Portland Nitro put on a winning show
To say that members of the Portland Nitro were jumping for joy on May 1 might be an overstatement.
But it's on target to state that the Nitro — a new member of the American Ultimate Disc League — has lofty aspirations.
In a 29-24 win over the Seattle Cascades — a contest Portland had control of throughout the second half — the Nitro entertained with leaping catches, long throws and timely interventions, giving the 1,500 or so fans at Providence Park plenty of opportunities to sound their support.
For athletes who usually play in relative obscurity, the opportunity to share their passion on such a stage was described as a dream come true.
"Getting to play in front of a crowd like this in an incredible city like Portland is really, really, really cool," Nitro player and general manager Jake Johnson said. "So much of my ultimate career, we just play in front of my teammates and the other team. The opportunity to come out here and play for the fans and have a team that is putting up highlights in front of all these people — it's really, really cool."
The game of ultimate is somewhat like seven-on-seven passing league football with a Frisbee. Except for inevitable collisions while players contest for discs in the air, it is a non-contact sport that requires footwork similar to basketball — and a lot of stamina.
Johnson and his Nitro teammates are back at Providence Park at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 8, for a match against Colorado, the second of Portland's six home games. Tickets cost $25.
Even if Providence Park wasn't filled with chanting supporters like it is for Timbers and Thorns soccer matches, the fans in attendance May 1 made themselves heard, and seeing acrobatic catches replayed on the video boards gave the contest a big-event feel.
"I think we got a pretty good turnout for what we expected," said Joel Caswell, the CEO of Pearl Sports Group, which owns the Nitro and its sister club, the Oregon Onyx, of the first-year Western Ultimate League. "We didn't really have a lot of expectations other than we were going to do the best we could as far as getting folks in the stands and folks interested."
The AUDL and the women's Western Ultimate League bill themselves as professional ultimate, but players can't make a career of the sport. Still, players welcome the structure, support and exposure for their sport. For example, a play from an AUDL game recently was a No. 1 highlight on ESPN's SportsCenter.
Beating Seattle, a more established club in the AUDL, was a nice way to introduce the Nitro to Portland and the result had coach John Thornton smiling.
"To be able to have a display of the sport that we love come across so well — really it was the best guys playing at the top of their game in front of a crowd that loves them. So, to be a part of that was really a dream come true," Thornton said.
Leandro Marx, who made the AUDL team of the week for his eight-assist, 28-completion performance, noted that the Nitro roster is built around guys who have played together for years at the amateur level.
"We just developed chemistry over the years and know each other's movements and it makes it a lot easier," Marx said.
To the untrained eye, nothing about a 61-yard Marx-to-Daniel Lee connection for the first score in Nitro history looked easy, though Lee — who had a big day with five goals, 337 receiving yards and a couple of important defensive plays — was well behind the defense on the opening score.
Portland's 29 points were among the most in the AUDL on opening weekend. The league's field dimensions are wider than college or amateur leagues use, a challenge for the seven defenders tracking the movement of seven offensive players.
"We just were smart about matchups," said Thornton, the coach. "Everybody was talking and communicating, to make sure that we were making those adjustments. And then we got very comfortable and our offense was able to hum the way we knew we could."
Johnson said field vision is critical, both to exploit defenses and to conserve energy on the 53-yard wide playing surface.
"You've got to make sure that you're not endlessly running around in circles but that you're conserving your energy because it's a track meet out there. It's really exhausting on this big field."
While Portland took advantage of its speed and its size against Seattle, but Johnson explained completing passes it isn't as simple as chucking discs to open areas.
"You've got to be able to have a wide range of throws because against top defenders, they're going to take away a lot of your first option," Johnson said. "It's like in basketball, you've got to be able to post up and hit the layup and you also got to be able to shoot threes. It's really important to be able to have a wide arsenal of throws."
The May 1 match with Seattle was the first of 12 for Portland in the AUDL season that runs through July 30, followed (the Nitro hope) by playoffs.
"I think we started a little rivalry tonight," Johnson said following the win over Seattle. "Seattle has been around a long time. They've been one of the forerunners in the league for having a men's and women's ultimate programs. And they've been yearning to have a Portland team so that they don't have to travel as far and they can get a little rivalry."
For the women's team, a two-point loss to unbeaten Seattle on May 1 at Providence Park marked the end of a 3-3 regular season. The Oregon Onyx finished in third place in the Western Ultimate League, and will play in a season-ending championship tournament May 14-15 in San Diego. The Onyx face the San Diego at 7 p.m. May 14 in their semifinal game, which can be seen on the WUL's YouTube channel.
Jaycee Jones, the GM of the Onyx and a player for the team, noted that playing in the Western Ultimate League is more serious than the less formal amateur competition the Onyx players were used to before joining a professional team. And, while the pay isn't much — Jones said a running joke is that players will use their money to buy drinks at a season-ending party — having travel, uniforms and other expenses covered are benefits appreciated by players who usually have to pay to play the game they love.
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