May 30, 2023
By Evan Lepler
After an abbreviated holiday weekend slate, here are five quick hit takeaways from the first five weeks of the 2023 AUDL season.
- The New York Empire are still undefeated, but far from unblemished. The reigning champs have survived back-to-back overtime nailbiters in a way that’s preserved their perfect record, but dismantled their cloak of invincibility. With contests coming up against Boston, Atlanta, DC, Colorado, and Salt Lake, the Empire are certain to be battle-tested come the postseason. They will likely remain the title favorite even after a regular season loss, but the Empire appear to have more competitive company at the upper echelon of the AUDL than perhaps a year ago. This Friday night, they’ll go up against the 3-0 Glory, who have played New York tough in three of their four previous meetings, including both previous contests up in Boston.
Carolina, Colorado, and DC all pass the eye test when things are going well, but inconsistencies have plagued all three teams during their, at times, underwhelming month. Yes, even though the Summit are 4-0 and clearly full of talent, they are also still very much a work in progress in terms of reaching their true championship potential. The Flyers have had the most issues of the three, beginning their season with back-to-back five-goal losses after last year’s 11-1 season (with that one loss coming on the road by just one goal). But particularly after a weekend where the University of North Carolina performed so magnificently under pressure, the Flyers still exude a vibe of quiet confidence that their full-strength, late-season ability might be the closest thing to New York’s kryptonite. Of course, the Breeze also know that they must conquer New York to avoid another disappointing summer, and it will be fascinating to see how Rowan McDonnell fits into DC’s plans as the season progresses and the pressure ratchets up. Coach Darryl Stanley strived to utilize his former MVP on D through the team’s first three games, but often needed to bring him back onto the offense in key moments. In the Breeze’s most recent contest at Toronto, McDonnell was back on the O-line, suggesting that Rowan’s role remains malleable and uncertain for the weeks ahead.
The Atlanta Hustle and Salt Lake Shred are a combined 9-1 with dazzling overall resumes, yet both still have a great deal to prove as the schedule shifts to June. As aesthetically impressive as they’ve been, several uncertainties remain. The Hustle looked borderline unbeatable at home, but missed a massive chance to make a powerful road statement last week at Carolina. The Shred have arguably been the most exciting team in the league throughout their exhilarating 5-0 start, but Head Coach Bryce Merrill has publicly questioned whether his team’s shooting style will work against the better teams coming up on the schedule. Neither franchise has ever made Championship Weekend, and dreaming about a potential Hustle-Shred semifinal is thoroughly tantalizing. But at this point, despite their ceilings, both teams remain underdogs in their own divisions, meaning that they each still need to up their level multiple notches in order to make it to Minnesota this August.
The Chicago Union showcased some much-needed urgency, poise, and potential during their critical sweep of two important Central Division challenges this past weekend. Tied 17-all midway through the fourth against Madison on Saturday, the Union closed on a 3-1 spurt to prevail 20-17 and silence an raucous pro-Radicals crowd. One day later, after an early 6-1 lead shrunk to just one early in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, Chicago again slammed the door late with a 4-1 burst to win 16-12 over the Wind Chill. The late-game execution across both games is a tribute to the team’s renewed depth, which includes an army of newcomers mixed into the handful of experienced returners. Chicago rookies like Axel Agami, Wyatt Mekler, and Ben Preiss all were consequential contributors, especially on a weekend when Nate Goff and Asher Lantz did not play and Sam Kaminsky also missed the Wind Chill game. Meanwhile, as Detroit suffered its 64th consecutive defeat, two former Mechanix, Andrew Sjogren and Jake Steslicki, each enjoyed their own memorable moments during the Union’s resurgent, victorious weekend.
There are some eerie similarities between Madison, Philadelphia, and Portland, all organizations that entered the season with reasonable playoff ambitions, only to finish May a collective 1-11. Collectively, this embattled trio has each endured three losses by three goals or less, suggesting that none of the three are that far away if they can somehow swing the momentum. All have must-win home games on tap this coming weekend. The Phoenix’s haunted May concluded with a cathartic one-goal win over Pittsburgh, but the missed opportunities and excruciating moments far outnumber the positive feelings from the first five weeks. If Philly could somehow upset the visiting, favored Flyers on the second night of Carolina’s back-to-back this weekend, then the Phoenix would have a much clearer roadmap back toward contention for the East’s last playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Radicals should get a major boost from Pat Shriwise, who’s been serving as an assistant coach while participating in team practices, deciding to return to the active roster for their Sunday tussle against Pittsburgh. Shriwise helped lead Madison to the 2018 AUDL title, but hasn’t worn his Radicals jersey in a real game since July of 2019. Similarly, the Nitro are hoping that a home game against 0-5 Seattle might shift the vibes, although Portland will be missing superstar Raphy Hayes for their clash with the Cascades. Suffice to say, a Week 6 setback for any of these three franchises would feel pretty fatal for their faintly-flickering postseason hopes.