May 11, 2021
By Adam Ruffner
Just over three weeks away from opening pull of the 2021 season, and I'm here to fill in for Evan Lepler this week as he takes a much deserved vacation before his grueling broadcast slate kicks in. Without belaboring the point, a lot his changed since we last saw action on the field in 2019. So, it's time to take a look at which teams improved the most during the extended offseason leading up to 2021. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Nearly five years removed from their first-and-only playoff appearance, the Hustle have made some big (read: tall) upgrades as they prepare to play in the new Atlantic Division. Always competitive, Atlanta has historically struggled with consistency and matching up with the top talents on opposing teams, leaving them mired as a middle-ground, litmus test squad; the Hustle, fittingly, are 34-34 during the regular season, and 1-1 in the playoffs.
The signing of Antoine Davis in the fall of 2020 signaled a shift. The 6’2” all-star is unlike any playmaker that has previously suited up for the Hustle: Davis is bigger, he’s faster, and he brings an unbridled energy to a team that is in need of a firestarter. His raw numbers the past three seasons—25 assists, 32 goals, and 13 blocks per season from 2017 to 2019—have been hamstrung by turnovers. But a new start in the very efficient Atlanta system could transform Davis from streaky to true star. Davis has predominantly played on the offensive side of the disc, but he could be most valuable to this Hustle team as a top flight defender.
Flanking Davis will be the new signing of Jakeem Polk. A former cornerback at Wingate University, Polk has been fed odd playing time on three different teams the past four seasons as a pro, leading to mixed results. Here’s the play you will want to watch to understand Polk’s potential, though. Pairing Polk with Davis could give Atlanta a diabolical defensive duo—there’s your hallmark Lepler alliteration for the article—and discourage teams from even testing the skies.
Former Cannons Tyler Kunsa and Michael Fairley are two terrific need-fit pieces for Atlanta’s postseason hopes, too. While never playing a full season, Kunsa’s throws are as big as they are accurate. In 19 games with the Cannons, Kunsa threw 37 assists on 808 completions compared to only 24 throwaways, showcasing a high volume ability with a tactician’s eye. Fairley on the other hand is a big body playmaker, capable of slotting in as a receiver or downfield defender. Both players are remarkably efficient with the disc—Kunsa had just seven throwaways and zero drops in nearly 500 touches in 2018, and Fairley has fewer turnovers than career games played—making them easy plug-ins for a Hustle lineup that already finished with the second fewest turnovers in the league in 2019.
And while not a new addition, the return of Parker Bray from missing the entire 2019 season gives Atlanta another utility piece to play with. Bray is a “striker” as a thrower, having put up an impressive 41 assists in 2018 while splitting time between offense and defense. Atlanta has said that they plan on utilizing him in a downfield “hybrid” type role that maximizes his potential as both a thrower and an athlete—think Bryan Vohnoutka or Ryan Osgar. And with the new weapons around him, Bray has the potential to put up a similarly impressive scoring total by the end of 2021.
The Union have had a tumultuous experience in the AUDL up until this point. They made the playoffs in each of their first three seasons as a franchise from 2013-2015, but failed to win a single postseason game in that time. Chicago then missed the next three postseasons, posting an overall record of 12-30 and stumbling to the bottom of the Central Division. Chicago regained some form in 2019, clinching a playoff berth with a 7-5 regular season record, before bowing out to the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds in the opening round of the playoffs and skidding the Union’s playoff record to 0-4 all-time.
And while history certainly defines context for the 2021 AUDL season, Chicago’s playoff woes feel distant after restocking their roster with former champions, exciting young prospects, and defensive depth.
New additions Peter Graffy and Pat Shriwise, and the re-signing of Kurt Gibson, who played for Chicago in 2018, give the Union three stars with Championship Weekend experience. Graffy and Shriwise are already all-timers in the AUDL—Graffy is second all-time in blocks (171), while Shriwise ranks in the top 20 in assists, completions, and games played—and were instrumental in Madison’s championship run in 2018; their playmaking battery led the most efficient offense in the league that season. Gibson is one of the most decorated players to ever play the sport, and has won titles in 2014 (San Jose) and Dallas (2016). He’s also a ruthless competitor in the playoffs: In just eight postseason appearances, Gibson has amassed 24 assists, 18 goals, and 317 completions (94.60 percent) in 193 points played. All three have been “The Guy” on championship teams, and all three elevate their play to almost unreachable heights in elimination settings.
And they’re just the tip of the iceberg for Chicago’s overhaul.
Keegan North might be the steal of the offseason. Formerly Indy’s ace-in-the-hole on a stacked offensive lineup, North excels as both a thrower and a receiver on any given point; if you play him straight up as a thrower, his athleticism will quickly become apparent downfield; if you back him as a receiver, he will eviscerate your defense with fill-gap routes and pinpoint throws. North averaged a robust 37 assists, 32 goals, and 282 completions over the past two seasons with the AlleyCats. But maybe most importantly, North upped his completion rate nearly five full percentage points from 2018 to 2019, hinting that the 26-year-old hasn’t quite reached his ceiling.
Joining North will be one of the most hyped rookies to enter the league, and the reigning offensive MVP for the most recent club season in 2019, Joe White. The gangly Carleton grad is the epitome of a “shooter”. There’s seldom an opportunity he doesn’t take when the disc is in his hands, and he makes a lot of opportunities for himself with his speed and explosiveness. And his big-play excellence oozes with the kind of puckish swagger that can rally a team from a single score—White is a lightning rod when he’s on. In an offense run by Pawel Janas, it would be shocking to not see White among the league leaders in goals.
But it’s the re-addition of Von Alanguilan to the defense that may be the most crucial of any of Chicago’s offseason moves. A true primary defender, Alanguilan is a chameleon in coverage: His speed and instincts make him a natural in downfield space, but his field IQ and relentlessness make him just as disruptive in handler sets and in the lane. The Union ranked seventh in goals allowed in 2019, but finished middle of the pack in takeaways. With Alanguilan spearheading matchups, Chicago could creep into the top five in both categories in 2021.
Dallas didn’t need reinforcements, really. Coming off back-to-back championship game appearances with one of the younger rosters in the league, the Roughnecks have talent spilling off of both their offensive and defensive rotations. But after another pillaging of Austin’s roster, and some key re-signings, Dallas looks much mightier than before.
Let’s start with the cadre of ex-Sol players that Dallas requisitioned. Kyle Henke is one of the brightest young stars in the league at the age of 22, and is already receiving raving praise from new Dallas Head Coach Jim Davis in practices. Michael Matthis has averaged just shy of a block per game in his 41 career appearances, and adds another solid defender to an already deep Roughnecks stable. Rory Orloff is like the Wario version of Thomas Slack; both have slightly limited skillsets, but are nevertheless plus-level parts of any offense. Mason Wuensch was a standout part of Austin’s defense as a rookie in 2019, and notched three blocks in a game against Dallas—of course the ‘Necks nabbed him, too.
The most intriguing player coming over from Austin, however, is Chase Cunningham. A featured star for the Sol on both sides of the disc, Cunningham averaged 47 assists per season from 2016 to 2018 as a big 6’3” lefty thrower with a green light. In Austin’s only playoff season, Cunningham did it all: 52 assists, 29 goals, 16 blocks, and 309 completions while playing a Herculean 358 points during the regular season. Sadly, Cunningham suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of 2019, halting his ascent into true stardom.
On his former team, Cunningham was perhaps asked to do too much, too often. Among qualified players (40+ career games), Cunningham ranks seventh all-time in points played per game (26.78), putting him in a company with Jimmy Mickle, Andrew Roney, Pawel Janas, and Jonathan Nethercutt. In other words: MVP-level players. Now with Dallas, Cunningham may be able to pick his spots more carefully, and up his efficiency numbers.
Those additions alone would be enough to push almost any team into championship contention, but this is Dallas, so of course we go bigger from here.
Enter Chris Mazur. The kind of pure, power thrower that changes the dynamic of any lineup he’s inserted into, Mazur returns to Dallas after a four-year hiatus from the team; he won a title with the Roughnecks in 2016, and was their top handler in 2017, throwing 44 assists and nearly 600 completions in 15 games. Mazur doesn’t just bring talent, though: He’s made three consecutive Championship Weekend appearances as a player (2016-18), and plays with a visible competitor’s edge. If plugged in alongside Abe Coffin and Dalton Smith, Dallas could own the most fearsome throwing lineup in the league.
On paper, Dallas looks like a top three team offensively and defensively heading into the season.
Minnesota Wind Chill
Out of all the teams on this list, Minnesota has the most “what ifs” involving their roster and its potential additions. What if Josh Klane isn’t fully recovered from surgery? How many games, if any, will Matt Rehder play? What will happen with their Canadian imports from 2019?
It was previously thought that the Canadian additions would not be able to play during 2021 due to border restrictions during COVID. But there they are on the 2021 Wind Chill roster, in case something changes in the coming months and allows them to be available for travel. In particular, Quinn Snider would be a massive gain, as he looked like a star in limited opportunities, having multiple statement games against playoff level competition as a rookie.
Even without them, though, Minnesota did a great job (re?)building their roster.
The key addition was the signing of vagabond handler Brett Matzuka. A six-year AUDL veteran with four different teams, Matzuka is excellent at being a main initiator and distributor in any lineup—only five players ever have thrown more completions than Matzuka’s 2,321; only one of them (Andrew Brown) has a higher completion rating than Matzuka’s 95.6 percent career mark. But the most impressive stat of Matzuka is this: He’s never missed the playoffs. Minnesota’s defense knows how to generate turnovers—they were third in takeaways in 2019, and Jimmy Kittlesen led the league individually—but they’re not especially good at converting those opportunities into breaks. Matzuka feels like a perfect fit.
Rehder was set to play for the team in 2020. But like many things since the spring of that year, things changed. Now it’s unknown how Rehder will configure into the Wind Chill’s plans. Regardless, if he does suit up, there are only a handful of players ever who can have the kind of singular effect on a game as Rehder as a downfield receiver. Nobody in the Central—maybe the league,even—would want to face a fully healthy Klane-to-Rehder combo in the playoffs.
New additions aside, the real haul for Minnesota was re-signing a quartet of former team veterans in Colin Berry, Charlie McCutcheon, Charles Weinberg, and Tony Poletto. Berry and McCutcheon are both great defenders who excel at different things. The former is a big, lanky, smart defender who provides one of the best canopies downfield for limiting opposing hucks, and could finish the season near the top of the league in blocks; the latter is a tenacious coverage specialist who grinds opponents down on in-routes. Weinberg was a nice complementary pairing with Vohnoutka in 2018, and figures to reprise his role as a continuation receiver. Poletto is a high volume, highly accurate thrower who worked well alongside Klane as a relief valve and distributor.
If all things come together as planned, this is a roster that could challenge Chicago at the top of the Central Division.
San Diego Growlers
With Dallas moving into the division for 2021, the reigning West Division champion Growlers had the difficult task of somehow trying to improve on a roster that won 10 games during the 2019 regular season. Well, San Diego accomplished that and then some, adding a flight of players that includes AUDL champions, all-stars, and some “rotation” guys who would probably be outright stars in a different setting.
Probably the most attention-grabbing headline for the Growlers was the signing of former Seattle star Khalif El-Salaam. A name on the international stage since he was a teenager, El-Salaam has thrived as a pro, averaging 3+ assists, 2+ goals, and a block per game in 22 career appearances while mostly playing on defense. It must have been El-Salaam’s performance in Week 13 of 2019 against San DIego that really made the Growlers take note. Needing a win at home to clinch the division, San Diego barely fought off a reeling two-win Seattle team thanks to El-Salaam’s six-assist, seven-goal, 41-completion night. Two parts of El-Salaam’s deserve special treatment: He’s sneakily become one of the most efficient and dangerous throwers in the AUDL, holding a 94.00 percent completion rating on nearly 400 career throws and tallying 30+ assists in both seasons he’s played; El-Salaam ranks third all-time in league history in points played per game, averaging an absurd 29.52 per contest.
Lior Givol and Greg Cohen have won multiple championships between them, including most recently in 2017 with San Francisco. The speedy Givol has flown a bit under the radar as an offensive weapon the past two seasons, averaging 2.7 assists and 3.9 goals per game in his last 18 appearances; Givol’s average of nearly seven scores (assists plus goals) per game puts him just a hair under Rowan McDonnell. Cohen began his career making big plays in big moments at Championship Weekend, and his solidified into one of the best one-on-one defenders in West Division history. His 73 blocks in 54 career games demonstrate his ability to force turnovers, and will be an added boon to a San Diego unit that ranked fifth in takeaways in 2019.
Not done on the defensive side of their roster, the Growlers still yet added a trio of extremely reliable veteran defenders in Jeff Silverman, Paul Lally, and Zac Schakner. At this point in their careers, Silverman and Schakner are technicians who still have more than enough athleticism to make plays. Lally is a Cohen-like big body who can take top matchups from opponents willingly, and thrive. Other than Dallas and maybe Minnesota, the Growlers may have one of the most fearsome and deepest defensive rotations in the league in 2021.