don’t bring in a Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, or other out of town talent. The Spiders still have a very good shot at winning the West even if they just return the rest of their core from 2015. How does a starting O-Line of Ashlin Joye, Simon Higgins, Christian Johnson, Chuck Cao, Sean Ham, Jordan Marcy, and Justin Norden sound? It still sounds pretty good to me.
Players like Kittredge and Rasmussen have absolutely played a large role in San Jose’s success. But what made the Spiders a truly dominant team is how good the rest of their roster was. Whatever happens the rest of the offseason, even if the Spiders don’t bring in new talent, (which they almost surely will) San Jose will be a contender.