American Football League of China Set for its Fourth Season

The American Football League of China (AFLC) is set to enter the 2016 season this weekend, its fourth season of competition and plenty of changes are in store.

One of the changes is the rapid growth of other leagues. For instance, China’s other amateur league, the City Bowl, has grown immensely in size as well as sponsorship and now features 23 teams from Xinjiang in the northwest to Hong Kong in the southeast.

A third league is the China Arena Football League which is gearing up to offer the country’s first professional football games this fall. Six teams in tier one cities are slated to square off in the indoor, 50-yard variation of the game, and 21 draftees of the league originate from AFLC rosters.

AFLC Import rule remains unchanged

One of the constants for the AFLC throughout its existence has been its foreign player rule, which states that no more than five players of foreign nationalities can be on the field at the same time for each team, striking a balance of improving Chinese-born players’ level of play without having games dominated by foreign players. This rule has been upheld for at least one more season.

Also, for the first time in AFLC history, no teams from the previous season have left the league, while five new teams have joined the fold, giving the league greater geographical coverage throughout China.

The league has been split into three divisions: East, South, and West. Let’s take a look at each division.

East Division

Shanghai’s three AFLC squads, the Titans, Nighthawks, and defending champion Warriors are joined by three new teams: the Beijing Iron Brothers, Fudan University Dragoons, and Hefei Sarchosuchus in the East division. This now extends the league’s reach into Northern China once again, following the league’s lack of a team situated north of the Yangtze River last season. These five teams will compete for three playoff spots.

Despite being probably the strongest of the six new teams, and boasting numerous former university flag football league players at skill positions, Beijing may struggle to cope with the Titans and Nighthawks’ size and strength in the trenches. With their strong numbers however, the future looks bright for the Iron Brothers, who are less than a year old.

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The Shanghai Nighthawks (white) and Shanghai Titans (blue) face off

The Warriors were trounced by the other two Shanghai teams in preseason play, but the defending champions were also missing countless key players, and are therefore a big mystery heading into the regular season. Newcomer Aaron Li (#23) from Shanghai University is a tall, speedy option on the perimeter with good hands, and will look to continue the Warriors’ tradition of terrific skill players, while Brian Stewart (#48) will command the defense from his middle linebacker position.

Replacing a number of their own key players would seem to be a tall task for the Titans, none bigger than the 2015 AFLC MVP and their leading rusher from last season, running back Jerry Zhang (#89). Zhang, as well as physical cornerback Ruixiang Sun (#37) and deep-threat Qi Zhang (#87), have left the team, but judging from their drubbing of the Warriors back on June 11th, as well as their 26-14 triumph over the Nighthawks on June 26th, the Titans have adjusted well to the departures of these key players.

Still, a further six Titans players will have to miss a significant chunk of the season after having been drafted into the CAFL, including quarterback Taylor Yu (#15), linebacker Paco Lam (#50), running back Lane Shen (#1), and offensive lineman Kevin Kuo (#78).

The Nighthawks look to be in prime position to capture their second title in three years, after losing to the Warriors in the final last year. John Taggart (#32) returns at running back, while the second member of their three-headed rushing attack, Tianshou Zhang (#44), a draftee of the CAFL’s Qingdao Clippers, may also opt to stay with the Nighthawks. The third, Zhengyu Fan (#6), looks likely to be headed for the CAFL’s Dalian Dragon Kings however, having been drafted in the 12th round. Linebacker Aaron Gu (#36) may become the new leader of the defense with his hard-hitting, sideline to sideline play, following the departure of safety Dre Comers (#4).

The Fudan University Dragoons, one of China’s oldest teams, and the Hefei Sarchosuchus, formerly of the City Bowl, round out the AFLC Northeast. Fudan is boosted by the presence of a number of foreign players with prior football experience, but will be hurt by the departure of QB/TE Davis Roberts (#18). Hefei, on the other hand, has a much higher percentage of Chinese-born players, but also possess the most game experience of the three new teams.

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The Hong Kong Cobras (black) bested the Warhawks (white) 21-8 in the preseason

South Division

The South division consists of five returning teams from last season’s South division, plus one new member. The Hong Kong Cobras, Warhawks, and Combat Orcas, as well as the Guangzhou Apaches and Tigers, are joined by the new Shenzhen Oilers, and three of the division’s six teams will qualify for postseason play.

The Cobras suffered a shocking home defeat to the Chongqing Dockers in the quarterfinals of last season’s playoffs after securing the league’s number one seed, making it two seasons in a row that they have gone one-and-done after an undefeated regular season. Most of the Cobras’ key figures from 2015 appear to be ready to go for the upcoming season, but the team faces a huge question mark at quarterback, as replacing the playmaking ability of Elias Hammiche (#7) could prove to be a tall task. Their recent efforts at developing homegrown talent is certainly a good sign for the future however.

The Warhawks looked to be in prime position to finally overtake their city rivals, but the team has taken a massive blow from the results of the CAFL draft. The Dalian Dragon Kings selected two-way linemen Billy Lai (#63) and Steve Tang (#75) in the second and fourth rounds of the draft. Dalian continued their raid on the Warhawks’ roster in the 14th round, picking shifty running back Ka Chun Yip (#9), who scored eleven touchdowns and was the team’s leading rusher last season. The Shenzhen Naja also drafted defensive back Sze Ting Lui in the 20th round. Replacing these four will be a tall order for the Warhawks, but the potential to reload and challenge the Cobras in the South is there, as southpaw quarterback Matt Liao (#15) enters his first full season as the starter.

The Combat Orcas, last season’s league doormat, have looked rejuvenated, even beating an undermanned Warhawks team in preseason competition, and return standout wide receiver Harry Cheng (#81). Hong Kong’s third team will have to address its offensive line issues however, as they allowed ten sacks by the Guangzhou Tigers defense in a regular season matchup last year. Running back Matthew Bunney (#45) returns for the Apaches, but he will need help, as the Apaches did not seem to threaten the Cobras or Warhawks last season the way they were capable of.

The Tigers are looking to build off the momentum gained from last season, and with a new field located in Foshan, the first and only football-specific field in China, the stage has been set for the Tigers to strongly build off last season’s sixth-place finish. The Oilers are a definite wild card, as they split off from the City Bowl’s Shenzhen Buffaloes, and have yet to play a competitive game. With the typical unpredictability of the back end of the South Division however, anything could happen.

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The Chengdu Pandamen (white) take on the Chongqing Centaurs (blue) in preseason action

West Division

Rounding off the AFLC’s divisions is the West, consisting of the Chongqing Dockers and Centaurs, the latter of which is a new team, as well as the Chengdu Pandamen, two of which will be able to enter the playoffs.

Using the AFLC’s new playoff format, the Dockers would not make the playoffs with last season’s winless regular season record, but as the league’s lowest seed, they won their first two playoff games, both on the road, including a massive upset of the Cobras in Hong Kong.

As a more foreign player-reliant team, the Dockers enter the season with many question marks, most of all under center. Hao Lu (#12) possesses game-breaking speed, but the Dockers attempted to rely more on his arm last season than his legs, possibly limiting his potential. The Centaurs’ competitive record is fairly limited, with only two games played in the past half-year, most recently a 38-0 away loss to the Pandamen, and thus enter the season as a mostly unknown quantity.

Chengdu impressed last season in its first year of play against strong competition from Shanghai, so despite its 1-4 record in 2015, Chengdu’s chances of winning its division have been significantly boosted by the divisional realignment. Ivan Yuan (#7) is a jack of all trades for Chengdu, and in addition to his sure hands at wide receiver, he may be one of the most accurate Chinese-born passers in the league. Running back Zhengzhi Zhang (#14) is another important returning player for the Pandamen, and at 188 cm (6’2”) and 95 kg (209 lbs), he possesses both the size and speed to be a breakout candidate in his second season of organized football.

AFLC set for biggest season ever

The 2016 season promises to be the AFLC’s biggest yet, with the highest number of teams participating in its history. Divisional realignment and the addition of five new squads could result in certain teams making surprisingly deep playoff runs. Shanghai looks like it will once again be an AFLC stronghold, but with the improvement of other teams over the past few seasons, the standings for the rest of the league could be a serious toss-up this year.

Originally posted on Life in the Huddle.

Danny Zhang is a Chinese-American college student who grew up playing American football in the Boston area. He has a keen interest in the development of the sport in China, where he has recently studied, worked, and experienced football’s rapid