A Week at the Under-23 World Championships - Day 1, Part II

Posted: July 23, 2013 11:14 AM

The following is part of our of continuing coverage of the 2013 WFDF U-23 Championships in Toronto, Canada. 

In early games, the U.S.A. mixed team followed the men’s 17-11 win over Germany and the women’s 17-0 drubbing of Austria with a solid victory of their own: a 17-8 defeat of Venezuela. With the first round in the books, the afternoon play promised what was sold as tougher matchups for all three of the American squads: a men’s game against Australia and women’s and mixed games against highly-seeded Colombian teams.

Both the men’s and women’s games are scheduled for 3 p.m.  Fortunately, they are placed right next to each other, and the men’s game is in the stadium court. By taking a spot in the back row (and spinning your head like the Exorcist), it becomes possible to avoid having to make the hard choice of which game to watch.

Before the matches begin, the Colombian women look to be the tournament darlings. They are the number one seed, defending Junior Division champions, and what’s more, they have a dance. Yes, the Colombian national team boasts a CenTex-style choreographed dance, and it pulls in fans like the Dougie. As Colombia begins to bounce and cheer in preparation for their big match up, the Austrian men’s team, who had just earned a win over New Zealand, comes running over, and the German-speaking Austrians begin to clap and chant along. Other fans join in, and the women’s game starts to draw a real crowd.

U.S.A., never one to shy away from the fight, starts with the wind at their backs, both literally and figuratively. With their first possession, Jessi Jones of North Carolina’s Phoenix establishes herself as the team’s primary handler. She sets up in the middle of the backfield offense, a position she would come to occupy for the rest of the game, and dishes it to Paige Soper, who finds recent Callahan Award winner Claire Chastain for a big downfield gainer. Chastain’s early cut sets the tone for the women’s team’s offense – she will have no trouble getting open at any point during the game and becomes a constant locus of the U.S.A.’s disc movement.

Chastain places the disc deep to fellow North Carolinian Lisa Couper – it overshoots Couper in the wind, but Magon Liu rushes in to eat it up. Liu, an Iowa State standout about whom U.S.A. National Team mixed player Tommy Li cheekily quips, "Her high backhand is so good, it has its own Facebook page," will prove to be another big receiver for the American women throughout the day. Unfortunately, her dump pass on the goal line – a high backhand, in fact – gets eaten up by the wind, and it takes a number of attempts by both teams before U.S.A. is able to punch in the first point of the game with an under strike by Chastain.

On offense, Colombia runs a system very different from what the U.S.A. team showed. Their style is reminiscent of the offense run by the New York, New York squads of the late 80s and 90s, viewable on old Nationals videos: a stack set loose and very far away, leaving a lot of space available underneath. The dump – when there is one – sets up relatively far away as well, about halfway across the field, allowing the thrower plenty of room and visibility to take aggressive shots. And take aggressive shots they do – the Colombian women are not afraid of turning it so long as they turn it deep, perhaps as a tactical choice in the land battle that windy women’s games can become.

Colombia ties it at one a piece, but U.S.A. responds with another downwinder – again to Chastain – before earning their first upwind break when Colorado’s Amanda Good handblocks her opponent on the end zone line and busts long, leaving Magon Liu plenty of space to huck the disc to the team’s other Colorado Kali player, Megan Cousins, streaking up-field. U.S.A. caps their upwind break by scoring the downwinder on a pinpoint throw from North Carolina’s Shellie Cohen to Carleton’s Julia Snyder.

With the score now 4-1 (and a quick check over the shoulder showing the men’s team holding a surprisingly easy 6-0 lead on the field behind), it becomes apparent that the U.S.A. women’s team does not limit themselves to strict O and D lines. Liu and Jones, two of the players who had been on the field for U.S.A.’s first point of the game, a downwind offensive point, also play important roles on upwind defense. In fact, with the score 4-1, Jones takes the field on the D line and, after earning a turn, calls for a timeout to set a play. It works. The team scores on that possession with a floating lead pass to Liu up the forehand side.

When U.S.A. cashes in the down-winder as well and goes up 6-1, Colombia calls a timeout of their own. They need to find some tactical response to stay in this game. The wind is picking up, and as execution errors become more and more common, they need to find some way to settle down and score.

Colombia walks to the line confident, as though it’s the first point of the game and they’re loaded for bear. U.S.A. comes down in a zone look, a very aggressive option while Colombia has the wind at their backs. While the zone choice does nullify any set play Colombia may have tried to run, it doesn’t stop them: Colombia calmly moves the disc up the trapped sideline until they’ve eaten up so much ground that U.S.A. is forced to transition to man defense. Then, Colombia uses the space and handler freedom the switch provides to punch in a score and put an end to U.S.A.’s five-point run.

Of course, Colombia’s happiness is short-lived. With the wind at their backs again and the beneficiaries of a short pull, U.S.A. responds with Jessi Jones again picking up the disc. She unleashes a first-throw huck straight down the middle of the field to Magon Liu, who streaks deep out of a horizontal stack. It’s hard to stop a one-throw score, and the scoreboard now reads 7-2.

It’s surprising to see Colombia – the number one seed in this division – struggling so mightily, even against a tough U.S.A. squad. Some rumored that the cause isn’t a lack of talent, but a dilution thereof, due to the World Games. The Colombian squad is missing three of their top ladies and their coach, all of whom have stayed behind in Cali rather than visit Toronto because of the start of the World Games later this week. Whether that holds true or not, it’s unquestionable that Colombia certainly looks depleted, and they go down 9-3 at half. After that, they never do find their way, and as Liu, Jones, Chastain and defensive standout Amanda Good take over, Colombia falters, losing to the U.S.A. 17-6. (Interestingly, this is the same final score in the open U.S.A. v. Australia game one field over.) As playmaker Magon Liu noted, "The strongest aspect of my [U.S.A. women’s] team is the overabundance of talent." They certainly show that this afternoon.

With the open and women’s games in the books, it remained up to the mixed team to close out with a win and give America a clean sweep for day one.

Photo by CBMT Creative

The knock against many mixed teams – not all, but many – is that they don’t use their women. While it may be true for some squads, it certainly proves untrue for the U.S.A. team. On the first play off the pull, Oregon’s Topher Davis fields the pull, then centers it to handler Claudia Tajima of Boston’s Brute Squad. Tajima immediately hucks deep – to a female receiver, no less – who catches the disc and finds Simon Higgins in the end zone for the score.

The second point sees Higgins and Davis on the field again; like the women’s team, the mixed squad appears to prefer mixing up offensive and defensive lines to control the flow of the game and keep their opponents guessing. On the second point, Adrian Banerji quickly proves his mettle, knocking down two Colombian laser hucks en route to a U.S.A. break point, putting the team up 2-0.

"We need to make sure to leave room deep for our women!" calls coach Martin Aguilera before the next point, and looking down the line, it’s clear that veteran Lisa Pitcaithley – formerly of Polar Bears, now a member of Fury – is itching for a deep shot to come her way. She gets her chance: after a short-field score for a quick break, U.S.A. earns yet another turn, and Pitcaithley’s former Polar Bears teammate Natasha Won unleashes a huck to Lee Farnsworth, who finishes with a backhand to an unguarded Pitcaithley in the end zone for a goal that puts the U.S.A. up 4-0.

On the next point, Oregon’s Sophie Darch hucks to Aaron Adamson from Oregon State – how’s that for a Willamette Valley rivalry? – to make the score 5-0. After Claremont grad (and another Polar Bear) Tommy Li and Washington rising sophomore Khalif El-Salaam run the show for another goal, Sabrina "Kodiak" Fong finds Sarah Meckstroth in the end zone to make it 7-0.

"I am most excited about again representing the U.S.A., to be next to some of the best players in the U.S.A., especially the girls," said El-Salaam when going into the tournament. He also added, "The strongest aspect of our team is definitely our defense," and he’s proven correct on both counts. Riding the strength and aggressive play of their women as well as their stingy defense, U.S.A. rolls to half unscored upon. Colombia finally notches two points in the second half, but the game dissolves long before that into a practice ground for the mixed team’s best. The ladies, led by Tajima and Won, run the field with ease, and Simon Higgins notches a few more goals (and a number of highlight-reel grabs) as he continues to get open in the end zone. As a whole, this squad looks tough.

U.S.A. ends the day blowing out its competition. Of course, this leaves questions – lopsided wins like this always do. The U.S.A.’s stingy defense in both the women’s and mixed games forced plenty of errors, which is great, but the teams didn’t earn many blocks. True, they didn’t need to, not yet. But what remains to be seen is whether the confidence they’re building will help them in the long run, or whether the relative ease with which they’re getting back the disc will leave them unprepared for tougher competition in the later rounds.

Right now, there’s no way to tell. But what’s uncontestable is that the three U.S.A. teams all ended their first day at the Under-23 World Championships undefeated and looking forward to what lies ahead.



Day 1 Highlights - Images by CBMT Creative



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