Photo by Rodney Chen – UltiPhotos.com
The biggest game of the year is finally here. In just a few short hours the D.C. Current and the Vancouver Nighthawks will face-off inside of PPL Park for the right to call themselves the 2014 MLU Champions.
The D.C. Current have been preparing for this game since January. From early morning indoor workouts and sprints on the pitch with snow on the ground to hurricane force winds during weeknight practices – all of the work and effort the Current have poured out over the past seven months comes to fruition on Saturday in the MLU Championship game.
The Current showed early signs of greatness. They won their season opening game on the road over the Philadelphia Spinners only to follow that performance up by handing the Boston Whitecaps their first ever loss in MLU play in front of their home crowd in D.C.
D.C. suffered their only setback of the season in Boston during Week 3 play, but rebounded nicely the following week with another win over the Spinners. The victory over Philadelphia started a streak of eight-straight wins including the Eastern Conference Championship game. D.C. will look to stretch their winning streak to nine on Saturday.
“We’ve been building towards this the whole year,” said Markham Shofner, who finished the season tied for the team lead in assists with 30. “We were always expecting to be in this situation but it’s nice to have done it in such a dominating fashion. I think that we were a bit surprised by that, but now look around and measure ourselves up against everyone else. I think we’re feeling really good.”
With 234 goals scored, the Current are the highest scoring squad in the entire MLU, and had the best goal differential of any team at +43. Their efficient offense scored 72 percent of the points when they received the disc, and 18 different players recorded double digit point totals this year. Leading MVP candidate Alan Kolick paced the squad with 44 points on 14 goals and 30 assists, while Shofner (41 points: 11 goals, 30 assists) and Peter Prial (39 points: 23 goals 16 assists) were not far behind.
But what made the Current a truly special team was the play of their defense, which was dominant at times. D.C.’s defense went on a four-game stretch during the regular season where they recorded a run of at least four-straight break points in each game. But those four games were only a microcosm of the D-line’s success: The unit scored a break point over 33 percent of the time when they pulled to their opponents.
“I think the reason that we’ve been more successful this year is because of the improvement of our D-line,” said Kolick. “They have just gotten more athletic and people have really learned to trust each other.”
The Current will have to trust that their squad can capture the MLU title without the services of Kolick who is unable to play after breaking his non-throwing wrist while playing for his club team, Truck Stop Ultimate, last week.
“It was bad timing,” said Kolick. “But injuries happen and I can’t remember the last time I had a serious injury before this, so I guess I count myself pretty lucky. [Injuries] happen and I think that everybody will be fine filling in the spot that I took on offense. I still have 100% confidence that we will win.”
The Current’s offensive rotation will take on a slightly different look without the services of Kolick, who was the team’s primary handler this season. Shofner, who touched the disc on nearly every offensive point he played, will see an increased role along with Sean Keegan and rookie Lloyd Blake.
“You can’t replace anyone on our team; no one is replaceable in terms of what they bring for us, that’s why we picked them to play,” said Current head coach Keven Moldenhauer. “Alan is obviously an amazing player so there will be lots of places where we have to step up. But we trust our system and we trust what we’ve been working on. We won’t be as good [without Kolick] but hopefully we will do all the things needed to win the game.”
One of the biggest keys to coming away with a victory in the title contest is shutting down, or at least limiting, the impact of MLU Scoring Title winner Brendan Wong who tallied an MLU record 64 points on 48 goals and 16 assists.
“He’s just a very smart cutter,” said Dan Kantor, one of the D.C. defenders who will be tasked with shutting down Wong. “He understands how to make his timing work. Obviously he is a great athlete to be able to catch that many goals. But mostly he’s just very smart, and when you can time your cuts really well especially with the size of the MLU field you are going to put up a lot of goals.”
Wong is unquestionably the Nighthawks’ main target down the field. His 48 goals are more than double that of his next closest teammate, Gagandeep Chatha, who tallied 23. In total, Vancouver had just four players register more than 10 goals this season, while D.C. had eight players who eclipsed the double digit goal mark.
D.C. will not only have to account for Vancouver’s offensive weapons, but their dominant defensive player Morgan Hibbert as well. Hibbert was named the Western Conference Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week in recognition of his league high 20 defensive plays. Hibbert is a long, lanky defender that has proven again and again that he has the speed to cover the back half of the field against deep shots.
“He’s a big guy,” said Shofner. “I’m surprised that teams still throw it in his vicinity but I also think that he is just one guy on a big field. As long as we’re not taking shots against anybody who has a good play on the disc, whether it’s Morgan or any of their other players, as long as we are smart with the disc we should be fine.”
This will be the first ever meeting between these two squads in MLU play and the first championship game appearance for both sides. While it’s hard to draw conclusions or predict an outcome in a game where the opponents have never played one another before, Current assistant coach Will Smolinski says that he is sure of one thing.
“I know these guys are going to play their hearts out and they’re going to go out and leave it all on the field,” said Smolinski. “These guys want to be successful and whether that means they win or not, they are going to go out and run their hardest, and they are going to execute whatever Keven and I ask them to do. They will trust us that we are putting our best foot forward to make this championship happen.”
Tickets for the MLU Championship game are on sale now! Come cheer on the D.C. Current as they try to capture their first ever MLU title at PPL Park on July 19 starting at 6:30 p.m.