By Al Thompson
The Arena Football League needed to make its playoff format fun for the fans this year, which is important when there are only four teams in the entire league and everyone makes the playoffs.
The AFL could stretch its regular season schedule to only 12 games. There was a void, for sure.
So the league decided to take a page out of the pro soccer playbook and have the semifinals set up as a home-and-home series.
The higher seed was given the option to decide the order of the two games.
To advance, a team must either win both games, or win the point differential over the two games.
Unlike Premier League soccer, points scored on your opponent’s field do not have any more value than points scored at home.
The Soul’s first-round opponent is the Baltimore Brigade, who finished 7–5, the same record as the Soul, but won the tiebreaker and was the higher seed. Baltimore chose to go on the road for the first game, which is Sunday, July 15, at the Wells Fargo Center at 6 p.m.
“It’s different, that’s for sure,” Soul head coach Clint Dolezel said after a recent practice. “I kind of like it, actually. I’m saying that now, we’ll see what happens actually after these next few weeks. It matters. Every point matters. It’s going to be a different strategy as far as at the end of a ball game, normally you might onsides kick to try to win the game. Now you might not, just for the simple fact that you don’t want to give them the chance to score and go up big for the next game. It will be a different, interesting situation.”
The Soul have had a number of injuries this year, with several starters going down, including defensive lineman Sean Daniels, wide receiver Shaun Kauleinamoku and most recently veteran offensive lineman Neal Tivis. The team also lost its best offensive player, veteran quarterback Dan Raudabaugh, for several games, which led to a few losses.
Dolezel, as coaches usually do, looked at the bright side.
“We’ve had a bunch of [injuries] this year but honestly it’s made us better in the long run,” Dolezel said. “We’ve had a lot of young guys step up and it’s made us better.”
Is there a home-field advantage with each team getting a game at their building? Dolezel explains the challenge of playing the first game at home.
“I think there still is,” Dolezel said. “We’re at home. We expect to win and we need to win handily. Then we’re going to their place, and they’re expecting to do the same thing. So it does matter. Home-field advantage matters more so in Arena football than anything. The crowd can really take over the game, for sure. We want to win the football game first and foremost, but we want to win by as much as we can.”
The Brigade will host the second game in Baltimore on Friday, July 20.
Dolezel said he was happy to get his MVP-caliber signal caller back.
“No doubt,” Dolezel said. “He’s our leader. We’ve been together for seven years. He makes us go. You can see the energy in the huddle, in the game, on offense and defense. The defense knows if they get a couple of stops, we’re going to win. It’s definitely a boost getting him back the last couple of weeks.”
Raudabaugh says he feels great, praised the team’s medical staff, and is ready to try to lead the Soul to their third consecutive ArenaBowl title.
Raudabaugh says it stings to lose Tivis, probably for the playoffs.
“Yes, especially since he’s my roommate,” Raudabaugh said. “He’s been here since 2014. He’s not only a great player, he’s a good dude, a good friend of mine. We’re going to miss him out there. He plays at a high level every play, even at practice. But we’ll overcome it. Other teams have injuries, too.”
Raudabaugh also praised the new playoff format.
“It’s neat,” Raudabaugh said. “It’s never been done in Arena football before. It’s interesting, especially with the familiarity you have amongst these four teams already. You’ve got to play someone else two more times. It’s going to come down to execution. We’re going to know each other’s tendencies, so it’s about making plays when they present themselves. It’s going to be fun.”
There are just four teams in the league, and two owners. Ron Jaworski’s group also owns the Albany franchise. Is Dolezel optimistic about the future of the Arena Football League?
“Sure, absolutely,” Dolezel said without hesitation. “I’ve heard nothing but good things…absolutely.”
Raudabaugh said he was still a believer.
“You know, if we’re not optimistic,” said Raudabaugh, “Who is going to be optimistic? I love this game. It’s provided a lot for me over my life so far. Hopefully, they can spur some growth in this thing . It would be great if we can expand to six to eight teams next year, then on and upward from there. But we’re going to worry about Baltimore this week.” ••
Games will air on CBS Sports Network and 97.5 The Fanatic radio.