The group stage draw announcement for MLP was not quite as hyped up as the World Cup group stage draw announcement, but we’re working on it. Although there is not that much discussion about the group draws for MLP, they can have a major impact on results. There is going to be some inevitable overlap with teams being in the same group with only 12 teams in each division. With all the shuffling that has happened with trades, a lot of these “same” matchups will end up being quite different than the first go around.
Group A – Milwaukee Mashers, Florida Smash, SoCal Hard Eights, New York Hustlers
It is not the group of death. Maybe the group of equality? On paper, it appears to be the most balanced group in terms of no team being a heavy favorite or underdog to get through. 3 of these teams have made trades in hopes of upgrading their rosters with Matt Wright going to Milwaukee, Vivienne David and Kyle Yates to Florida, and Lauren Stratman to SoCal. The New York Hustlers have not made any moves, but we still think there’s a real possibility this team has overperformed their roster construction over the first two events. Motivation is the theme in this group for all 3 teams that made moves.
Does Matt Wright care at all about MLP? He will likely care more with Lucy Kovalova on his team and a more competitive group to share the court with as this team looks strong on paper in all 4 events. What about Kyle Yates? We probably need to stop doubting him at MLP, who hadn’t played a pro tournament since the US Open until he played with Travis last weekend.* According to the Tennis Sucks guys, it sounds like Yates was gallivanting across the world on vacation. Yates is the X-Factor for Florida but, if things go south for them early, it could be curtains on their season. Not to mention Vivienne David is coming off a short break due to a rib injury.
The Hard Eights have swapped Stratman in for Mary Brascia, who was not giving them anything close to #2 Premier female level play in their first two events even if she is playing better now. AJ Koller is the huge question mark for this team. We can’t believe we missed so badly on Koller at draft time. We should have seen the signs, but we liked the move to pair him up with Riley Newman in the 2nd round. We were way wrong. He has been subpar in 2023 to put it kindly and then you see him run to the semi-finals with Tyler Loong as a reminder of his upside. Unless Koller picks up his play, you really have to wonder where he fits in Premier in season 2 of MLP. The Hard Eights are truly good enough to win MLP with an engaged Koller, but it’s not out of the realm to see them go 0-3 as well. The most volatile team at MLP.
It feels like the Hustlers may have outperformed their roster construction in the first two events but if Lacy Schneemann/Anna Bright can continue their dominating ways, this team will make it out of the group stage. Can Tyson McGuffin complete an MLP event without pulling out? Will Hewett/Schneemann start playing better? We know what we’re getting from the Hustlers at this point and we see them moving on to the playoffs with either the Mashers or the Hard Eights.
Group B – New Jersey 5’s, California BLQK Bears, St. Louis Shock, ATX Pickleballers
This group is arguably as balanced as group A. The Shock have been right in the mix for both events, the 5’s and Bears have made deep runs, and ATX was right on the cusp of a playoff appearance with a 2-1 group stage record in Daytona. ATX is frisky if Tardio’s play stays at the level it has been recently. Similarly to group A, there is a world where any of these teams get out of the group stage, even though the 5’s and BLQK Bears are likely the favored teams.
The 5’s have underperformed their expected roster construction. Lea Jansen needs to be more comfortable in women’s and Anna Leigh can’t be losing in mixed. It seems that putting Ignatowich with Anna Leigh might be play if this team can win more gender matches than they have been. California is a balanced team, but a big question is the health of Andrea Koop. If Koop isn’t close to 100% healthy, BLQK could be in trouble.
St. Louis feels like the prime example of a chemistry overperforming team. The Erik Lange selection looked a bit questionable at the time of the draft but he’s such a good foil for Devilliers, he can form a solid #2 mixed team with Allyce and he’s always a great team guy. For those who are unaware, Lange announced recently he is going full-time pickleball and, despite his advancing age, it is something teams drafting Premier will have to make note of for a guy who has quite possibly been the best men’s doubles player who doesn’t play a full tour schedule. Gabe Tardio is the X-factor for ATX and he is playing the best pickleball of his life currently. If he can find some more wins, this team is a scary one even if JW may just never quite fit for what MLP is.
Group C – Las Vegas Night Owls, Seattle Pioneers, Frisco Pandas, Los Angeles Mad Drops
It looks like Thomas Wilson is out after a recent heart procedure, which means this may no longer be a top heavy group with the Pioneers and Mad Drops as the clear top 2 teams. The Pioneers have been the most consistent team across the first two events and the opportunity to play for the super final on Monday means we should expect a motivated Ben Johns to carry this team there. The Mad Drops still made the playoffs in Daytona despite Hunter Johnson filling in for Thomas Wilson and Hunter may be available once again. But it sounds like Thomas Wilson is giving it a go after his surgery.*
Las Vegas is a wild card team. There is upside and unknown to this team after turning over 75% of their squad. Jessie Irvine, Collin Johns and Mary Brascia are in. Vivienne David, Kyle Yates and Lauren Stratman are out. The first trade they made with Florida made sense, but we still have some trouble understanding acquiring Mary Brascia, even if she has been playing well lately.
Adam Stone noted on a recent podcast episode that Collin Johns and Dekel Bar on the court going back to their tennis days are like “oil and water”, which we didn’t realize at the time of the trade. The men’s team is an upgrade on paper but Las Vegas GM, Kaitlyn Kerr, has talked about team chemistry being important so we’ll see how this one goes – Dekel and Collin are very good friends off the court. Irvine and Brascia should bring chemistry, but we’ll be curious to see what Brascia can do with Irvine as well as with Dekel in mixed. There is some potential for this team, especially with the Mad Drops losing Wilson and Frisco’s DJ Young saying he’s dealing with a severe wrist injury.
We’ll be surprised if the newly minted Frisco Pandas get a win.
*This article has been edited to correct that Kyle Yates played a pro tournament last weekend.
*This article has been updated to correct that Thomas Wilson is going to play for the Mad Drops.
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