More leagues in Russia and neighboring countries for 2018, but will the quality grow?

The offseason is coming to a close in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Baltic states, and in a surprising development, the forces that seemed to be bringing the teams of the region together in the past couple of years seemed to reverse in 2018. After its inaugural season in 2015, the League of American Football (LAF) had attracted more and more regional teams until this season, when concerns over lack of transparency led to several major franchises split from it and establish or join other competitions. While all of them have a different structure and goals, answering the question of who will be the best team in the region when the dust settles appears to be all but impossible in the end of the season.

League of American Football (LAF)

Once the marquee competition of the region, this year the LAF saw the number of participants considerably decrease for the first time. While the three perennial contenders (Moscow Patriots, St. Petersburg Griffins and Moscow Spartans) are all still there, the total number of participants this year has dwindled to only 10. The aforementioned three will be joined by Moscow United, Moscow Dragons and Yaroslavl Rebels in the Central Division, while the Perm Steel Tigers, Chelyabinsk Tanks, Yekaterinburg Lightnings and Astana Wolves from Kazakhstan will compete in the Urals Division.

Like every year, the Patriots appear to be heavy favorites for the title, having retooled for their CEFL appearance with several quality imports. But the team that has improved the most with the local transfer will probably be the Spartans, who acquired a new starting quarterback (Pavel Levashov from the Podolsk Knights) as well as a top-tier receiving corps. Another interesting team to follow would the young Moscow Dragons, one of the most improved teams of the past couple years who are now headed by the Russian national team HC Dmitry Maximov.

Monte Clark Cup

The competition organized by one of the oldest franchises in the region Minsk Zubrs has attracted a much higher profile team in its second season in addition to spreading its geography even further. The hosts from the capital of Belarus are joined by the Moscow Spartans, St. Petersburg North Legion and Kaliningrad Amber Hawks (Russia), Kiev Capitals and Kiev Patriots (Ukraine), Vilnius Iron Wolves (Lithuania) and Tartu Titans (Estonia).

While the Zubrs appear to be the favorites in their own league, Moscow Spartans and Kiev Capitals seem like a very strong contestants as well. For the former, the difficulty will be in managing two big competitions at the same time, while the later are a united team of several former franchises from Ukraine’s capital who still need some time to gel, but the talent is definitely there in all of these teams.

The competitions has already started in late March, with the Minsk franchise leading the table with a 2-0 record so far.

Continental Football League

Originally conceived as a standalone competition, the CFL later grew into a common playoff for the top teams of another two: Moscow Cup and the Belarus Championship. The former features the Moscow Bruins, St. Petersburg Norther Legion and Petrozavodsk Gunners, with the experienced Legion appearing to be the team to beat.

Belarus

On the other hand, Belarus Championship will be held for the first time ever, and the start of this tournament has been hailed as an achievement in itself. It will pitch together Grodno Barbarians, Vitebsk Lynx, Minsk Litwins as well as the newest team from the Belarus Capital Minsk Hurricanes.

The top two teams of each competition will enter the CFL playoffs at the semifinal stage and compete for the title in September.

Other competitions

Russian Cup will consist of the regional leagues and pitch their winners in one national playoffs system, which will also feature some teams dropping out of LAF. The Ukraininan League of American Football (ULAF) will be played as usual, despite also shrinking to 11 teams. Some other regions (most notably, the Russian Pacific coast) will hold their own tournaments unaffiliated with anyone at all.

In the end of the day, this season will see not only the teams competing for their titles – but the different leagues competing with each other for talented teams and fan attention. While this might create a positive momentum for structural development of the sport in the region, one question remains. With the best teams scattered around different tournaments and not seeing each other often, will the level of play in general grow? That question will only be answered in the future.

Ilya Kravtsov
After being involved in bringing American football to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, Ilya would go on to play in the Japanese X-League, helping his side Tokyo Bullseyes advance all the way to the top tier of the league and become the only non-corporate team in X-1. He's currently the defensive coordinator of St. Petersburg Griffins, as well as the head coach of St. Petersburg Valkyries.
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