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The Second Entry — Recapping and Analyzing Week 3, Stage 2 in the NAL

A pair of classic games highlight our U.S. Division action this week.

We've moved past the first phase of the NAL and into our second phase: the top four and the bottom four groups. There were no fundamental changes to the standings from last Stage, despite Tempo Storm's early victory and a very close call for eUnited. 

What this week did give us? Several classic games. EUnited and DarkZero gave us a downright classic in the bout for the last spot in the upper group, it took a final-round overtime victory on Oregon for DarkZero to secure their spot. While Tempo Storm never found their footing and ended up getting obliterated by Oxygen in Monday's next match, Wednesday's matches were incredible. 

Despite being billed as a bit of a snoozer, with the majority of analysts picking Spacestation over Oxygen and eUnited over Disrupt, Wednesday produced more classics. It's hack to say this every week, but despite the declining viewership, I truly believe the matches have been getting better and better every week. Only around 6,000 people watched eUnited and Disrupt battle it out over a marathon 41 rounds, with two overtime maps to boot. In addition, Oxygen continued their rebound from their week 1 loss with a massive 2-0 victory over Spacestation.

Let's dive into a little more detail on some of these colossal showdowns. 

Stat of the week: eUnited won three more rounds than DarkZero and lost the series

EUnited's resurgence is well-trod ground by this point. We understand that the addition of Richie "Rexen" Coronado and Evan "kanzen" Bushore has made them a force to be reckoned with. Their roster is solid, and if a couple of things had swung their way, they might have been in the upper bracket. 

Well, they aren't. They aren't out of Mini-Major contention yet, but we need to highlight how close they were. 

DarkZero beat eUnited on Monday, 2-1 (7-5, 1-7, 8-7). Obviously there's some skewing of the results here with the 7-1 eUnited victory on Club House, but it still has to be tough for eUnited fans to think about. 

EUnited won three more rounds than DarkZero did. They still lost. They were so close to the top four, so close to a comeback you only see in Mighty Ducks movies. They're not out of contention for their ultimate goal, but coming from the bottom bracket is infinitely more difficult than the top one. 

Being a "top four" team is largely set in stone by that upper bracket group. It's the easiest path to the Mini-Major, you can fail to qualify twice and still make it in through the Qualifier tournament. EUnited aren't out of it, but they're officially out of wiggle room, especially after their Wednesday loss to Disrupt. There won't be any more chances. 

Clips of the week:

Welcome to the Davide "FoxA" Bucci Clips of the weeks section, brought to you by trash-talk and the SMG-11. 

I have no earthly idea where the second kill in FoxA's 3K came from. Regardless, it was one of the most exciting moments and stellar individual plays I've seen in quite some time. 

The trash-talking of Tempo Storm is what takes this to the next level. I mean, FoxA apologized to TSM for wasting their time. FoxA is morphing into a perfect wrestling heel, a complex person who is confident to the point of cockiness at times, but not without reason. A stellar individual player and an obviously fierce competitor who hates to lose, and will let you know exactly why he's winning when he does. 

Trash-talking and players being heels and not saying "GGS great game from us" ad nauseum is great for the scene. This is going to be a point of interest should Tempo Storm and Oxygen ever play again, despite whatever Tempo Storm says, they're going to remember what FoxA said. 

The other clip to highlight is Rexen's incredible 4K and almost ace on Villa. There's really not much to say about it other than it's an incredible display of mechanical skill. Both matches eUnited played this week were classics in my book. 

Storyline of the week: The gap is closing

At the beginning of the NAL, the gap between the top four teams and the bottom four teams was wide, like one side of a lake to the other. You aren't getting across without a boat. You could swim across, but you'd have to be a near-Olympic level of swimmer. 

In Stage 1, the closest team to breaking that gridlock and crossing the lake were the Susquehanna Soniqs. Disrupt Gaming had its moments as well, but the Soniqs almost knocked DarkZero out of the Mini-Major they eventually won. 

Outside of a few matchups and using only the wildly inconsistent eye test, I feel confident saying that across all teams, the gap is closing. It's less of a lake and more of a river. Yes, the top four are likely to remain the same, now that Spacestation Gaming or the loser of next Monday's TSM-DarkZero matchup will head to the Qualifier. 

However, I don't think that it's as automatic as it seems. Yes, the Soniqs have fallen off a bit, but their full roster still took DarkZero to overtime in the last Mini-Major Qualifier. Lately they've been bad, but we've seen what they're like when they're good, and they're good. EUnited have clearly improved, and Disrupt Gaming seem to have finally gelled, and Nick "njr" Rapier is back on his warpath based on the most recent results. 

I'm not here to tell you that a traditionally "top four" team is overrated and is inevitably due for a loss. I'm not here to tell you that the "top four" will win everything and take all the Mini-Major and Major NAL spots until the sun cooks the earth like an egg on a Texas blacktop in summer. I'm here to tell you that the gap between the two is getting smaller. North America as a region is looking stronger and stronger all the time, without a weak link in the chain. It's impossible to know definitely, but when you have the Invitational champions and the third and fourth team at the Invitational being pushed in league play, you can make some inferences. 

The gap is closing. It may not manifest itself in anything tangible on the series win/loss records, but it's damn sure making the competition in those series become much closer. Maybe it's eUnited, maybe it's the Soniqs, maybe it's Disrupt, maybe Tempo Storm finds their way again. It's more of a possibility than it ever has bee, it's so close we can almost taste it. Spacestation, TSM, DarkZero, and Oxygen have been on top of the NAL since its inception, with the same four rosters essentially running Pro League as well. The "bottom four" have never been closer, as a collective, than they are right now. 

Three small thoughts

Oxygen obliterated Spacestation with only a day's worth of rest between matches. It's flown under the radar, but Oxygen have pulled off one of the most difficult things to do, they've won two matches in around 50 hours. Yes, their match with Tempo Storm was much shorter than normal, but coming from that into a match with Spacestation, and then 2-0ing Spacestation, is a feat of note. Many tweets have flown from all sorts of disgruntled players about the quick turnarounds at the end of phases. Oxygen blew through that adversity this past week. 

Tempo Storm have got to recapture the magic, fast. Initially billed by many (myself included) as a contender following their week 1 upset of Oxygen, Tempo have been dismal since upsetting the green-clad boys. Over their four most recent maps, they've won...five rounds. That simply won't cut it for a team that prides themselves on their execution and strategy. If they want to avoid a relegation match, they need to figure out what went wrong and re-calibrate to what went right against Oxygen. "Were it so easy," you say. Well sure, it's easy to tell a team just play better. It's Tempo Storm saying this too, coach Trevor "KenZ" Kenzie posted a tweet saying as such. They need to get back to what makes this roster successful: execution and holding map control. 

Theme Park and in-the-smoke clutches, name a better duo. 

Two weeks in a row, a defender has clutched a round on Theme Park with the help of an attacking smoke grenade. It was Alexander "Retro" Lloyd in previous weeks, who used Clash like Solid Snake, assassinating the planter then letting the timer run out. EUnited's Pablo "Gryxr" Rebeil pulled off another smoke criminal play with the M590A1. I'm not sure exactly what it is about Theme Park and smoke grenades, but it's fast becoming a pattern on the winding, dimly lit map. 

Tweets of the week