Thursday Thoughts: Week 12

1. Who is the MVP?

Honestly, I hope that one player leads his team on an amazing tear down the stretch. Like, say the New York Empire (2-5) win six of their last seven games and Jeff Babbitt finishes with 48 goals and 49 Ds. Or maybe if the Jacksonville Cannons (7-3) run the table, winning at the Raleigh Flyers (9-1) and Dallas Roughnecks (8-2) along the way, behind 10 goals per game for Jeremy Langdon. In these events, maybe there would be some consensus.

But at the moment, with both of these premises seeming unlikely, we are left with a decent sized pack of solid candidates, all of which are bunched together in the MVP discussion. Considering that many of the best individual performers are expected to miss a game or two (or more) over the next month, their inability to contribute to their cause while absent will also impact the conversation.

For example, Raleigh’s Jonathan Nethercutt, the league’s leader in assists for the top-ranked team, probably would be the MVP favorite right now. But as a member of the USA team that will be competing in France from June 18-25, Nethercutt is expected to miss three games for the Flyers. Could that hamper is MVP case? Absolutely.

Jonathan Nethercutt earned his second Player of the Week honors in 2017 during Week 10.

Similarly, Cassidy Rasmussen of the San Francisco FlameThrowers (7-2), who leads the league in scores (goals + assists) with 72, will also be competing at Beach Worlds, compelling him to miss the FlameThrowers’ big upcoming games against the Toronto Rush (7-3) and San Jose Spiders (6-3). By no fault of his own—who wouldn’t take the chance to wear the Team USA jersey overseas?—his MVP resume will take a hit as a result of his absence.

So along with these two, here are a handful of other names that will likely be in the mix over the critical next six weeks. The Seattle Cascades' (4-4) Mark Burton and San Jose’s Justin Norden will definitely be considered, though both are playing at Beach Worlds too (Burton for Ireland Mixed and Norden for Canada Mixed). Quietly, Matt Smith has risen to the number one spot in plus/minus thanks to his mistake-free performances for the Atlanta Hustle (4-6), a fact that should garner some support for the under appreciated Hustle captain. Toronto’s Cameron Harris, with a balanced 30 goals and 29 assists, will deserve a look too.

Justin Norden is the only player in the league other than Nethercutt who has earned AUDL Player of the Week honors twice this season.

The Indianapolis AlleyCats (2-6) have a dark horse, honorable mention candidate in Rick Gross and his statistically dominant season. Gross’s +54 is tied with Rasmussen for third in the league, though the AlleyCats 2-6 record renders him a long-shot. The Montreal Royal's (6-4) Quentin Bonnaud has certainly been a revelation throughout his team’s four-game winning streak, though the Royal would probably have to win the East to give the Frenchman a legitimate chance.

What do you do with the Dallas contingent? Jay Froude’s plus/minus is number two in the league, and there aren’t many bigger Froude fans than me. But the Roughnecks also have Dylan Freechild, who’s fifth in the league in scores per game, not to mention Jimmy Mickle, who I thought deserved the MVP a year ago. Can Froude win the league MVP if he might be the third best player on his team?

Jacksonville’s Cole Sullivan and San Diego’s Hunter Corbett are two guys that could bolster their candidacies with strong finishes, while guys like Tyler DeGirolamo, Mark Lloyd, and Mark Elbogen are in the ‘probably won’t have played enough as a result of injury or other obligation to merit MVP consideration’ club, even though they are all amazingly talented and productive when on the field.

Chicago’s Pawel Janas is having a Kobe Bryant-like season: he’s putting up plenty of scores, but he’s also taking an insane number of shots. Unless the Wildfire suddenly storm into the playoff picture, Janas remains outside the top tier. Same story for the Ottawa Outlaws' (2-5) Alec Arsenault, whose impressive numbers and playmaking ability have been noteworthy, but have not translated into the Outlaws producing a winning mark.

If you’re looking for a few other important players for good teams, perhaps San Francisco’s Antoine Davis, DC’s Rowan McDonnell, or Minnesota’s Ryan Osgar might leap into the upper levels of the debate by mid-July. Jacksonville’s Bobby Ley is another guy who could rise up the charts if the Cannons can spring an upset or two in their final month of the regular season.

Since you probably haven’t been counting, I’ll tell you that 24 players have already been mentioned here, and I probably could keep going.

Over the five year history of the league, only three individuals have ever won the AUDL MVP Award—Goose Helton (2012-13), Beau Kittredge (2014-15), and Dylan Tunnell (2016). There will almost certainly be a fourth member of the MVP fraternity by the end of the summer, but at the moment, it’s anyone’s guess as to who it will be.

2. The Toronto Rush need to win this weekend.

This isn’t about winning their division, though a victory over the San Francisco FlameThrowers on Saturday is imperative for that pursuit. The Toronto Rush have a golden opportunity to re-establish themselves as an AUDL power by taking care of business against shorthanded San Fran.

Back in 2013, the Rush were the kings of the league. They cruised through all competition, achieving a perfect season three years prior to the Roughnecks. As the AUDL expanded to 24 teams and deepened its talent pool considerably, the Rush have gradually slipped from their perch. Yes, they remain as an iconic championship franchise, one that, like Madison, has been to every final four since 2013. But when you have achieved the highest level, you are graded on a tougher curve.

Since winning the title in 2013, the Rush have gone 1-3 in Championship Weekend, with the lone win coming against their division rival, New York, in 2014. They are 0-3 against teams from other divisions, with Beau Kittredge being the club’s perennial nemesis. Either San Jose or Dallas has ended the Rush’s season in each of the last three years. While Kittredge is not expected to be in Toronto on Saturday, the Rush should be eager to make a statement regardless.

Furthermore, Toronto takes the field on Saturday looking to avoid its fourth loss of the season. Consider the fact that the Rush entered this year with a 54-4 record over the past four regular seasons. After dropping only four games in four years, the Rush could match that number if they falter against the FlameThrowers.

Could the Rush lose this game and still make Championship Weekend? Sure, they could, but also keep in mind that Toronto’s road trips to DC have not gone particularly well. In two games in DC this season—albeit, both on the second day of a back-to-back—the Rush lost 57-38. They will likely be heading back to Breeze-land in early August if they cannot be San Francisco on Saturday.

But aside from all these numbers, in my mind it really comes down to this: Saturday is a great opportunity for Toronto. The Rush have one of the top teams in the league coming to their house, but the FlameThrowers will be without superstars like Beau, Cassidy, Grant Lindsley, and others. They still will have a very capable roster, but nothing compared to what they would likely have on Championship Weekend. The Rush will be missing a handful of contributors as well, but many of Toronto’s top-line standouts—including Mark Lloyd—are expected to be in uniform.

If the Rush cannot beat San Francisco on their home field under these circumstances, can they really count on winning at DC or beating Dallas or Raleigh or San Francisco in Montreal this August? The race for a title is as wide open as it has ever been, and the Rush are in a great position to compete for their second championship. A win this weekend would illustrate that they are worthy of this lofty endeavor. A loss would relegate them from the top tier of contenders.

Hope you will tune it at 5:00 PM Eastern on Saturday. It should be one huckuva battle.

3. Pittsburgh Thunderbirds: Contender or pretender?

At 4-3 with just a +4 goal differential, it would be easy to simply declare that the 2017 Thunderbirds have underachieved. So far, their only wins have come against the bottom three in their division, a trio with the combined record of 5-18. And it’s not like those four wins have been blowouts; Pittsburgh has won by margins of eight, one, two, and two.

But with five of their next six games at home, beginning with a showdown against 6-2 Madison on Saturday night, the Thunderbirds are well positioned to peak at the right time. A win over the Radicals this weekend would bring them even for the second spot in the Midwest standings, and the Thunderbirds still have two games against 7-1 Minnesota that could decide the division’s regular season champ. Although Pittsburgh would need to beat Madison by seven to seize the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Radicals, even a slim win this weekend would keep them in the race.

Highlights from the first matchup between the Thunderbirds and Radicals in 2017.

What happens if they lose at home to Madison on Saturday? In that event, you can likely kiss their divisional hopes goodbye. In that circumstance, the Radicals would have to falter three times down the stretch while the Thunderbirds ran the table. And considering Pittsburgh’s lack of dominance over teams like Indy and Chicago, the Thunderbirds cannot exactly pencil in victories over those teams, even if they are at home.

Bottom line: this weekend will be a critical turning point for the Thunderbirds. Either they can secure a home win over Madison for the second time in three years and remain a true challenger to host a playoff game or two, or they can remain outside the top tier of contenders, both in their division and throughout the league.

Similar to Toronto, Pittsburgh’s home game is more of a must-win for them than it necessarily is for their opponent. Can they handle that pressure? We’ll find out Saturday night.