USCL Wildcard round/Playoff Predictions
As the struggling New York Giants desperately try to correct their season against the Seattle Seahawks, a similar picture is emerging in the USCL. After a crazy season that saw new teams joining the fray, old powerhouses relegated to the bottom of the standings, and 2800s on board 2, we've finally reached the postseason. This is just New Jersey's second trip to the playoffs, and we certainly can't be happy with how we closed out the season. Nurturing a division lead with just two weeks to play, we got flattened by Seattle and nicked by Boston to send us back to significantly lower seeding. Besides the fact that we lost the draw odds advantage even if we advance, we have to play an extra match against... Seattle. Like the Seahawks, the Sluggers have come back from a very lackluster start to the season to earn themselves the wild card spot. With NM Golub perfect on the bottom board and IM Orlov playing incredibly on the top one, Seattle certainly has the potential to make a deep playoff run. New Jersey, on the other hand, desperately needs a win - not only to stay alive in the postseason, but also to establish that we're not spiraling downward. This should make for a very interesting match!
|Seattle Sluggers||New Jersey Knockouts|
|IM Georgi Orlov: 2528||0.5||0.5||GM Alex Stripunsky: 2656|
|FM Curt Collyer: 2302||0.0||1.0||GM Joel Benjamin: 2634|
|NM Nat Koons: 2293||0.5||0.5||IM Alexander Katz: 2380|
|NM David Golub: 2270||0.5||0.5||Ethan Klein: 2022|
|Average Rating: 2348||Average Rating: 2423|
|Seattle Total||1.5||2.5||New Jersey Total|
The Sluggers have been a thorn in our side for some time now, but this is a match we simply should win. With big rating advantages on all boards except the last, this is certainly the easiest match we'll have all postseason. However, it could just as easily be the last match we'll have all postseason, as NM Golub (7-0!!) and NM Koons have proven themselves to be significant overperformers, as has IM Orlov (who has a performance rating over 2800 this season!). While I doubt we'll see any 3.5-0.5 shenanigans, we certainly can't relax here. In fact, despite our draw odds, Seattle probably feels like they should even be favored here.
Board 1 has IM Orlov, who as mentioned is having an incredible season, take white against GM Stripunsky. The latter has struggled this season, but his record is misleading as he's had two very promising positions go awry in time pressure. One of those was against IM Orlov himself, as he simply hung an exchange in a winning position and missed a couple chances to draw later on (though it was irrelevant to the match at that point anyway). That said, IM Orlov is undeniably one of the most valuable board 1s in the league this year, and he's certainly playing like a strong GM thus far. A draw ensues.
GM Joel Benjamin has, as usual, been having a great season on board 2. In fact, he was a couple of key moves away from earning the league MVP title, where he finished third anyway. This game he plays against FM Collyer, who, well, can't exactly claim the same credentials. Given that they could have legally put GM Anka or FM Cozianu on board 2, it's a little strange to see a usual board 3 moving up - particularly in the playoffs. That said, this is the USCl and nothing can be counted on, but this is probably as favorable a matchup as we'll ever get.
NM Koons has white against IM Katz, who played a very bad game last time and deservedly lost. Koons, as a clearly underrated player, will probably need to put the full point up if Seattle wants to advance, which may or may not prove to be particularly difficult. Board 3 has been pretty painful for the Knockouts, ranking only ahead of Los Angeles in that regard. A loss here would basically epitomize this season, and correcting that is going to be necessary for not just this match, but also for the remainder of the postseason.
Finally, "National Expert" Ethan Klein looks to ruin NM Golub's perfect season. The combined play of Klein and Jacobson on the bottom board is the main reason why NJ managed to get into the dance this year, as board 4 suddenly shifted from a disaster for the Knockouts to a significant strength. Last time NM Golub got the better side of this matchup, but Klein was certainly not without chances. Perhaps this is a misguided vote of confidence, but somehow I see Klein playing the spoiler role here - and giving the match a huge boost in the process.
Of course, it's not very interesting to just predict the results of today's matches, given there's only one other one. Much more interesting is to talk about all of the playoff teams. Like Greg, I'll rank them by how likely they are to win the championship:
#10: Seattle Sluggers
This team has looked vastly improved over the last couple weeks, but it's a huge stretch to consider them serious championship contenders. Given the half of the bracket they fall in, they'd most likely have to defeat New Jersey, Dallas, New York, and St. Louis en route to the championship - overcoming draw odds in the former two. It's worth noting that they lost to Dallas in the final week despite the Destiny clinching the division and putting forth a lineup that clearly is not their best, which makes it even more unlikely that they'd overcome draw odds against their A-team. I can certainly see them winning one of these matches, but they're not going to win four.
#9: Connecticut Dreadnoughts
I'm hesitant to rank these guys so low, but the blunt truth is they don't look particularly impressive. The services of GM Lenderman were a big cornerstone of this squad, and in the absence of them they've simply floundered. Of course, they have some bright spots, such as GM Barbosa and NM Chandran, but they haven't been able to find a satisfactory answer to the board 4 question. Furthermore, besides a win over a St. Louis team that was still finding themselves (and which, notably, involved GM Lenderman on board 1), their scoring has not been particularly impressive. Like any of the postseason teams, they certainly have the potential to make a deep run, but there are still plenty of open questions that they need to answer.
#8: Miami Sharks
Alright, yes, this is Miami, and we all know that the second you write Miami off they roar back and win a championship. But you can only rely on GM Becerra, as much of a beast as he is, for so long, and there are several glaring issues with the Sharks' roster. They rank slightly below average on every board except the top one, and in a year where the 2700 (or 2800!) board 1 is becoming more and more common, GM Becerra isn't the near-lock he was in earlier years. Give this squad credit for defying everyone's expectations year after year, but my expectations are still that this team will be one-and-done.
#7: Rio Grande Ospreys
Yes, this seems like a pretty low ranking for such a high seed, but let's not forget where their high seeding comes from. Wins over Los Angeles, Carolina, Seattle, Atlanta, and Arizona are great and all, but those are not exactly championship-caliber teams. Their win against Dallas in the middle of the season was certainly encouraging, but losses to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Seattle were not. The issue with this team is that while they're sticking to the 2 GM, ~2300, ~2000 philosophy, their GMs are struggling when they play similar opposition, putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on their bottom boards to respond with upsets of their own. This is one of those teams that is definitely dangerous to play against, but which is probably not going to pull off three big wins against New York, Dallas, and St. Louis in succession.
#6: San Francisco Mechanics
This placement is a little hypocritical, as I just finished talking about how to take other teams' records with a grain of salt due to the fact that they didn't really beat any good teams. However, the Mechanics look really good on the bottom boards, and the more Naroditsky plays the more this team looks like a serious contender. Add to this the fact that they're spoiled for choice with both two strong GMs for board 2 and several promising juniors for the bottom ones, and this is a team that could definitely put something together in the coming weeks. While they do have to play Of course, if New Jersey loses this team's chances probably double, as they don't get stuck in the difficult half of the bracket that way.
#5: New Jersey Knockouts
I struggled with how to order NJ, Manhattan, and San Francisco, but I'm putting us here because we need to win one more match than Manhattan. Getting past Seattle is going to be a challenge inofitself, but even if we manage to do that we run right into the Archbishops. The reason I have us above San Francisco is because of the bracket half we fall into, which means that we avoid NY and Dallas until the championship. All that said, this is definitely a team that has the capacity for a championship run, but we need to get production going on the odd numbered boards if we want to even get past tonight. Also we need to stop playing west coast teams so AAAAAAAAAAARON JACOBSON can continue his incredible season.
#4: Manhattan Applesauce
I really struggled with where to place this team, having them as low as 7th and as high as 3rd in some drafts. I think this is a pretty fair position for them. While they boast a division win, it really came from taking care of the weaker teams and getting one nice win, over NJ, at the beginning of the season. Thus, like Rio Grande, their high seeding has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, they're starting to figure out their best lineups now, and their high seeding does ensure that they get draw odds for their first match. Also taking into account the half of the bracket they fall into, they certainly have the capability of going deep into the playoffs. I just don't see how they're going to compete with the top three teams.
#3: Dallas Destiny
Well, this was not an easy decision. The top three teams - Dallas, New York, and St. Louis - all look like they're head and shoulders above the remainder of the field. Unfortunately, ordering them is pretty difficult, as they each basically cruised into the playoffs and looked great doing it. In the end I put Dallas at the bottom of the three, because they were lucky to escape New York during the regular season. That said, all of the three are pretty close, and I fully expect that the championship will go to one of those three teams. The biggest problem for this team, interestingly, is the top board - which will only be magnified against giants like GM Kamsky and GM So. Their production on the bottom boards, which gives them a decent matchup against St. Louis, but New York has all-star candidates there too. That semifinal match should be extremely interesting.
#2: New York Knights
Again, the top three here are pretty close to each other, but Dallas and New York have the defect of being in the same half of the bracket. St. Louis, on the other hand, gets a much easier route to the finals, so they earn the top spot here. They lost a single match this season, to New Jersey, which did magnify the fact that they have some issues. Matt Herman is one of the most dynamic players in the league, but he's also vulnerable to weird 40-minute thinks on ...h6 and getting positionally destroyed quickly. Their bottom board could also use some shoring up. But the reason I have them ahead of Dallas is their upcoming head-to-head match. GM Kamsky outclasses anyone they can put on the top board, and though their bottom boards are having a great season, Dallas's Guadalupe and Ramachandran are likely to have trouble with either the Huang/Qibiao lineup or the Qibiao/Kumar one. They certainly could strike back on board 2, but you just can't count on anything when playing Herman. And, perhaps more importantly, New York has the undeniable advantage in the potential blitz playoff. Finally, New York has a better chance against St. Louis than Dallas does, as beating St. Louis is realistically going to require a win over one of the super-GMs.
#1: St. Louis Archbishops
I don't think this team is the best in the league, but they do have the best chance to win the championship. They have the option of playing GM So and GM Liem on the top boards, which against the weaker teams is a pretty surefire way to earn at least two points. While this wasn't necessarily a great strategy during the regular season, where there was a big risk of giving up draws due to compromising their bottom boards, they effectively have draw odds in every match. There's simply no team who's going to beat both a former World Blitz champion and a current world top 10 in a blitz playoff, even if you let the remainder of the league play any four players they want. Considering that the blitz playoff, while exciting, significantly favors the team with the better best player, even their latest lineup of GM So, GM Finegold, and two young masters is going to be terrifying in any tiebreaker - let alone the actual match itself. It's going to take a win over one of their super-GMs to beat this team, which is why New York (with GM Kamsky) should have a fighting chance. All that said, this team is not immune to head-scratching losses (e.g. against Baltimore), and they haven't had a real test yet this season (no matches against top teams like New York, Dallas, New Jersey, etc.). I'm not sure how much that'll matter, but it is definitely something to keep in mind as the playoff progress.
Also we should all make brackets because brackets are fun (excuse the formatting):
2014 Overall Bracket
As always, a huge thanks to PokerStars and ICC for supporting the U.S. Chess League! Don't forget to tune in tonight for the exciting kickoff of the postseason, starting on ICC at 8:30 PM (EST)