ELF’s Sunday slate builds intrigue despite sloppier performances

The European League of Football made an extremely promising debut on Saturday, but from the time the league announced its arrival, it was Sunday that people circled on their calendars. After all, it was June 20th, not 19th, that they always touted as the day the ELF would launch.

With cornerstone German markets like Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin making their debuts, Sunday’s double-header mattered immensely for the league and once again delivered the production value. It’s remarkable how easy it is to take for granted the broadcast bells and whistles the ELF offers, but each adds immensely to the viewing experience.

On the field, that crispiness wasn’t as well replicated on Day Two, a product of the league’s chaotic ramp up in which some teams only received helmets and shoulder pads a week ago. To break it down, here are my takeaways from both games.

Hamburg Sea Devils QB Jadrian Clark Photo: 1st Down Photo, Mikkel Rasmussen

Game 3 – Hamburg Sea Devils 17 – Frankfurt Galaxy 15

If all else failed this weekend, this felt like the game that had to work to prove the ELF was the major player it claimed to be. Featuring perhaps their two most important markets live on free television, with one team quite literally picked from the corpse of a once great GFL power and the other featuring the league’s most marketable name, this was very much the Game of the Week for a reason.

Unfortunately, it was also the matchup that fell the most flat.

The expected sloppiness that comes with a season opener, particularly in a new league, was present on Saturday but largely controlled. On Sunday, it was the main story.

There were stretches of truly bad offensive football in Hamburg, somewhat redeemed by the caliber of the defensive players involved but nowhere near enough. Both quarterbacks struggled and the offensive lines had a day they’d like to forget, particularly for Frankfurt. Even as the type of person with an almost pathological love for any type of football, it verged dangerously close to boring.

While disappointing, that’s not necessarily any deficiency with the league. Games like this happen and at least this particular one came down to the last play, a 33-yard game-winning field goal from Dane Phillip Friis Andersen. The post-win energy from the Sea Devils was very real to the viewer, though it easily exceeded the excitement level of the game’s first three quarters.

Hamburg Sea Devils RB Xavier Johnson Photo: 1st Down Photo, Mikkel Rasmussen

On that note, I felt the game’s presentation was somewhat lacking. While I cannot speak to the German feed, the English commentary came off as forced, overly aggressive and sometimes grating where other games had been balanced and measured, sometimes to a fault. Being in the booth alone is immensely difficult and ultimately this is a matter of stylistic preference, but emotion and and excitement should flow naturally from the game and more often than not the play itself should do the talking. You cannot create those elements by simply shouting loud enough.

What was apparent however, is that both teams have much more potential than they demonstrated. Hamburg is clearly going to be a nightmare for quarterbacks to face thanks to veteran NFL pass rusher Kasim Edebali, Berend Grube and 24-year-old Jan-Phillip Bombek, who made a convincing case he could be the first to make the jump from the ELF to the next level. Marloshawn Franklin has ball-hawk ability in the secondary, running back Xavier Johnson has juice and Spanish tight end Adria Botello Moreno gives quarterback Jadrian Clark a style of weapon that no one else in the league has.

For the Galaxy, much more should be expected from established stars like quarterback Jakeb Sullivan, who led the GFL in passing in 2019. French receiver Anthony Mahoungou should be the focal point of the passing game along with Hendrik Schwarz and Gennadiy Adams has speed in the backfield. Defensively, they’ll be hard to exploit without an obvious weak link and Frankfurt should contend in the ELF South despite the loss.

Frankfurt Galaxy RB Gennadiy Adams Photo: 1st Down Photo, Mikkel Rasmussen

Game 4 – Leipzig Kings 37 – Berlin Thunder 27

The second game on the docket Sunday, though occurring simultaneously much to the chagrin of anyone hoping to watch both live, was a far superior contest, though it too suffered mightily from the first game jitters.

Despite an 84-yard touchdown from Berlin’s Tino Ndongo early, both teams got off to painfully slow starts and suffered from some unfortunate miscues. In particular, the art of the shotgun snap appeared to be a challenge for the centers for much of the first half.

That merely looked sloppy, but the pace of play was irreparably harmed throughout by the sheer volume of penalties. There were stretches where a flag seemed to accompany every snap and long deliberations killed the rhythm of the game, an issue made worse by several unavoidable injury stoppages.

Criticizing officials for the calls they make is a fool’s errand — refereeing is a near impossible job that you couldn’t pay me to attempt — but it is rarely a good thing when that becomes the story of a game. Penalty trouble is an expected part of Week 1, but more than once it was difficult to discern on the broadcast what was actually being called. Several ticky-tack flags erased big plays and some impactful ones went uncalled, with linebackers allowed to fly in late at sliding quarterbacks and Alpha Jalloh credited with the league’s first kickoff return touchdown when it was clear he dropped the ball in celebration nearly two yards shy of the goal line. Those are issues it would behoove both players and officials to clean up next week, as it diminished a truly fabulous broadcast.

Berlin Thunder ball carrier slipping tackle against Leipzig Kings Photo: Berlin Thunder

In spite of the challenge, Leipzig did find a groove, particularly in the second quarter, and this game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score. With due respect to the Wroclaw Panthers’ exceptional outing Saturday, Fred Armstrong’s fascinating amalgamation of players from 13 different countries should be viewed as the early championship favorite.

Offensively, Michael Birdsong is a proven winner, but who wouldn’t excel with that receiving corps. Timothy Knuettel, Jaleel Awini, Anthony Dable-Wolf, Yoshihito Omi, Jacob Templar and Alpha Jalloh all have the skillset that would make them the top pass catcher on any other team, but instead they share a locker room. Each flashed despite some uncharacteristic drops. Jalloh is just as dangerous on defense, Roedion Henrique is a shutdown corner and Kyle Kitchens, Vincent Buffet and Aslan Zetterberg were an intimidating front.

That front and their eight sacks was perhaps the biggest reason for the Thunder’s demise. It appears their offensive line issues may be more than just a failure to gel and British quarterback Calvin Stitts was often helpless. That had a noticeable effect on his accuracy as time went on. Still, running back Joc Crawford and receiver Seantarius Jones look like a dangerous tandem when the Brit can deliver the ball, and fellow import Jamaal White flashed star potential on a defence that should earn a ‘sneaky good’ classification soon enough.

For all of Sunday’s faults, there was no dismissing the ELF’s quality and the bumps are sure to smooth with time, as the league carves out it’s spot in the market. More impressively, there is no team among the eight that appears immediately uncompetitive, something rarely said about European leagues. Spectators are in for an intriguing few months, both on and off the field.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.